Law Librarians and the Technology-Ready Law Student

Christine M. Stouffer, Director of Library Services at Thompson Hine LLP in Cleveland, has a nice article in the February issue of the AALL Spectrum. It’s called, “Closing the Gap: Teaching ‘Practice-Ready’ Legal Skills,” and talks about the “widening gap between legal education and real-world legal practice skills” and the role that law librarians can play in narrowing that perceived gap.

Stouffer touches on the January 2014 report from the American Bar Association Task Force on the Future of Legal Education. She provides a good review of this report and I would recommend reading this article for that alone. But, and I bet you won’t be surprised by this, I really wanted to focus in on a specific section titled, “Technology: Skills-Based Course Offerings.”

She starts off by noting that,

“… some proactive academic librarians are already involved in improving law student technology skills for entry into the practice of law. This is a trend that has momentum, especially in law schools where a ‘skills’ course is a requirement for graduation, such as UC Irvine and Valparaiso University School of Law. If a law school curriculum already has such a requirement, this is a ripe opportunity for academic law librarians to seize. It may still require some pitching to the curriculum committee, but several law school librarians have had success by stressing the abundance of evidence in surveys, workplaces, and now the ABA in supporting the need to prepare law graduates on a practical and technological level. These effective academics have demonstrated to their curriculum committees that the law librarians are well-suited to teach these skills to law students.”

She continues by identifying some of the many and “rapidly changing technology products and services that now dominate the practice of law” including things like e-filing and e-discovery requirements, “practise solutions” such as case-management tools aimed at enabling collaboration between in-office lawyers and their colleagues working around the globe, software to prepare contracts, patent litigation and other commercial “template products.” “The proliferation of these technologies is staggering in actual legal practice,” Stouffer reports, “which compels the need for exposure during law school.”

She concludes the section by suggesting that many “substantive and skills-based topics lend themselves to carefully structured MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses].” This is a great idea and would also foster collaborative opportunities for law librarians as well as creating learning resources that can benefit law students everywhere.

Almost exactly a year ago Jeff Schmitt wrote an excellent piece on the many “top schools (and the best-and-brightest faculty)” that have begun to develop law school courses for MOOCs. “The MOOC Revolution: Law Schools” includes detailed descriptions of a number of law related MOOCs along with a nice list of additional MOOCs that are available. He gives you a good idea of what’s out there and how MOOCs work.

Schmitt expresses a few concerns though and does a nice job of comparing what’s currently available via a MOOC and what you’d get in the law school experience. Bottom line? He doesn’t think MOOCs are positioned to “replace law school,” at least not at this point in time. But MOOCs do have some advantages like offering supplementary material that can help students get some exposure to certain legal topics or help fill in any knowledge gaps they might have. MOOCs can also provide opportunities for law schools to promote their “educational brand.” And as he notes in his introduction, one of the really nice things about MOOCs is most of them are free!

Returning to Stouffer’s article I’ll end with her excellent recommendations:

  1. Law firm librarians should collaborate with local (or virtual) academic librarians to form cooperative alliances;
  2. Academic librarians should work with faculty and administrators in their own institutions to integrate real-life research, resources and projects during the entire academic year;
  3. Law school administrators should be encouraged to realize the importance of law library professional in furthering the goal of infusing practice-ready skills throughout the law school experience.

It’s a great article, but is Stouffer right? Is there a “skills gap” impacting law student success when they enter legal practice? If so, can law schools narrow this gap by tapping the skills of their law librarians?

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