Reducing Research Anxiety in the Legal Research Process

What follows in this post are some initial thoughts on what I think is a fairly important topic for law librarians and legal researchers: (a topic I might consider researching in detail if I ever were to pursue a doctorate in information studies): what, if anything, can be done to lessen the anxiety that legal researchers suffer during the research process?

That legal researchers suffer anxiety goes without saying. The researcher may be uncertain where to begin, they may be suffering from too much information, or they may lack confidence in concluding they have reached the “correct” answer (I myself have had these feelings several times in the last week alone in research I have conducted in addition to also regularly perceiving such anxiety in people I have been helping).

Studies suggest that these feelings of anxiety will rise and fall during the various stages of the information search process (see my SLAW blog post here from almost 5 years ago discussing the research of Professor Carol Kuhlthau on this topic). Ideally, the research is concluded with the researcher being in the “confident” stage of their feelings (alas, this does not always happen in legal research due to some problems being unsolvable and other problems being terminated early due to a lack of time).

By better understanding the research process, law librarians can better identify possible “zones of intervention” to get involved in helping researchers at the peak of those moments when anxiety arises. Likewise, to the extent that much legal research is conducted online, it is surely in the interest of the major online legal publishers to better design their products to lessen the risk of this anxiety frustrating the researcher by instead providing alternative ways for the researcher to access and assimilate online information and put it into its proper context.

I would therefore welcome comments on this topic, especially if readers are aware of studies or work being done in this area (at the end of this post is a “quick and dirty” list of readings I compiled last night, some of which I read a number of years ago and others which I hope to read when I have more time).

Much of Kuhlthau’s early research was on the information search process of high school students, so I was interested to find out recently that she also studied lawyers – see: Kuhlthau and Tama, “Information Search Process of Lawyers: A Call for ‘Just for Me’ Information Services” (2001) 57 Journal of Documentation 25 (PDF).

In this study, the authors interviewed 8 New Jersey lawyers from small to medium-sized law firms, all with mid-level experience. I found it interesting to note that their respondents actually seemed to welcome the challenge of uncertainty and did not necessarily regard it as a bad thing, unlike novice researchers (p. 31):

[These lawyers] did not respond to uncertainty in the same way as the novices in previous studies had. The novices interpreted their sense of uncertainty as indicating that something was going wrong, either with the task or with their ability to proceed effectively with it. But none of these experts expressed the feelings of anxiety and frustration related to uncertainty that the novices experienced. On the contrary, these experts expressed heightened interest and enthusiasm for more complex tasks that required considerable construction and creativity. Many of the lawyers actually related the sense of fun to more complex tasks that led to innovation and construction.

Most of the lawyers interviewed expressed a preference for the context that print resources provided and expressed frustration with the literalness and lack of context of keyword searching. I was also a bit disappointed that a few of the lawyers interviewed saw librarians primarily as “getters of the resource” despite a desire for more personalized systems and services (hence the “Just for Me” Information Services in the title of the article). In this study, the respondents described themselves as an “in between generation”, being a generation in between the print and online environment. I would be curious to study what impact generational differences now have on information-seeking behaviour of new law students and lawyers.

For now, then, I have several hypotheses I would want to test through further study:

1) Hypothesis #1: Legal researchers suffer less anxiety at the initiation stage of their research if they consult a trained law librarian to discuss the issue and identify a research strategy, including recommended sources.

2) Hypothesis #2: Follow-up and easy access in person and by email/phone to a law librarian will reduce anxiety in the legal research process.

3) Hypothesis #3: The use of legal research checklists will reduce legal research anxiety and improve the quality of research.

I also have several questions, the answers to which remain uncertain to me:

1) Do generational or age differences affect the level of research anxiety? (i.e., do millenials react differently to research anxiety than baby boomers? Does their anxiety differ depending on whether print or online resources are being used?).

2) How do you best test the effectiveness of using print versus using online resources? How do you measure the effectiveness of online user interface design?

3) What resources do legal researchers prefer using and why?

4) What factors inhibit legal researchers from seeking help? What are the greatest challenges researchers perceive? (e.g., lack of time, cost of resources, lack of knowledge of the law or research techniques, etc.).

I welcome any comments. The non-exhaustive list of “likely” readings for further study follows below (most recent to oldest).

