Law Firms, Law Graduates and Training – Who Is Responsible, and Who Is to Blame?

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! 


  1. Ruth, are the skills of accuracy & currency really not applicable in a law school education? The Prof who insisted students use the outdated LII copies of Acts for research – did this ever get brought up with the law school?

    If no one ever challenges the status quo, nothing will ever improve. Right?

    At least in Canada, the truth is that only a minority of Lawyers get the added legal research guidance within a (often large) law firm setting. Only a fraction of firms have a research lawyer or librarian on staff. So what about the *overwhelming majority* whose research skills are solely delivered via their law school education?

    Law schools need to take ownership here. Not law school librarians, but the law schools themselves. Students will learn as many layers of complexity as is required of them in order to achieve top grades. Why not make them stumble on the finer details once in a while? Far better to learn the lesson while it’s a difference between an A- and a B+, and before they invoice 50K in legal fees while basing arguments/work on outdated legislation.

    Ok, I’m done being provocative. This is an important topic, and a good column, Ruth! Well done.

  2. Note that legal research is included in the curriculum of B.C.’s Professional Legal Training Course; this is B.C.’s attempt to bridge the gap between law school and law firm research.

  3. The Edmonton Law Libraries Association also tries to bridge between academic style research and the type of research that is necessary in a firm. We teach a max of 48 students, mostly from firms with in house librarians who are able to supplement

    It is fine to say that firms should be responsible for practical research training and training in our tools and resources and in our style, but when we have new hires with advanced degrees who need to be taught basic stuff, I worry quite a bit about LRW curriculum – or more accurately – the weight that law schools place on research skills. How many law schools in Canada lack an advanced legal research course?

    Law firm based research is different from academic research, but information literacy is universal in my opinion.

    Thanks for the thought provoking column Ruth.

  4. In the 1990s, UBC Law’s mandatory first-year Legal Research & Writing Program served me well. The elective third-year, two-term course in Advanced Legal Research (taught by adjunct professors) was most valuable, and anyone who had completed that course was exempted from the legal research component of B.C.’s Professional Legal Training Course. I don’t know if that course is still offered at UBC.

  5. Hi Steve – of course accuracy and currency are important, and I don’t know of any academic law librarian who does not try to impart this in the training the give in law school legal research sessions. But you are right – until the law schools themselves accept that legal research is just as important as the subjects that are core to the curriculum, we will have this problem.
    In the UK there was a joint statement from the Law Society and Bar Council required universities/institutions offering qualifying law degrees to include key skills, including legal research skills in their programmes from 2002. The statement specifically listed using online and print resources for legal research, IT skills and team working skills. As a result law schools like ours included a compulsory pass/fail subject at first year to cover this, and employs a teacher to work with the librarians. So, sadly it seems that some form of compulsion needs to be present for law schools to act.

  6. All,

    I think it is definitely true that what we learn in law school is of a different nature than what happens in practice. Certainly I know this from experience from my articling days.

    I believe however that the fault lies with both sides, the law schools and the law firms (but not the librarians). In my view, the law schools truly do not impress upon a student how important it is for them to understand how to do legal research. They take it more as something the student has to get through in first year, but not necessarily something that should be taken seriously. In my teaching, I try to impress upon the students how important research is going to be in their future careers. All too often however, I’m met with blank stares and a, “what the heck is he talking about” look.

    Likewise, the law firms do not really impress upon the incoming articling students how important legal research is. Despite the fact that many large firms have libraries (and this is indeed a small number of firms), and despite the efforts of the law librarians, , most lawyers do not appear to put much stock in legal research. When faced with a research question, most lawyers I know will just say, “give it to the student”, and then get upset when the student doesn’t research it properly. When I was an articling student, no one in the firms expressed to me how important research was to the success of the practice. It was something that was merely taken for granted.

    Hopefully, the Task Force on the Common Law Degree Report will spur both law firms and schools into action.

  7. Perhaps it is because they consider it beneath them, or they are embarrassed to admit to the their lack of expertise in this fundamental and essential skill, but many is the time I have seen legal research foisted off on a poor legal assistant.

    Until law schools place a higher value on this skill – instead of making it seem like it is a trivial one that a lawyer can always get someone else to do for them – then the situation will not improve. The lawyer needs to own the research behind their arguments, and be confident that they have it right.

