January 26, 2011
Teaching Alternatives to WEXIS in the Legal Academy
In what could be characterized as a culture shock when a law firm librarian transitions into the legal academy, Laura Justiss, Collection Development Librarian, SMU Dedman School of Law writes,
I was naively surprised to learn that most law students had little, if any, awareness of the electronic services other than Lexis and Westlaw routinely used by practicing attorneys. Of the alternative research databases I had used in my former life as a law firm librarian, only PACER was available in the law school in 2000. There were no court docket services for state courts, such as CourtLink or CourtExpresss; no financial or busiess research databases, such as Live EDGAR or Dun & Bradsteet; no public record databases (other than those available on Lexis or Westlaw); and no intellectual property, engineering or technology research databases such as Dialog. Thus students seldom had the opportunity to learn the existence of such alternatives, let alone why or how a lawyer might use them in practice.
One might say, well I will say, welcome to the huge divide between research instruction in the legal academy and law firm legal research. If the legal academy is going to take legal skills training seriously, instructors in legal research, including academic law librarians, have to extend their expertise. It is one thing to indoctrinate law students in WEXIS. It is quite another thing for academic law librarians to allow this to happen without providing instruction on alternatives to WEXIS.
In A Survey of Electronic Research Alernatives to Lexis and Westlaw in Law Firms, Laura Justiss reports on the findings of responses from PLL-SIS members for primary source alternatives to WEXIS, court docket and case information services, secondary sources for topical legal research, financial, business and news information, public records and more. The list of resources can be viewed as a To-Do list of what needs to be covered to prepare law students to prepare them for leaving the legal academy. In her conclusion, Justiss writes
For law librarians attempting to extract as much value as possible from increasingly limited budgets, I believe these results are, at least preliminarily, good news. While the warp spped advances in reseach technology can tax even the most progressive and cutting-edge among us, the democratization and flattening of the online legal research market, highlighted by these results, promise to yield a better value to the legal profession than the de facto market control of Lexis and Westlaw that has been in place for decades.
Justiss' article identifies many of the electronic resources academic law librarians who teach legal research should focus on. My hunch is vendors will be happy to cooperate by providing access to their services for ALR courses. [JH]
Lexis and Westlaw have an undeniable stranglehold on the legal research aptitude of American law students. They make legal arguments supported solely by case law and rarely chart the evolution of an issue, utilizing such historical databases as The Making of Modern Law, or discern its impact within other professional fields, utilizing financial databases like Dun & Bradstreet or technology databases like Dialog. I agree that law librarians have a duty to expose their students to resources that are commonly used in the profession. But, at the same time, subscriptions are expensive. Additionally, I believe the “culture shock” to be overstated. The interfaces and navigability of the alternative research databases are very similar to Lexis and Westlaw. A recent law graduate can plug his research skills into any electronic database. The particular database is not determinative of success, but rather the aptitude of the particular student’s research skills. Thus, law librarians can better serve their students by advancing their research and analytical skills.
Posted by: CL | Jan 29, 2011 2:11:02 PM
Wow, there are several typos in this post. May I kindly suggest spell check?
Posted by: Joan Thomas | Jan 27, 2011 7:37:17 AM
The question here is what do we leave out of an ALR curriculum in order to focus on these resources? I'm a former law librarian who switched to academia a few years ago, and the lack of enough time to truly train students in practical research is the top frustration in my professional life.
It takes more than an introduction and overview to get the existence of WEXIS alternatives to stick in students' heads. We can tell them they'll need Courtlink and PACER, but because they haven't had a reason to use them in law school, they aren't going to remember why or how to use them. And a one-semester ALR class, which also has to cover administrative research, legislative history, and international and foreign law research, just doesn't have enough time to give justice to all these areas. Not enough so that they'll stick, anyway.
If I were king of the law school world, I would add a fourth year. (Two years, Northwestern? Really?) This year would be a combination of skills classes and mandatory clinic participation. Students would write petitions and orders as well as memos and briefs-- hypothetical in their skills classes, real in their clinics. It would be a transition year between the normal law school experience and the world of law practice, and it would enable students to graduate knowing how to practice law, not how to excel in law school.
Posted by: Lorelle Anderson | Jan 27, 2011 7:34:42 AM
"If the legal academy is going to take legal skills training seriously, instructors in legal research, including academic law librarians, have to extend their expertise."
God I get sick of this. The issue is not with the "expertise" of academic law librarians, thank you very much.I can and have used every database listed by name or implication in the quote you included from Justiss--and dozens of others, too. More to the point, I--and most of us in academic law libraries--understand the theory and practice of database searching, information retrieval, and research in general more than well enough to acquire proficiency with pretty much any new product as needed. The issue is with the relative (un-)importance placed on legal research skills by law schools and law faculty.
I have worked at two academic law libraries:
At the first, librarians taught first year legal research as a small part of a two credit, two semester class in legal research and writing. The research portion involved 7-10 one hour lectures each year to classes of c. 50 students and an equivalent number of entirely pass/fail research exercises. The school also offered a single advanced legal research elective taught by a law librarian. It was generally quite well-regarded and well-attended, so up to 40 students per semester actually got post-1st year training in research.... Formal wexis training at this school was taught by librarians, but it consisted of a single 50-minute training session on each service offered in the 1st year. All other wexis training was optional and performed by vendor reps.
At the second institution, librarians have no formal role in 1st year instruction, and the "research instruction" offered by the legal writing instructors is a joke (20 minutes total of instruction on statutes and a "guided" library exercise supervised by 2d year TAs, for instance). Librarians do teach multiple advanced research electives, but the number of students who take them is a small proportion of the overall student body. The only formal, required wexis training here is by the vendors and occurs during first year orientation.
While these are not the only structures for legal research instruction used in law schools, they are both fairly commonplace. Most--though certainly not all--other structures are equivalently weak. In the great majority of cases--certainly the two I've been associated with--there are not nearly enough resources dedicated to research instruction for students to become meaningfully proficient in even the most basic techniques, strategies, and sources. LiveEDGAR and Dialog are not exactly on the radar here--I'd settle for convincing half of the students to look at a treatise in an unknown area of law before they start running their (bad, overly fact-specific) wexis case law searches.
So, my point: if you want new associates and summer associates who can find their metaphorical research behinds with both hands--using books, wexis, or any other database system--put your efforts into helping us as academic librarians convince our schools that REAL research instruction, offered by the librarians who know how to do research in the first place, is a priority. Perhaps you might hit up attorneys to complain to local law deans about this, or have hiring partners bemoan research incompetence to career services people. Hell, I can't even really complain if you want to berate those of us in academia for failing to do all we can to push the issue forward ourselves. But, don't give me this "have to extend their expertise" stuff; our expertise is not the problem.
Posted by: Anon | Jan 26, 2011 10:51:47 AM