Law firm librarians are often critical of the lack of research skills demonstrated by the annual crop of new graduates when they start working in law firms. The issue has been a bone of contention for many years, and can create a divide between academic and firm librarians. I think the issue is not one of training, but of understanding that the purpose of a university education and that of a law firm placement are fundamentally different, and legal research needs and experiences have little in common from one environment to the other.
I was back in my home town of Melbourne last month, and it gave me the chance to catch up with my colleagues from my former firm, and others, and hear of developments there. As I was in Melbourne undertaking some research on legal information literacy, I was more attuned than normal to the issues being discussed, and when I heard the familiar complaints about the inadequacy of research skills of newly appointed law graduates, I felt as though the clock had been turned back 20 years, and I was the one complaining.
I came from a teaching background, and I remember vividly the groups of articled clerks I taught in my first firm. They were undoubtedly the brightest and the best; it was a top tier firm, the competition to get in was fierce, and great results at university were a key factor to selection. So why were these really bright young people unable to use the Digest, or the citator, or track the history of a section of an act without one-on-one guidance by a librarian? I was more than a little taken aback at this lack of ‘basics’. So I joined the chorus of law firm librarians laying the blame for this lack of fundamental legal research knowledge at the foot of the law schools, for their inadequate preparation of their students.
The skills that students seem to lack compounded over the years, as digital resources became their mainstay, in place of the books that had formed our research world for hundreds of years. By the time the new century dawned, these trainees were the first of the digital native/google generation, and had a degree of confidence in their own research abilities that was quite frightening when their shortcomings were exposed in real life situations.
When I moved from law firms to academia I saw first-hand that students at law school were engaged in a form of legal research that was relevant to their task at university – to read the set texts and cases, to use the online resources in preference to coming to the library to read the cases, and to try to balance the reading required of them with their classes, tutorials, part time work and socialising. We made every effort to try to ensure they knew the importance of thorough research, but unless they could see it having a direct impact on their results, few took much notice of our words of wisdom. And I know that we covered all the same themes in law school as we had covered in the firms, in a precautionary effort to help them on their way.
So the problem is not that law schools do not prepare the students for the harsh reality of legal research in a real life situation. The problem is that the nature of the research skills they need in law school is quite different to the skills that will be required of them as lawyers.
For law schools, trying to change what they do to meet the needs of firms is not practical. They need to prepare freshers for a whole new world of legal literature. The timing of the teaching in law school is geared heavily to the first year – how much will a third year remember of her first year training? The way legal research is taught is often still outside the ‘real’ curriculum, and the connection between theory and practice isn’t easily made.
There is also the issue that academics are not always that great at legal research methodology themselves, having developed their own methods for their discipline, and rarely refreshing their own skills. Often they think their e-research skills are less accomplished than their students, and can erroneously defer to student self-confidence with technology without really questioning the depth or accuracy of how the student is applying the technology.
Most new solicitors are asked to undertake research of a nature that is of little relevance in a law school, such as egislative research. In law schools students are handed a copy of an act, or a section of it. Law academics do not rate the currency of an act as relevant to their teaching the principles involved in the legislation. One academic recently insisted that his students only use the relevant Legal Information Institute’s copies of acts for research, even when he was told they are always months out of date. With academic gatekeepers like that, what hope do law librarians have of thorough training in a law school setting?
The reality is that most law firms of any size undertake some induction training of their new graduates, not only because they want the graduates to know how to research, but they also want them to know what that particular firm’s values are in research and house style. In England, between a third and a half of new graduates come from disciplines other than law, and bring with them a different, definitely non-legal, research skill set in any case. So the firms are well geared for training, and do not take it as a given that the new graduates will have well rounded, applicable research abilities.
A firm can, in this way, put its own stamp on the graduate’s approach, and guide the nature of the research experience. If the partners care passionately for the quality of their research so they can ensure excellent advice to a client, they will impress on the new lawyer that ‘perfect’ research is crucial to the firm’s reputation, and their own future in the firm.
It is time for law firm librarians to accept that the research skills that new solicitors/barristers bring from university may not be specifically relevant to the workplace, because they were learned in a different environment and for a different purpose. Training new law firm graduates is vital not only for the new trainees, but it also provides librarians the chance to become a core part of their life in a firm. It’s hard to get young lawyers to move away from their desktops to the library, and for librarians to know how they are going about their research. If firm librarians spend time with them early on, and help them to learn the right way of going about their research, this will have improved their confidence and contributed to their success and that of the firm. How fortunate law firm librarians are to have this opportunity to enhance the crucial nature of their own teaching role within a firm!