Legal Researchers – the Next Generation

As September and the new academic year bear down upon us here at Faculty of Law at Dalhousie University, my mind turns to the class that will be arriving here on the day after Labour Day. It is always amusing to look at the mindset of incoming students. Beyond the amusement, however, is a relevant point. We are now serving a generation to whom being brought up with a mouse in their hands does not entail holding a furry little creature. This generation adapts to technology rapidly (or does technology adapt to it?) and desires just about everything in an “e? form. For those of you in firms or elsewhere in the legal profession, remember that the students who arrive here this year are going to be arriving in your office a short three years from now – even sooner as summer students.

Over the past several years, all of us have seen dramatic changes in the nature of computing in our various professional communities and in our everyday lives. Computer shopping has become a regular part of “Back to School”. The number of students with laptops increases exponentially every year. Laptops are now as much a part of Law School life as casebooks and socials. This transformation has meant a number of things for our library. First, we had to get wired so that our users could use an Ethernet cord to become connected while using the library. Then we outfitted our library to enable wireless connections (those pesky shelves of books keep blocking the signal in the furthest reaches of the library); now we are dealing with the desire to print from a wireless connection. And, all along, we have been creating more electronic content and struggling with the various copyright issues (issues which are aptly documented on these Slaw pages). Of course, these efforts are never enough; as with wireless, and then wireless printing, one change leads to the need for a further improvement.

What may be coming? I have no fear that my job as an information professional is in jeopardy anytime soon. Information is information regardless of the form it is in. It will still need to be organized, arranged, understood and made accessible. Blogs, RSS, , iPods, , Podcasting, PDAs, Google Scholar and whatever happened today are all about transmitting, storing and accessing information.

How does this affect how I deliver content here at the Law School?

I am curious to see if this autumn brings an increase in the number of PDAs I see around the Law School. What will this new technology imply? Will I now have to tailor electronic documents for PDA usage? What about delivery options? Will they want to begin searching the various legal databases with PDAs? iPods have become a phenomenal success and are capable of varied uses. Will iPod usage have an impact on how I deliver information? How do I turn this technology into an asset in our classrooms? What will be the balance between what the courts are willing to accept and what technology dictates? We are currently living in a time of transformation and revolution in legal research; how does this balance with historical practice and precedent, a cornerstone of the profession? It is fascinating to imagine where this technology will lead us as legal information professionals, and how it will alter the everyday practices of the legal profession and the future generations of legal researchers and practitioners.

In the end, I am likely omitting some obvious questions. I don’t know many of the answers to these questions, I have suspicions and opinions based on practice and observation. A resource such as Slaw is an ideal example of putting the technology to use in order to help determine some of the answers to these questions.


  1. Yes Mark, they are really comfortable with the basic accoutrements of the wired – they instant message with the best of them, and have extraordinary networks with their peers. I-Pods are everywhere

    Then we drop them into an educational process that may expect them to use online services, but otherwise in its evaluative processes requires them to produce linear text in forms (exams or essays) that would be recognizable to CC Langdell.

    With the exception of some of the stuff being done at Chicago-Kent, Lessig’s folks at Stanford, and the Beckmann Center Fellows, I really haven’t seen much evidence of the new environment of collaborative technologies changing the educational experience for the vast majority of the students.

    Blogs and Wikis are hobbies for technologically adept students, (from the evidence we see when they graduate), rather than integral to the learning experience.

    Are any of the first year study groups generating wikis as course guides? Anyone generating hypertexted take-homes?

    When exactly will the revolution reach the law schools? When they become faculty?

  2. Hi Mark. First off, nice post.

    My reaction is that you may have no clue how far ahead you are, just by asking the right questions (And you are!). I’m with Simon on this… So much of the ‘new’ technology is not practically applied, just used in the hobby sense.

    I also suspect that many of your new students are overwhelmed by the law school experience. It can be humbling to be an elite student in another faculty, only to have the bar bumped, and be graded on “the curve” with other elite students. Technology may not be as high on their ‘to do’ list as you might think. ?

    I’m also wondering, from your standpoint as an Academic Librarian, how much of where Tech intersects Education is chosen by the institution? and how much by student demand? I always presumed the institution was the primary driver.

  3. I tend to agree that the advantages of new technology are slow to be embraced at our Law Schools. I think there are several contributing factors. To explain our situation, when we integrate technology we are not doing so in a vacuum. At the University level, we are a part of a larger library system and have a Library Systems Group that we have to get on board for projects. At the same time there is a wider University Computing and Information Services group that we also have to get on board for projects. As you might imagine dealing with these various groups and their, sometimes competing, interests has its obstacles.

    At the Law School level we deal with issues of funding and technical competency, we have some faculty members to whom technology is an essential part of their teaching and research; we have others that have eschewed technology and a larger group that falls somewhere in between. As you know technology often causes other issues to arise and if one of these issues is seen to be particularly obtrusive to established norms it will be opposed at the faculty level. On a personal note, I’ve developed a twitch whenever I hear the phrase “Because that’s the way it’s always been done.? There is also the issue of the nature of academia itself, I believe some feel that when they were students they had to prove themselves in a certain fashion (exams and papers) and now the current students should also have to face the same trials and tribulations that they went through. And of course, very little happens in academia without first having gone through a committee, so sometimes the solutions look more like a camel rather than a horse. When you add all of these obstacles together it causes a slow reaction time. These are the obstacles I was thinking of when I asked the rhetorical question: “How do I turn this technology into an asset in our classrooms??

    Steven raised a good point about where technology sits on the students’ agenda beyond the hobby level, asking whether the University or the students are the drivers of technological innovation. It is true that the groups I mentioned above are the ones that ultimately determine what happens and when it happens; however, in the past few years, students at Dalhousie, and I would venture to say that this has happened at other institutions as well, have taken on a client mentality and the University has been forced to react to this. I believe this change to a client mentality has much do with the upward spiral in the price of tuition. This has had both positive and negative effects; on a positive note it has forced the University to be responsive, a negative is that some students feel that they are entitled to a degree without necessarily doing the requisite amount of work.

    Our Law Students Society has become very vocal about their desires regarding the wireless network. And the implementation of the wireless network here at Dalhousie came from the ground up. At first a wireless network was opposed, ostensibly, because of security concerns. However; enough people, starting with students and working its way up to department heads and Deans, became vocal advocates of wireless access to the network and implementation finally occurred.

    Beyond the student advocacy regarding various technology issues, I would assert that the very nature of how students use technology has forced the University to take advantage of some of the benefits technology offers. As I mentioned in the previous post, over the past few years the student body has come to expect material in a electronic form. Often, students will not even use information and resources if it is not. What has happened is that the University has had to react to this and utilize the technology in order to get the students to use the materials that the University wants them to use. I have grave misgivings about the “Google-ization? of research but the University has been forced to respond to the desires of the Google generation.

  4. This week I came across notes from a poster presentation given at the American Library Association by Stephen Bell and John Shank called If You Are Going to Blog, Blog it to Courseware” (4 pages, PDF format). From the poster abstract:

    Do you already have a library weblog (blog) or are you considering using one to create awareness about library services and resources. That’s great because a blog can be a powerful marketing and awareness tool. Now, how are you going to get your user community to read the blog. Realistically, the library’s weblog is unlikely to be perceived as so vital that students and faculty will choose to follow it regularly by bookmarking the blog site or otherwise visiting it regularly. This poster session describes how a library weblog can be integrated into campus courseware (e.g., Blackboard, WebCT). Using software that converts blog content into HTML code the library weblog output can be directly added to students’ course sites.

    Thanks to the RSS4Lib blog which pointed this out to me from this post.