    An advanced course that exempts the participants from a compenent of the bar training course strikes me as a great idea – providing a good incentive to take the course anyway.

    The same goes for proper writing skills, by the way. They are just taken as given. Lawyers are writers and drafters, yet the skill is seldom taught, or taught well, in law schools.

  8. Most first year law students have undergraduate degrees. Some even have graduate degrees. If “all too often” is happening “all too often” in too many schools, then there’s either a flaw in the process by which the 1Ls got their prior degrees, or a flaw in the admission process at the law schools. The link I’ve given is empirical proof of the existence of a problem. Read down to para. 42. Then count the number of cases the judge mentioned.

    On the other hand, should we be to be too critical of law students and lawyers when reasons of the provincial and territorial appellate courts show the same unwillingness (or failure) to do the required research?

    Or reasons of the highest court in the land essentially dismiss any need to embark on adequate research, or at least give one reason to doubt the panel has adequately considered the relevant cases?

  9. I would love to see a research component as part of the interview process for articling students. It’s a great test of skill and writing ability, and would send a clear message to students that they can’t underestimate the value of the R&W course.

  10. Hi Ruth,
    Thank you for your very insightful comments on the dichotomy between academic legal education and professional training. As you know, I am a firm believer that professional training is the purview of the employer rather than that of the academic environment.
    Law Schools (atleast in North America) graduate individuals who have been exposed to many aspects of the legal experience. I use the term \graduate\ deliberately. It is assumed that law school graduates have received a solid education in legal reasoning rather than in corporate competitiveness. As such, academic libraries do not \process\ trainees for law firms.
    I have heard the argument that \not all law school graduates have the benefit of firm libraries or active principles\. This is not an excuse for teaching the rudiments of legal research as dictated by the latest commercial resources. Teaching fundamentals of research that rely on legal reasoning rather than the vagaries of legal publishing should be the primary objective in critical inquiry – be it by graduated students in law firms; public policy analysts; civil liberties advocates and yea, even law librarians.
    Law firms are profit driven. If they are disappointed with the quality of legal research they find among their new recruits, it is the result of a number of factors. Foremost is the notion that legal research \taught by the book\ without an understanding of legal communication analysis is sufficient. It is not. Introductory and \advanced \ legal research teaching has not kept up with advances in academic inquiry or the realities of the 21st century. Long gone are the days when solicitors and barristers repaired to their chairs over holidays to read leading cases in a handful of printed newspapers or reporters reporters. Finding a tort case about a snail in a ginger beer bottle is all fine and well. Understanding what it means is the role of the legal educators and a handful of legal researchers in tune with legal analysis and understanding.

  11. David Cheifetz

    There are more than a few members of this blog whose legal careers extend back to the time when legal research required one to physically get a text from wherever it was shelved, review index and contents, as required, by eye and hand, and then physically go back to the shelves to get more. With due respect to those who think otherwise, it wasn’t hard work, then, any more than the current equivalent of that process is. It was tedious work, but that’s an entirely different issue. Again, with due respect to those who think otherwise, research in topic one knows something about is the equivalent of multiplying or adding 2 and 2. So long as you do it right, you’ll get the information that provides you the right answer. If you don’t (adequately) understand the information, well … that’s a different problem.

    Research in a topic one knows nothing about? Or, at least, not enough to know whether what one has found is sufficiently relevant to consider? Or, at least, not enough to know that one has missed something significant? That isn’t what occurs when lawyer X (who knows nothing useful about a subject) asks articling student Y (who knows even less) to research the point, right?

  12. As one who has lived for over twenty years in a law school and an equal time in practice, I can say that the dichotomy that Mary Hemmings accepts does not exist. Regardless of whether law firms are profit-driven or not — what else could they be? — they are entitled to expect that law students know what good research is and how to do it. The notion that somehow law schools are concerned with a higher law, one not sullied by the need to serve clients is harmful and unhelpful. Law schools, like medical and engineering schools exist to educate people to go out and serve clients, patients and employers (who have clients). Of course, students and young lawyers have a lot to learn when they join the profession, but law schools do not do the job they are supposed to do if they are not focused on what students need to know to able to give good advice to their clients. That goal does not have to be narrowly defined — we do not need the tired argument over the “trade school” and the “professional school” — but it is the goal that needs to be kept firmly in mind.