Is There a Research Analysis Problem?

One of my favourite tasks as a firm librarian is to provide training (formal) and mentoring (informal) to articling students on gathering materials to answer legal research problems. Another favourite task is identifying trends (industry trends, process trends, changes in the use of language, emerging technologies) that will affect legal practice at my firm. I have noticed some interesting crossover lately.

  • The Legal Education Society of Alberta is hosting an Advanced Legal Research and Writing seminar on December 3 in Calgary and they recently offered a basic Legal Research session
  • A DVD on Advanced Legal Research by Bonnie Fish is on the market
  • The CBA Research Lawyers North section invited a LRW instructor to present a session about the University of Alberta 1L research class and what they teach
  • The Edmonton Law Libraries Association HeadStart program was sold out this spring
  • Legal research training will be at topic on the CALL 2010 conference program.

Taken separately, these items are interesting. When mashed together, and having read Simon C’s post from July 2008 and Colin’s post from January 2008, I see patterns emerge.

Is there a perception among partners that law firm juniors only look in electronic sources and are therefore missing vital information when performing analysis? Is the perception a truth or even a valid generalization? What does this mean for those of us who attempt to teach gathering skills?

Should we skip teaching methods for gathering from electronic sources in favour of a short lecture on reading the computer screen? Should we spend more time on identifying appropriate sources and instruction on how to apply search results to a legal research problem?

Program planning for HeadStart 2010 is underway so I hope for comments.


  1. In 2000, I offered a research seminar to the students at my firm which emphasized how to develop the appropriate strategy for research, rather than on how to use the tools. I asked a partner to set a question, then invited two young associates to “race” the students in developing a strategy to find the answer. The two teams had 30 minutes to develop their approach, and we would compare strategies after that time. The partner would determine the winner.

    The students spent their time entirely on coming up with queries for databases. They spent no time at all trying to get to the issue, understand what was being asked, and thinking beyond the electronic tools.

    When the two groups came back together, the students proudly outlined their search strings. “How would you know you have the answer?”, the partner asked. Silence.

    When the associates began to outline their approach, you could almost hear jaws dropping around the room. “Sounds like a sale of goods issue – not something I have a lot of experience in, so I’ll grab a textbook. If I can reach him, I may ask a few more questions of the partner to clarify issues once I have a better understanding of the broad strokes.”

    I think that the best thing we can teach students is that it is okay to ask clarifying questions, and that secondary literature is not the last resort.