Legal Research Training Tools – Your Comments Please

The Project

The Priestly Law Library at the University of Victoria, Faculty of Law and the Continuing Legal Education Society of BC recently received funding from the BC Law Foundation to further develop a legal research website and a legal research software tool (a downloadable program that runs locally on Windows). The project is at a point where we are interested in receiving comments from the readers of Slaw.

Background

Approximately 3 years ago one of the Law Foundations major funding initiatives supported a project called “Online Learning for Lawyers and Law Students”. The CLE Society of BC, the University of Victoria Faculty of Law, the Law Society of BC (including the Professional Legal Training Course) and the University of British Columbia faculties of law were partners in that project.

One resource developed by the partners was a Legal Research Performance Support Centre (“the website”) that describes a step by step approach to conducting legal research. The project also developed the Legal Research Record (“the tool”), which is a software program that supports researchers and educators in learning the research process by facilitating detailed and thorough tracking of research results.

The current project is designed to take the Legal Research Performance Support Centre to the next level and more fully integrate it into the training delivered at the law school and through the Continuing Legal Education Society of BC. As the project develops other organizations will be invited to incorporate the resources into their websites, e.g. BCCLS, UBC, CanLII, LSBC.

Our Request for your Thoughts

Please take a few minutes to have a look at the two products, and let us know what you think by posting comments to Slaw, or by emailing us c.o. Michael Lines at mlines_at_uvic.ca. Also email Michael if you have any technical difficulties. Here are some specific questions we’ d like Slawers to consider, though of course any and all comments are welcome:

1. We are considering targeting first year LRW students, as well as at articling students who feel the need for a refresher on the basics. Is that a reasonable limitation, or should we be considering a broader audience? Is there a substantial need for this kind of instruction beyond these groups?

2. We are considering a closer integration of the Legal Research Performance Support website, and the Legal Research Record (the application). It has been suggested that, given our plans to focus on law and articling students, and on tighter integration with the LRP website, converting the Legal Research Record into a web application would make sense. Are we missing or excluding anything important with this plan?

3. The content is thin and a bit abstract. In addition to providing more detailed content, a thought is to bring the lessons home by focusing the Research Record on a small group of practical research tasks. For example, we might ask the students to “find the leading cases and legislation relevant to the freedom of assembly in Alberta” and build evaluation criteria in to the Legal Research Record, so that students would be alerted if they fail to cite an important document. Does this strike you as a good direction? How else could the content be improved?

4. A number of issues are not addressed in the current content, such as the relative merits of paper and electronic sources, the distinction between primary and secondary materials, the related issue of the connections between legal processes and legal documents, and generally the fact that there are different types of legal information available. Are these issues worth including, and are there other dimensions of legal research that should be included?

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Comments

  1. I have 3 immediate reactions.

    1. At least for me – using IE7 – the Legal Research Web site doesn’t let me go back to the site whence I came. I had to open it in new window, not just a new tab, to get back to SLAW. I assume that’s because clicking on the link you’ve provided takes one first to a redirection page. The same problem occurs with Firefox.

    2. The link to downloadable program lrr.zip doesn’t work.

    3. The content of the Legal Research website reinforces the unfortunate myth that legal research is, somehow, some sort of arcane process that is orders of magnitude more difficult than counting to 10 in winter while wearing mittens. In fact (although too many of us in the legal profession aren’t prepared to admit it) it’s signifantly easier. Legal research is easy. Making sense of what one finds often isn’t. However, that usually has nothing to do with the research process and everything to do with problems in the substance of what one has found. (It’s the problem described in the silk purse parable.)

    David Cheifetz

  2. You should discuss the importance to build and manage our own legal libraries (IM).

    Why a downloadable program? A web app would be a more hype solution!

    Nice project! I’ll keep on thinking!

  3. Thanks, David.

    The back-button problem is annoying. I will look into having that fixed. You can avoid opening a new window by selecting the downward-pointing arrow next to the back button, which will give you a list of recent sites.

