Where Have All the Articling Students Gone?

This is my first column for Slaw, and may I say, it is an honour to be asked to contribute. Of all the reading material that crosses my desk and my computer, Slaw is one of the few for which I have always made time, even if it’s just to scan titles. The combination of blogs and columns always seems to bring me information, just when I need it, or even better, before I know I need it.

By way of introduction, for many years I worked as a Law Librarian in Bay Street law firms. I even spent a few years as the Library Manager at a very prestigious private school just outside Toronto. In the summer of 2010, I became the Library Manager/Executive Director of the Toronto Lawyers Association and that meant that, among many other duties, I was now responsible for the Court House Library at 361 University Ave; a few blocks from Bay St, but, in fact, a world away.

Imagine my chagrin, this beautiful library with access to QL, Criminal Spectrum, and an excellent current and historical collection, to find it so little used by younger lawyers. Nothing new you say, but if you think it’s difficult to get students to come to your library when it’s a couple floors away, try when you’re five blocks from their office. We are all encountering the same challenge; the generation known as the “Gen Ys” (Millennials, Generation Next, Echo Boomers -generally people born anywhere from 1977 to 1995) are not to be found in the library in the same numbers as their older counterparts, even though their need for information hasn’t changed, if anything, it’s become even more complicated.

In large law firms that have one, lawyers and students still use the library; with a good collection and capable staff, word spreads. Research procedures get taught, even if it’s only by virtue of standing next to a librarian, and observing. Experienced lawyers will tell an Articling Student, ‘Go the library and see so and so; they’ll help you.’ And sometimes when a student is absolutely stumped – endless hours on QL or Westlaw have not retrieved the desired results, as a last resort, they will go to the library.

But not everyone practices on Bay Street (my Toronto point of reference, feel free to fill in your own local reference). There are many small firms out there who do not have the luxury of a library or trained library staff. How do their Articling Students find information? They don’t have the time come to my library when an answer is needed immediately, so they resort to the Internet – they simply can’t help it. As a librarian I worry about their approach, the quality of their research and the fact that important decisions may be based on inadequately researched issues.
There are two or more generations involved in this problematic scenario: First the Gen Y’s; they may not fully appreciate what a library can do for them; and the Baby Boomers, who have forgotten what they knew about legal research best practices and to some extent have been lulled into believing everything is free on the Internet. Too much to tackle for one column, so let’s concentrate on the Gen Y`s.

Richard Sweeney, University Librarian at New Jersey Institute of Technology, said the following about Gen Y’s: “they have such vastly different needs and expectations . . . that libraries are being forced to rethink and redesign library services, technologies, and buildings.” He goes on to warn, “In the future, all organizations will have to meet these demands in order to sustain their own existence.” Some may say his warnings are overly dire, but whatever you believe, we need to learn more about this generation that is entering the work force and seemingly changing the world to suit them.

Some Characteristics of Gen Y`s:

  • High self-esteem: They grew up in a world where everyone was cherished or special. Every day Mr. Rogers told them just how special they were
  • Risk adverse: looking for security, benefits, comfort and not confrontation
  • Positive, optimistic: In their lives the economy grew, technology became cheaper and generally things were on the up and up — often called the can do generation
  • Peer and peer group oriented: They rank peers as their number one source of information and want to have what each other has; they are often seen to move in a herd.
  • Want to make a difference: They are issue oriented and will buy for a cause.
  • Love technology: Not all are tech-savvy but they are the first generation who has had technology throughout their whole lives. It is part of their identity. They are impatient in any setting that is not technologically up to date.
  • Appreciate diversity
  • Multi-taskers: They have short attention spans and are accustomed to instant gratification.
  • Teachable, open to training. Educated, they are the most educated generation or on their way to becoming so and the first generation in which a majority will have some form of education beyond high school.
  • Value collaboration
  • Adult-olescent: Delaying marriage and childbearing until later than any previous generations. Many live with parents and value their parents and think of them as friends.
  • Value their individuality: Feel strongly that they are unique individuals and as such value their identity.

Some thoughts on how to work with them:

Communication style

Be concise. They are impatient. They have lots on the go with multiple text conversations, Facebook to update and real work to do. They like short – if we use email, it should be short, although email is their least preferred method of electronic communication. If you want to be sure to reach them, send a text.

