Summer Student Training: How Much Is Too Much?

The beginning of May marks the arrival of summer students in law firms. My firm, like many others, includes library training as part of the first week’s summer student orientation. Summering is often the first real exposure that law students have to legal research in a real world context, so it is important to ensure that the students have access to the information and the library tools they need to make the summer a success.

What do they already know?

Library training is a delicate balance between providing too much information and not enough. When designing training, we need to build on what summer students have been taught in university. Summer students come from different law schools, so there can be quite a lot of variation in what they already know. For example, a summer student from an Ontario law school is going to know more about Ontario legislation than one from an Alberta law school.

University law libraries generally have bigger and broader library collections than those of law firms, so law firms may not have the resources that summer students are used to. For example a firm may only have one of Quicklaw and WestlawNext, and that one may not be a student’s preferred option. Academic law librarians face the challenge of choosing which resources students should be trained on. One way of approaching this problem is for academic librarians to focus on legal research skills that are not specific to a given resource.

It is helpful for law firm librarians and academic law librarians to talk about student training, whether in a formal setting such as a conference or something more informal. This allows law firm librarians to make sure that what they cover in the law firms dovetails with what the students have already been taught. (That said, it never hurts to reiterate the basics. There has been more than one case of a summer student not knowing what “noting up” was.)

What do they need to know?

There are some obvious things to include in library orientation: basics like the library catalogue and in-house resources such as memos and precedents databases. We also include subjects that students are unlikely to have learned about at law school such as how much databases cost, how databases are billed to clients, and cost-effective searching.

We encourage our summer students to use resources that they have not used before or do not normally use. For example, most students have a preference for either Quicklaw or WestlawNext Canada, but their preferred resource may not be the best tool for the reference question that they have been asked.

What do they not need to know?

What we teach students depends a lot on the summer student experience is structured. If each student will be working for just one practice group, it makes sense to set up one-on-one subject training in addition to the general library orientation.

It is often better just to do a very general overview of library resources and services with the stipulation that once they have a specific research question, they should come to the library and we will go into the research process in much greater depth, walking them through the various resources available and discussing search strategies.

How best to teach it to them?

Depending on the firm, library orientation may be carried out by library staff, lawyers, or external trainers (or a combination). Summer students may also attend courses offered outside the firm. For example, the Edmonton Law Libraries Association offers a two-day program called Head Start that teaches legal research and writing.

At my firm, we use external trainers for Quicklaw and WestlawNext training and cover CanLII as part of the in house library orientation. I used to combine Quicklaw, Westlaw Canada and CanLII training into one session, with the goal of comparing and contrasting the three services. However, given the recent changes in the two paid databases, as well as the growing amount of the secondary materials on those products, the amount of material that needed to be covered became overwhelming for just one session.

Our library orientation session starts with an associate talking about legal research and writing memos, including some of the most common pitfalls. The advantage of having an associate there is that she emphasizes what they need to know (“Start with the secondary sources!”) but from a slightly different angle. We still give out print handouts (such as a model memo) in training since it gives the students something to refer to afterwards.

It can be helpful to schedule follow up training later in the summer, once the students have had a chance to get their feet wet. Training can be subject-specific (e.g. on labour and employment resources) or on research skills (e.g. legislative research).

At the end of the summer, a survey of the students allows me to figure out what was and what wasn’t useful. Information from the survey can be used to improve the next year’s training. Knowing what resources were and weren’t used and why (e.g. the resource wasn’t useful, weren’t aware of a resource) is also important.

I try to keep the first week’s training to a minimum as there is only so much information students can absorb. Legal research is easier to learn when applied to an actual question. Ultimately, the most important thing for students to take away from library training is that they see the library as an important resource and feel comfortable asking the library for help.

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