    The .zip link works for me in both FF. and IE7. Could you email me and describe more about what happened when you tried?

    I agree that legal research is easy, especially when compared to research in some other fields, and especially if you have experience. A lot of the tools provide great indexing and are easy to use. I think the need for LRW courses comes from the variety of tools available (some of which are not easy to use), as well as from the complexity of the content. Sometimes researchers, especially novices, have to re-trace their steps and re-work their approaches, due to what they discovered in a first attempt. I think that is what we are trying to portray with the “wheel.” It is a common metaphor, used to add a bit of verity to linear representations of the research process.

    If you have any specific suggestions, I’d like to hear them…

  4. Michael, I fixed your link to the .zip file. There was a double ‘http://http://’ and the beginning. No big deal.

    I downloaded the software, it’s pretty slick. I agree with Dominic that a web app would be better, but can see why Lawyers would want this behind the firewall, and not on the public web. Maybe a secured ASP model? or how about a plug-n-play widget for the Intranet? Just ideas…

    You should email Drew Jackson and chat about the work he’s doing regarding online web courseware for the LSBC.

    Maybe revisit Simon C.’s concept of a legal research encyclopaedia. A subject map of secondary sources might also be a good integration.

  5. Thanks, Steve. I think Rich here at UVic may know what you are talking about.

    :-)

    I will look into your suggestions – Thanks

  6. I taught legal research at UVic many years ago, have practiced as a research lawyer for the last 25 years and volunteered as a research supervisor with the UBC advanced research course for 10 years so – for what they are worth – here are my thoughts.

    I looked at both the research web site and the research tool. I like the research tool. No matter how organized I try to be, I inevitably end up with lots of pieces of paper floating around it the file listing where I have looked and what I have found. For those researchers who do not have the use of litigation software, this tool will be very useful.

    However, I do have some issues with the website. The members of the Legal Research section of the CBA were shown an early form of the site by the CLE some time ago an I had the same concerns then. I do not like the format used in the printable version of the “Legal Research Process.” It is fine to pose questions for the student to answer but there are too many “should I” questions. Of course a researcher should always consider whether or not they have to look at texts, cases, statutes, encyclopedia and practice manuals. If you set students up to ask themselves the question rather than instructing them to think about what they should look at (use the imperative – “Look at texts”, “Look at cases and statutory materials”) they will often answer “No” without really thinking about whether any of those sources will assist them.

    Under Item #6 – Do the search results answer the legal problem? – “Things to keep in mind”, you point out that the researcher might discover that they do not have all the facts they need or that they may have discovered new issues. I think you should warn the students much earlier that they may find they need more information or may realize that the lawyer who has posed the problem may not have defined the issues properly. Under Item #1 – “Things to keep in mind” you caution the student that their statement of the research problem may have to be revised as they go along – I think you should include the points made in Item #6 here.

    As for the questions you pose:

    1.Not all law schools provide the level of instruction in legal research as UVic does and in my experience, there are many lawyers who have been in practice for a while who do not know how to research so although I understand the need to focus on law and articling students, I think the website should be targeted at a larger audience than just students. That is one reason I object to the way the “Legal Research Process” is written.

    2. You might want to canvass the research lawyers and knowlege management people at some of the larger firms to see how the kind of web application you are talking about would be received by these firms. The students have to be able to use the applications after they get out of law school.

    3. I don’t understand how the evaluation criteria you you mention will work and I worry that the students will become dependent on the “alerts.” If they want to use the Research Record as they continue on in their careers they are not going to be able to rely on a program alerting them to mistakes. I agree that forcussing on practical research tasks is a good idea.

    4. I know it is going to be difficicult to cover everything but I think all the things you have listed here are important. As some of the other comments have said, legal research is not particularly difficult but it can be intimidating and does require some skill. In dealing with law students and articling students over the years I have found that issues like the merits of electronic and paper sources or the differences between primary and secondary sources and the roles those sources play in legal scholarship are often not understood.

