Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Law schools should teach students "information" research skills

Teaching effective legal research skills is a given, but we should also be teaching students how to sift through non-legal databases as well. From the New York Law Journal (the author is an associate at Paul Weiss):

Law students and lateral associates searching for a law firm job should be ready to show that they know how to search.

Many of the skills expected of an associate are well-known: She must be a hard worker, a good writer, a creative analyst of legal arguments, and an organizer of tasks, information and people. But since electronic data has become the primary source of information in many litigations, there is another skill that has become critical for a young associate: the ability to search electronic databases quickly, thoroughly and exhaustively, finding the killer case citation or the incriminating e-mail.

That an associate must be able to conduct research or use a database such as Westlaw or Lexis is hardly a novel idea, but it is worth considering just how central to the life of an associate is the skill of electronic searching. As a young associate myself, I use that skill every day, many times a day, and know that my fellow associates do as well.

. . . .

Employers should provide associates with a "best practices" guide with concrete examples of what successful searches look like. Although many law firms offer training sessions on legal research, it would help to have a part of the training program address the subtler requirements of good searching, and the consequences of poor searching, in various electronic data sources such as e-discovery portals.

Training should start even before the job does. Law schools are trying to focus more on preparing students for practice. For example, Harvard Law School has introduced a "Problem Solving Workshop," a course "intended to help prepare [students] for the actual practice of law by allowing [them] actively to engage in the sorts of discussions and activities that occupy real lawyers every day," according to its website.

Part of preparing students for real-world practice is communicating the importance of being able to search well and giving students the opportunity to practice outside the context of a legal research assignment. For example, law schools might offer students the opportunity to search a mock electronic document database to get a flavor for the challenges of e-discovery.

Young lawyers are increasingly becoming the managers, and masters, of electronic information. Searching through that information is difficult to do well. Associates must practice and perfect their searching skills, while the broader legal community must acknowledge the importance of those skills and help associates develop them.


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