Private Law Librarianship
20 Proficiency in Practice: Providing Essential Research Skills for New Associates
Jaime Klausner and Avery Le
In addition to mastering the substantive body of law in their practice area, the new associate (NA) must also gain their footing in the actual practice of law, an often daunting amount of information and novel skill-sets to absorb. NA in this context is an attorney within the first five years of either public or private practice. The legal librarian (LL) is most often the NA’s initial guide into practice, especially the large law firm LL because of the intensity and demanding need for research. In relation to the NA, the LL role frequently exceeds simply providing research guidance; the onus on training the NA in developing skills-based knowledge is often the responsibility of the LL by default. In law firms that have a legal research department, the LL is most fitting to assume this role.
- Debunk and balance employer expectations with the new associate’s experience and realities of practice
- Acknowledge the importance of incorporating a multitude of resources and necessary research skills into new hire orientation and training
- Identify multi-faceted relationships with other departments, associations, and vendors for collaboration opportunities to prepare NAs to practice
Working with New Associates
Expectations vs. Reality
The NA feels pressure to master, or at a minimum become familiar, with the prolific anthology of substantive knowledge in their practice area as well as how to access such data. Unfortunately, law students are frequently only exposed to the “Big Three” legal information vendors– Bloomberg Law, LexisNexis, and Westlaw; in our experience, the post-graduate NA is often surprised at the amount of resources at their disposal when they begin practice. A significant part of NA orientation is providing awareness of the breadth of available subscription research resources. Further, the LL often highlights the seminal secondary sources in the NA’s practice area, especially for those who have graduated with a general, non-practice area-specific education.
Further, the perception of practicing law which is cultivated in law school is often incongruous with reality. Speaking from personal experience, co-author Jaime Klausner had an entire semester in law school to draft a brief in her legal writing class. It is not uncommon for the governmental or law firm NA to be given just days, if not hours, to craft same. During law school, there are few time limitations on assignments, nor financial constraints in researching. Yet the NA’s employer expects the NA will already have knowledge as to when the logical conclusion of their research has been reached as well as the skill-set to draft a concise document within short time parameters- competencies not typically taught in law school. Therefore, the LL with a juris doctor degree may be at an advantage in working with and assessing the post-graduate NA’s practice area knowledge and research aptitude.
These are not the only examples of how employer expectations differ from the reality of the NA’s practice area knowledge and research skills. Thus, is it the LL’s responsibility to teach when there is a failure to understand the structure of the law (e.g. the difference between a statute and a regulation)? Is it the LL’s duty to simply expose the NA to the multitude of research platforms at their disposal, or do we also provide the organizational skills to manage this “explosion” of information? Further, the recent post-graduate NA who did not complete an advanced research skills course is not going to be fluent in subject-specific research skills.
The burden typically falls on the LL to create “practice-ready” attorneys almost immediately upon new hire orientation while simultaneously fielding inquiries from the NA reliant upon the LL to fill in the knowledge gaps. Therefore, for the NA’s successful transition into practice, it is incumbent upon LLs to fully understand the NA’s current research proficiencies and depth of subject-matter knowledge, particularly for the post-graduate NA. And since legal resources and materials vary amongst organizations, as do the processes and procedures of each library department, to assume a transferring NA with some practice experience has significant research aptitude would be folly.
Emerging Changes in the Workplace
The Covid-19 virus has significantly reshaped the structure of the workplace so even the NA who has been in practice for a few years, training on how to access office-IP-authenticated resources when working remotely is now a necessity. For the LL, working virtually requires additional training for the NA on how to maneuver through resources when not in the physical office space. Prior to the global pandemic, the trend away from print towards online resources was in place and only recently accelerated as social distancing and remote work become normalized. Given that legal information resources are oftentimes now only available online and once-visible print collections are now “invisible,” new hire training to introduce the vast amount of available resources is imperative.