    Hope this is of some assistance.

    Peggy Stanier

  7. Thanks very much for your full comments, Peggy. Much appreciated.

  8. Michael,

    My apologies for being snarky.

    Peggy Stanier has said everything that I could have usefully said about the web site and done so better than I would have.

    The research tool will be handy for those want (or need) some sort of pre-existing file structure and road map to remind them how to research and in which keep track of what they’re doing. And prefer a GUI interface.

    For me? The web site and the program would be clutter.

    Any word processor permits me do track all of the information I need, if I’m going to keep it electronically rather than in paper notes. I save a companion file or two that keeps track of additional areas to cover; or note it in the ongoing file in some fashion.

    I’m not really a good person to ask for suggestions on how best to better teach research and analysis skills, legal or otherwise. The process seems self-evident to me. But, if it helps some people to break the process down as much as you have, then it helps them. That’s great if it does and there’s no harm done if it doesn’t. I realize that, for whatever reason, some people find legal research and analysis a problem. If experience shows that tools like the site and the program help, so much the better.

    It’s the chicken soup solution: it can’t hurt.

    Cheers,

    David

  9. Hi Michael

    I’ve taken a brief look at the website (can’t review the program, alas: it only runs on PC’s — something you might want to consider, given the Rise of Apple). Let me say I welcome any and all attempts to butt heads with this sort of problem, so I think this is a project worth pursuing.

    It seems to me (duh!) that what you’re doing is trying to unpack legal analysis and that “legal research” is the name you’re giving to this process — which is not to say it’s wrong, merely that you’ll have as much and as little success as everyone else who’s attempted to explain legal analysis. You see this right away in the series of questions about the “relevant facts,” when they’re clearly a function of “relevant laws,” which in turn are dictated by the facts… So your circle is right — it’s the hermeneutic circle, more or less.

    So… it seems to me that to prevent people going round in circles you might better show them an example. I realize you have a “case” but if this is aimed at students you’d be better giving them a model of what you’re after. Better still would be a series of models, each somewhat more complex than the last, and then give them a problem to work on their own.

    In my view, I wouldn’t conflate the teaching of this kind of reciprocal analysis with the problem of hitting the books. I’d get them comfy with basic legal analysis first then I’d expose them to legal sources etc.

    Sorry to go abstract on you.

  10. I guess that’s one of the things about research – finding the sources tends to get you tangled up with the complexity of the content and then the difficulty of analysing it. Snarky, abstract, or otherwise – much food for thought here. I’m taking notes…

  11. For the record, the Research Record software is written in Java, and runs on Windows (I haven’t tried it on a mac yet). As alpha software it is quite buggy, but it serves a valuable purpose as a proof of concept. I personally would like to see it moved over to a web interface, and it sounds like I’m not alone in that setiment. Much easier to maintain and update that way, and for students, they can use it on which ever computer they happen to be using at the moment (in the computer lab, on their laptop, or at home).

    The draw back to this is, that any practicing lawyer would not want to host any client research information on a 3rd party web server. A couple of options I’m exploring to get around this problem are XAMPP, and UniformServer. What both of these software packages allow you to do is to install a LAMP, or WAMP software stack on a computer or even a thumb drive, and run the web application on a desktop PC. This stores the data on the PC or USB thumb drive, getting around the reluctance of lawyers to use 3rd party services.

    From the UniformServer web site: The Uniform Server is a WAMP package that allows you to run a server on any MS Windows OS based computer. It is small and mobile to download or move around and can also be used or setup as a production/live server. Developers also use The Uniform Server to test their applications made with either PHP, MySQL, Perl, or the Apache HTTPd Server.

    It will be interesting to see how well this works in practice. In particular, I’ll be interested to see how easy it is to upgrade the web application, and maintain the data in the database. For the record, XAMPP will run on Linux, Windows, and Mac OSX computers.

    I’ve posted this text with links at: http://richmccue.com/?p=117