Legal Research Training’s End

From my earliest days as a professional I have taught about how best to carry out legal research. Over the years I have instructed high school students, undergraduates, prisoners, graduate students, paralegals, librarians and many, many law students. Something not quite rational drove my interest. Many times I have paraphrased the lines spoken by John Belushi in the classic movie The Blues Brothers, telling people that I was on a mission from God to teach legal research. I have written books, made cassette tapes, video tapes and DVDs about legal research. If this almost obsessive interest had not been so good to me, I might view it with suspicion. All this said, I think traditional legal research training is going the way of radio drama.

For three decades I have taught a course entitled “Advanced Legal Research” to second and third year law students at Berkeley Law School. My idea was to teach the class to large numbers of students in a style that was largely lecture-based, but which included lots of assignments that would be graded and returned with extensive comments. Using some legal history, a bit of jurisprudence and some information theory, combined with humor, I would try to explain the way that the sources worked. If the student understood how a judicial opinion was created, how legislation was produced, how administrative rules and regulations were made, then she could deal with these materials in any format. The key was to understand the system, not to be a blind user of commercial research tools. The plan was to make them wise consumers of legal information.

That class began in the age of paper. Early on, LEXIS and WESTLAW came into view, but only as exotics. In the 1980s many law students had never used a computer. As the databases took over, the class morphed. LEXIS and WESTLAW became the standard source of research for the students. Personal computers became ubiquitous. Laptops and smart phones soon followed. The Internet pushed us further. Now Google and Wikipedia rule the land. Over the years, I had been joined in ALR by Kathleen Vanden Heuvel and Michael Levy. Michael was our online expert; Kathleen shared general duties with me. The class drew over one hundred students some semesters, and we offered it each semester. But the deeper that Google penetrated, and the more resources LEXIS and WESTLAW invested in training, the more dramatically things changed. Now the bulk of legal research training is done by the WESTLAW and LEXIS representatives who meet our first year students at the door. For the student the systems are free, the help is impressive. There are even games and prizes for research. Now that Bloomberg has purchased the Bureau of National Affairs, maybe we will soon see Bloomberg reps as well. Basic legal research training has been turned over to the private sector. And that training follows graduates into firms and government agencies that can afford to pay the bills.

With such a rich variety of tools available, the current law student in the United States has little need of old style research training. We used to catch them in ALR as second and third year law students. They had context from a year of law school and many had worked or interned in a law office or public interest office for a summer so they knew that they needed to know more. In 2011, the motivation is waning. The thrust of what Google does removes the searcher from the search process. WESTLAW/NEXT and LEXIS/Advanced mimic Google’s search scheme as much as possible. We are asking people who want to drive a car to understand how the engine works.

There is a scene in Cinnamon Skin, one of John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee novels, in which Travis, in 1982, stops and peers into a video arcade. It is filled with adolescents, engrossed in the games. He walks on. Further down the block is a Radio Shack. In it are three teenagers, forerunners of the geeks of today, puzzling over the innards of a computer. Travis thinks to himself, “The ratio is just about right.” Three understand what is going on, two hundred plug quarters into the machines. It is almost thirty years since McDonald wrote it, but I think it applies to legal research training in 2011in the United States. Everyone plugs into the search engine, only a few understand how it works.

Not that I shall give up. My plan is to go down fighting, but I think that I know how this movie ends.


  1. I think part of the difficulty with teaching Advanced Legal Research to today’s law students is their superficial facility with online search tools, such as Google. I know much as been written on this subject, but even though all the students own laptops and can find things on the internet, it does not mean that they even understand how to really use Google best, nor do they know which information sources to prefer over others. As legal research subscription services like Westlaw and Quicklaw become more like Google in terms of their user interfaces, students may think that their basic understanding of Google searching is sufficient to meet the legal research needs of their future employers.

    There is a disconnect between what students think they know about legal research and what they actually know. Moreover, if training is left to private vendors, no one is filling in the gaps to explain to students which of these subscription services is better at doing various tasks, or when to choose free over fee.

    As such, I think there is still much work to be done in the field of Advanced Legal Research in our law schools. The problem is overcoming the initial feeling amongst students that they already know what they’re doing.

    I agree that the legal research landscape has changed, but so long as Advanced Legal Research courses change with it, I think there is still a need for them in law schools today (and for continuing legal research training for articling students and lawyers, too).

  2. David Collier-Brown

    Tools make the labor-intensive part of a task easy, so tools like Lexis Nexis Quicklaw remove the drudgery. However, you still need to understand what you’re doing, and what the results mean.

    One good way to do that is by learning how to do the steps yourself, without the tool.

    That’s how I learned how Science Citation Indexes really worked, courtesy of a law-student friend who sat me down in the law library and showed me how the legal community solved a harder version of the very same problem.

    That was the same friend who taught me fortran and thus started my programming career, so I owe him more than a few thanks (;-))


  3. I think that it’s easy to point the finger at students as know-it-alls, but I believe the problem is more systemic.

    The students I have spoken to have told me that they know their research skills are not that good, they just can’t find time to improve those skills.

    If we want students to take Advanced Legal Research, we have to provide them with real opportunities to take the course.

    When they have so many other requirements for graduation and passing the Bar, even the strongest law students may not find time in their busy schedules to take ALR.

    If we want them to take it, we need to make it mandatory, to compete with all of the other mandatory law school offerings. Otherwise, they may choose to use their electives in years 2 and 3 to flesh out some skills that they know they also need, to do a law school clinic, to do moot court, or to do an internship for credit.

    As to legal research opportunities outside of a for credit course. I really think that they just do not have time. When you were in law school, if you had an extra 20 minutes, would you go to a legal research class, or would you spend 20 mins chatting with a friend, watching tv, or doing whatever else you did to relax.

  4. David Collier-Brown

    Seen elsewhere; “Why Kids can’t Search”, at

  5. I took Professor Berring’s class in 1989, I believe. He’s a fantastic teacher. The one thing that really stayed with me was his advice to call an expert on the subject. Twenty minutes on the phone with someone who’s spent years in the trenches can be more valuable than five hours of research on the computer. I imagine the Lexis people aren’t doling out this advice. The practice of calling on experts for help was especially useful at Boalt, where many students tended to have great book smarts and not so great people skills.

    I found that advice very helpful when I practiced law.

    I write novels and children’s books now, but still find the best way to research is to ask a human being. For instance, when I wrote a trilogy about a teenage rock band, I spent a little time on the Internet researching various instruments and recording studios, but more time chatting up my teenage neighbor who was in a rock band.