Selected Bibliography on Information-Seeking Behaviours of Lawyers

  • 2009. Jones, Julie M. "Not Just Key Numbers and Keywords Anymore: How User Interface Design Affects Legal Research" (2009) 101 Law Lib J 7.
  • 2009. Rogan, Joelle. Information Needs of Lawyers: A Case Study Evaluating the Information Needs of Lawyers in a Major City Law Firm (VDM Verlag, 2009).
  • 2008. Makri, Stephann et al. “Investigating the Information-Seeking Behaviour of Academic Lawyers: From Ellis’s Model to Design” (2008) 44 Information Processing and Management: an International Journal 613.
  • 2008. Yamauchi, Michitsugu & Akifumi Tokosumi. “Three Behavioral Models of Web Searching for Legal Information” (2008) Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Information Integration and Web-based Applications & Services, Linz, Austria.
  • 2006. Jones, Yolanda P. “‘Just the Facts Ma’am?’ A Contextual Approach to the Legal Information Use Environment.” Proceedings of the 6th ACM Conference on Designing Interactive Systems, June 26-28, 2006, University Park, PA, USA.
  • 2002. Komlodi, A. & D. Soergel. “Attorneys Interacting with Legal Information Systems: Tools for Mental Model Building and Task Integration” (2002) In Proc. ASIST 152.
  • 2001. Haruna, Ibrahim & Iyabo Mabawonku. “The Information Needs and Seeking Behaviour of Legal Practitioners and the Challenges to Law Libraries in Lagos, Nigeria” (2001) 33 The International Information & Library Review 69.
  • 2001. Kuhlthau, Carol & S.L. Tama. “Information Search Process of Lawyers: A Call for ‘Just for Me’ Information Services” (2001) 57 Journal of Documentation 25.
  • 2001. Marshall et al. “Designing e-Books for Legal Research” (2001) Proceedings of the 1st ACM/IEEE-CS Joint Conference on Digital Libraries 41.
  • 2001. Wilkinson, M.A. “Information Sources used by Lawyers in Problem Solving – An Empirical Exploration” (2001) 23 Library and Information Science Research 257.
  • 2000. Cole, Charles Cole & Carol Kuhlthau. “Information and Information Seeking of Novice Versus Expert Lawyers: How Experts Add Value” (2000) 1 The New Review of Information Behaviour Research 103.
  • 1999. Otike, Japhet. “The Information Needs and Seeking Habits of Lawyers in England: A Pilot Study” (1999) 31 The International Information & Library Review 19.
  • 1997. Weijing Yuan. “End-user Searching Behavior in Information Retrieval: A Longitudinal Study” (1997) 48 Journal of the American Society for Information Science 218.
  • 1996. Leckie et al. “Modelling the Information-Seeking of Professionals: A General Model Derived from Research on Engineers, Health Care Professionals, and Lawyers” (1996) 66 Library Quarterly 161.
  • 1994. Sutton, Stuart A. “The role of Attorney Mental Models of Law in Case Relevance Determinations: An Exploratory Analysis” (1994) 45, Journal of the American Society for Information Science 186.
  • 1992. Hainsworth, M. “Information Seeking Behavior of Judges of the Florida District Courts of Appeal.” School of Library and Information Sciences, Florida State University, FL, USA, 1992.
  • 1988. Vale, Mark. Information Structure and the Information-Seeking Behavior of Lawyers. Department of Communication, Stanford University, CA, USA, 1988.
  • 1986. Vollaro and Hawkins. “End-user Searching in a Large Library Network: A Case Study of Patent Attorneys” (1986) 10 Online 57.
  • 1969. Cohen, M.L. “Research Habits of Lawyers” (1969) 9 Jurimetrics 183.


  1. Interesting post Ted. I hadn’t considered the anxiety associated with searching/researching before. I have been interested in the search behaviour of lawyers in relation to the organization of legal materials but I haven’t had a chance to pursue this in any meaningful way. It is something that percolates in the back of my mind though, and your selected bibliography will help me move this up closer to the front, so thanks for that. :-)

  2. This is an interesting post. And a particularly well laid out set of thoughts that we all ought to be considering. Most of us would probably respond positively to the first two hypotheses. Certainly they both go to the notion that well-prepared assistance at any time in a research process ought to make the process go more smoothly. And that would ordinarily mean less anxiety and stress. I’m a little more uncertain about the third. I suppose it’s because I don’t see that differing much from the first. The good legal research checklist is probably one tool of many that a law librarian could bring to the legal researcher early in the game. I wonder if the third hypothesis couldn’t be broadened a little to address the place the law librarian might play near the end of the legal research process. After the researcher has done a significant (or complete) amount of research, the question might then be \is there anything else I can do to make my research complete?\ And consulting with the expert law librarian/legal research specialist might point to something that had been omitted. Certainly a legal research checklist might be part of that question asked near the end.

    I’m particularly pleased to see your selected bibliography. I had forgotten about some of these. I hope you will add more to this good list of reading materials. These are things that we all ought to be considering.

    Ted, thank you very much for this posting.

  3. I wonder if your “Classic Ragtime Piamo” website isn’t one positive way of pf limiting stress and anxiety in the work we do. I’m much more fond of opera than ragtime. But opera is real stress reliever for me. I can see dipping into classic ragtime as being the daysaver for many a tough working day.

  4. Thanks Jerry for your comments.

    I have been thinking a lot about checklists recently but part of the challenge is integrating them in a way where people would want to use them or otherwise not see it as a bureaucratic extra step being foisted on them.

    I try to listen to CBC Radio 2 Classical Music via my iPad while I work (commercial free).