Positive feedback is expected; they are the generation that grew up with the last place team on the soccer pitch getting a participation trophy. They continue to expect that and if you will not do that, let them know. They don`t know that your generation does it differently, nor does it occur to them to find that out.

In libraries, we can be a trusted guide during their early years of legal practice. Articling and the subsequent first few years of practice can be stressful; however, with a librarian’s assistance those important years can be made more successful. While at the law firm I made sure to study the pictures that accompanied bios of new students that were sent around before we had library training. They were really impressed when I could call the new students by their first names in those first few weeks. Remember, while they travel in a pack, they also consider themselves unique.


Whether it be library research, docketing procedures or using internal firm systems, remember to set them up for success. Break processes into small manageable tasks that build on the success of the previous task. That also agrees with short attention spans. Any handouts, pathfinders, or guides should be easy to use.

“Free” appeals to them. Why not ask a vendor or supplier if they have any swag they can provide for your training session? When I did training I liked to reward the first person who answered a question, or if an answer was really “awesome”, an unexpected prize was always greeted with pleasure.

Use technology

If the IT/IS department in your firm or organisation can use remote technology to troubleshoot or teach, why can’t you do that when someone calls with a question? I can’t tell you how to use the various technologies available to you, just keep in mind that if you are not using them, you are not going to be noticed or taken seriously. Did you know that 2/3 of Gen Y’s spend more time on WiFi than watching TV? And when they are out and about if they can’t find WiFi for free, they will go elsewhere.

Here’s a sampling of technologies that you may want to consider:

social media (LinkedIn, facebook, Twitter, Foursquare); social bookmarking; mobile apps; QR codes (barcodes on steroids, see what Sarah Glassmeyer says about those); converting a PowerPoint to flash and then putting it on YouTube using ISpringFree; a YouTube channel for your organisation; using screencasting to create a video to use for tutorials; using for screen sharing and online meetings; wikis; tablets; iPads; eBooks; photocopiers that can scan and send to email; digital picture frames that can run PowerPoint presentations; Mail Chimp or Constant Contact if you do have to send communication via email.

I am just in the beginning stages of trying to build connections with Gen Y’s. With the information and insight into their habits, characteristics and preferences I hope to forge long lasting relationships with a whole new group of library users. I hope that I have provided you with a few ideas on how to work on those relationships too. I would love to hear about your success stories.


  1. Great to see you here Joan!

    Your column has inspired me to start using more remote desktop sharing as a research or training service tool.

    I look forward to reading your column regularly.
    Cheers, Shaunna

  2. David Collier-Brown

    When Gen Y’s do come to you, as an example for advice on how to start researching an issue, where do you get them to look first? Classic texts, on-line texts or search engines of the literature or cases?

    I’m curious about how much Google-centric habits can be moderated or harnessed to direct them to the best sources.

    –dave (a philosopher, not a lawyer) c-b

  3. Great column, Joan. I look forward to reading more from you here.

    – Kim

  4. Hello: This is a great column. As a Gen Yer myself I can confirm that a lot of what you say about members of my generation is true for me. I am currently working in a very small office and the fax machine broke. It was broken for 2 business days before being fixed on the third. Can you believe it? Also, there was no ability to scan to email and the copier is this huge chunky thing that makes no sense. The baby boomer boss is simply too cheap to replace a machine that was built back when the dot matrix printers were still around. It’s totally baffling. And, what’s weirder, is that the company is still able to service this ancient machine! I mean, a new machine would cost around $1,000, and would be a perfectly reasonable purchase according to any measure. But, all the players are participating in the insanity of keeping this old machine going, the baby boomer owner, and the manufacturers too. Just buy a new machine! Anyway, I don’t need ribbons or lots of affirmations, and I don’t like swag because i think it’s usually junk that’s bad for the earth and ends up in a landfill, but it’s probably true that i’m better at managing multiple tasks than focusing on a single one for hours, and I can’t believe that people pay money for cable TV when there’s WiFi. With WiFi I pay less than 10$ a month for plenty of shows, and there are no commercials. Sometimes, nay often, the decisions of our baby boomer elders are truly baffling. Like the Kyoto protocol, like keeping around a monolithic old copier/fax machine, like the tough on crime agenda, for profit education, and non use of perfectly good technologies that makes life, and legal practice, easier and better. Great column.