In order to smoothly integrate the NA and provide a thorough introduction to the multitude of legal resources, the LL must consider not only the NA’s physical location and print accessibility but also their organization’s business structure and office economics, such as budgeting and time limitations. Unlike government and academic organizations, the LL in the private sector, even in a large-law setting, is going to have the additional challenge in teaching the NA that the Big Three vendors may not include “universal” content which was previously accessible in law school.
Prepare to Practice
The Big Three vendors are familiar with both the needs and challenges within law firms and academic and government institutions, but their priority is sales and marketing. Collaboration with vendors can be beneficial to impart advanced and specialized training if conducted in conjunction with the LL. Vendor-led trainings can alleviate the time burden on the LL, particularly for the private-sector LL who must also factor in client-facing work such as pitch writing and client development. If the LL provides a roadmap of the necessary points for the vendor, the vendor can focus on what the organization deems essential, and thus, the “sales pitch” performance is minimized. For example, when co-author Avery Le taught at University of Florida Levin College of Law, the LLs collaborated with a Bloomberg Law representative to teach the final class of the required legal research course. The students were given pre-assigned readings and slides on the importance of dockets- what they are, how attorneys use them, how to access on various databases- and the students were prepared for the training. Avery provided an outline to the vendor directing the focus on specific docket functions and features, along with a representative example, which complimented the course syllabus. This pre-planning allowed adequate time for questions during the actual training, and the training was just that, and not a sales pitch.
It is important to note that legal research is not a course offered in all law schools; if such a course is offered, it may be elective rather than a mandatory, credited course. The post-graduate NA, therefore, may begin their employment with just rudimentary concepts of legal research. Even if the NA has advanced research skills, most NAs are now proficient with the global search engine. And the rise of research databases backed by artificial intelligence may also encourage the NA to place blind trust in the effectiveness of these emerging technologies and have the effect of decreasing the quantity and quality of searching. It is not inconceivable that Boolean research skills will erode and may ultimately become obsolete as AI-backed technologies, which promote natural-language search queries, proliferate and become the norm.
Additionally, unvetted non-subscription resources are also potentially problematic. There is a gap between understanding which open web resources are credible and those which are unverified and/or considered politically motivated, false news, or uninformed opinion pieces. NAs, particularly those who were born in the digital age, expect thousands of results at their fingertips in mere moments. Thus, a false sense of confidence arises when navigating simple open-web search engines, social media platforms, and popular online news outlets. This can be a double-edged sword when it comes to researching complex legal inquiries that are difficult to simplify. Direct and specific terms of art, and the use of Boolean searches, are often needed to formulate a well-rounded search. We have found that NAs (and in particular, summer associates afraid of incurring large costs) will begin their research on the open web to uncover seminal cases and key concepts. In our experience, it is uncommon for a summer associate to begin research on a verified government website- they almost always choose Google if the Big Three vendors are cost-prohibitive. However, if the data gleaned from unvetted, open web sources is solely relied upon and not later verified on legal research platforms, the NA is performing incomplete research and possibly paving the way for malpractice if the information is false or outdated. The formulation of quality search strings and selecting vetted resources are skills that can only be taught and then developed through practice and experience, and the LL is a large component of that teaching and experience equation for the NA.
The LL is essential to exposing the NA not only to vetted legal resources but also specifically to specialty practice-area resources. Further, with little or no practice experience, the NA (particularly the post-graduate NA) may be unaware of the emergence of new technologies impacting the legal industry such as blockchain, smart contracts, and artificial intelligence. One such technology, legal analytic data, is greatly influencing client communications and litigation strategies. Is it incumbent upon the LL to familiarize the NA with both the existence of this data and teach how to access and utilize it?
Keeping pace with new and emerging technologies is just one of the many challenges both the LL and NA face. For the latter, though, some of these challenges can be lessened, if not eliminated entirely, if addressed before they enter the workforce during law school.
