Google-Centric Habits and Gen Y

My first article asked, “Where have all the articling students gone?” One of the posted comments prompted this article. The comment was:

When Gen Ys do come to you for advice on how to start researching an issue, where do you get them to look first? Classic texts, online texts or search engines of the literature or cases?

It’s not the resource that determines the advice I provide, it’s the question itself. Most often my advice is straightforward: start broadly with secondary sources, use those to narrow your research, and then finish off updating with primary sources, i.e. case law and statutes. There are always exceptions that more experienced users will follow, but read any blog, book or brief on legal research and the song is the same: Why spend your time blindly looking for the leading case when an esteemed (and far more learned ) legal mind has already done it for you?

Our commentator went on in his post to plainly state one of our biggest challenges:

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

Little does he realize, his statement also provides the solution.

In that first blog, we looked at a number of the characteristics of the cohort called Gen Y or Millennials that differentiated them from their predecessors. Some of these attributes have made imparting our hard earned knowledge and experience a challenge for both sides. We have answers to questions they haven’t even asked yet, and then when the questions come up, they don’t bother to ask.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is the first generation that grew up with a fully formed and functional internet at their fingertips. The one thing they are used to finding is information. In life before law, general information, serendipitously found, was good enough. They were raised being told they were wonderful and everything they did, any effort they made, was excellent and sufficient unto the day. Why should graduating law school change anything? The Wikipedia / Google double shot had always worked before, why shouldn’t it work now? The Information Professional has come up against information pros.

I believe that the amount of productive, successful research time the Gen Ys spend with librarians is directly related to moderating their Google-centric habits. As things stand right now we have a few short hours to convince them that we have knowledge of methodologies, protocols and resources they couldn’t possibly find and learn in the time it takes us to teach them the same. We have to get them to trust that we can actually help them become more efficient and effective students / lawyers and in so doing, make their lives easier. We are the liaison between old timey research techniques and shiny new people who can type faster with two thumbs than we can with 10 fingers. We have to get them to buy into a new world of research methods and information analysis. Serendipity is not a plan. With tougher task masters good enough is not enough any longer.

In the past most law firms provided formal training in legal research to summer and articling students. They all got the same training. Some students would recognize the library staff as the allies they are: always there to answer questions, assist in information gathering, and or just to listen and help suss out garbled instructions. Students used the opportunity to build a relationship with the staff. The more they came to us, the better the work they produced, a difficult year was made that much less stressful.

But more frequently, and we’ve all seen them, there are those who grudgingly endure the training sessions, only to then disappear believing they can manage on their own. But all it takes is one question, one seemingly impossible legal problem to see them return, confused, frazzled, and somewhat sheepish when they realize their way isn’t efficient or effective or acceptable to their superiors. These Gen Ys making their way into our libraries are different in that they are more like Adult Learners than ever before. These young adults have spent their whole lives in learning situations, and they need to be treated as the professional students they are. Adult learners need to sold on the “why” more than the “how”. So, the question is, how do we ensure we develop a productive relationship.

Studies indicate that learner-centered instruction is the best approach when working with adults. They learn tools and resources better through training that is problem or task based. For example, instead of baldly informing them of the existence of such resources as personal injury quantum digests, when to use it, how to find the call number and whether or not you have it available electronically, rather present an interesting slip and fall issue, and then task them with finding answers using Google, other internet resources and what’s available in the library. Then of course, the proof in the pudding, comparing results afterwards to see what worked best!!!

While I would suggest reading the article “Guidelines for working with adult learners,” here are some helpful hints to keep in mind when designing lessons or training:

  • Capitalize on the first session
  • Incorporate group work
  • Break the traditional classroom routine
  • Use humour
  • Support opportunities for individual problem solving

Great – we have spent some time with Gen Ys and convinced them to come into the library/information centre. If they are like more than 60% of recent undergrad, they have managed to get a degree without setting foot in a library. Your work is not yet done. We have convinced them they need to use a book (e-resource, database), but where to start, which book is the best one? Consider the following:

  • Books with “Recommended” stickers on the spine and / or in the library catalogue, so when they are looking they can be assured they will find the best books easily
  • Perhaps a resource list / pathfinder on the core essentials in the general areas of law
  • Remember that everything you have, print and electronic, has to be easily accessible from one place, ie, a catalogue record to an e-resource with the sign-on protocol included. Make your catalogue a true Discovery Tool.
  • If your firm has a portal with a search engine, are the library results coming up in a general search?

John Papadopoulos, in his SLAW post Born Digital Students and Research identified a recent study that showed even though Millennials may have grown up with computer and internet access, their use of it is not as sophisticated as we might assume and they believe. It’s an unfortunate confluence between universal access to mediocre information sources and a softening of our expectations when it comes to education and results. While it’s important to try to think like Gen Y articling students/lawyers, and understand where they are coming from, their world is changing, from student to future lawyer. Google does have a place; we just need to help them understand what it is, and while we shouldn’t dismiss free online tools that are available, in the interest of efficient, accurate research, our best efforts would be to prove to students they are better served using established methods and resources.

A big thanks to my co-author Linda Zardo, Reference Librarian and Articling Student Go-To person here at the Toronto Lawyers Association.


  1. Even Gen Y articling students were once law school students. I suspect that at least 99.4% of them were law students within one or two years of the time they start articling. If the question relates to a question of law that refers to anything but the most esoteric aspect of Canadian law, there it’s probably the case that it’s more than 99.4% certain that a leading Canadian text was mentioned in the relevant law school course at least once during a lecture, or in the assigned reading materials.

    If they need to be told to start with a book, table of contents, and index – assuming of course they’ve been given the key terms by the person posing the question – then there’s a problem.

    I am aware that, in some cases, the allegedly leading texts have not been formally updated for more than 30 years (g), but that’s the exception rather than the rule.


  2. David Collier-Brown

    If law librarians are having to re-engage the articling students with the best materials, then the Gen-Y students are probably falling back from what they learned to what they’re used to.

    Whenever I try to break a habit, I keep having to be reinforced (;-))


  3. In my experience the act of research is the cause of the learning problem rather than the result of good learning.

    New searchers may actually be very good at research and be quite justified for going their own way. Indeed they may be so good that they are not seen again and those that return may be incorrectly labelled as ‘seeing the light’, though this conclusion may diguise the simple fact that their return has nothing to do with their search ability, but rather that their perception of the search outcome was flawed.

    Search Outcomes vs Techniques
    The best researchers will fail if the outcome of their clients is not met with the results that they offer and when it comes to failure it is often the clients that cause searchers to fail.

    3 Main Causes of Search Failure
    1. Clients more often than not believe they know the answer and direct search explicitly.
    2. Clients confuse their definition of their ‘problem’ with the answer they require — see 1. above.
    3. Clients forget their desired outcome or perhaps don’t or won’t tell researchers and so focus on their perception of answer or problem and articulate research requirments accordingly.

    I believe young researchers are much smarter and facile with the tools available to them generally accepted and suggest we look in the mirror when we look for problems in search or research.

    Nick Trendov @ManyCUES