CONCEPT IN ACTION: UPDATES AS A LIBRARY SERVICE
NA Jacqueline often asks for assistance in finding proposed state legislation, as well as tracking the bill. As the firm’s Research Team, we are happy to assist with creating Jacqueline’s legislation alert as there are a number of no-cost e-mail trackers available through state government websites that can be utilized as an alternative to subscription-based services like Westlaw Capitol Watch and Bloomberg Alerts. Initially, Jacqueline tracked bill changes through Google- she felt she could bypass the wait for us to assist and get instant results. After she missed a bill update, she met with us and came to recognize that some of her open-web sources were not current nor did they accurately track bill changes. Our short tutorial with NA Jacqueline left her well-versed in identifying which legislative government websites provide the text to the proposed legislation, and how to utilize options to create a reliable tracking alert, and we both opened new levels of communication going forward between the Research team and new associates like Jacqueline.
Law schools can mandate a legal research course and also request syllabus feedback from local firm and government LLs. This insight would provide instructors with employer-identified research knowledge gaps and emerging legal research trends (e.g. legal analytic skills). For example, the Atlanta Law Libraries Association, a local chapter of the wider-known American Association of Law Libraries, holds monthly meetings wherein it was recently brought to light that law students are not provided instruction on company research, public records searches, SEC filings and government publications such as press releases and proposed rules and regulations. When the firm LLs inquired as to whether students had access to such databases, it was mentioned that vendors have low interest in marketing to law schools because of the lack of subscriptions outside of large law. This dialogue between local academic, firm, and government LLs helped invite an exchange of ideas on how to better transition the law student’s legal research skills (and corollary knowledge gaps) into practice-ready skills upon graduation.
This leads to another suggestion: law schools provide “prepare to practice” sessions to promote research skills training and a greater understanding of the realities of practicing law. As previously mentioned, academic LLs have a significant opportunity to influence vendor/departmental relationships and use those connections to enhance student research skills. Academic LLs can also collaborate with local firm and government LLs in order to better train NAs on the realities of practice, such as bill-back procedures and developing the skills to identify when a legal issue has been thoroughly researched. Such collaboration would help meet the NA’s employer expectations and give the NA confidence as they embark in their career.
For the academic LL, while constructing lesson plans, our suggestion is to illustrate the importance of cost-effective research and the impact of billable research on the relationship with a client.
CONCEPT IN ACTION: TIMING RESEARCH WORK
In co-author Avery Le’s required Introduction to Legal Research course for first-year LLs, she included several exercises wherein her students had to track the length of time it took to conduct research on Westlaw or Lexis from beginning to end, in six-minute increments similar to bill-back procedures in law firm settings. It served three purposes – 1) to begin adapting to a time-tracking approach for client-related tasks, of which students often lack experience; 2) to grasp the expense of the “per-click” model on Westlaw and Lexis and be cognizant of cost-efficient research methods; and 3) for the students to appreciate the value of their research expertise when bill-back client costs are tabulated. Her students learned a valuable lesson in time and cost consideration when beginning their research, as well as determining when to *stop* their research so that the billing rate is not extraneous to their clients, rather than relying on the free version of Westlaw and Lexis, which was no longer available once they graduated.
At present, law school students are given unlimited, unbilled access to all databases within the Big Three research platforms and are urged to explore. Students are even rewarded points for “tasks” completed on each database that can be exchanged for gift cards, textbooks, electronics, and other prizes. While the point-reward system encourages the student to get acquainted with research skills, this “free-for-all” perception is ultimately harmful- the student has little realization that each of these tasks in reality have a large monetary cost that will ultimately be billed back to clients. One recommendation: the Big Three legal vendors add an optional time-tracker tool into their platforms to demonstrate to the law student how much their research would have cost in retail prices in a billable setting. Such an option, available in “real-time,” will train students how to be both time- and cost-effective. This would help students transition from law school to law firm effortlessly, as billing for time is one of the essential practice-ready building blocks and would make legal research course exercises like the one mentioned above easier to manage and absorb.
Government employers and law firms can assist the NA by providing support for training outside of the initial new hire orientation. Sometimes it is mere perception, but oftentimes reality, that there is a lack of time for elective training. Perhaps the employer can promote more legal-research-based or subject-specific CLE training despite 1-2 year post-graduate NAs not having a CLE requirement to fulfill. Law firms may also want to provide a client-matter number for training to allow the LL sufficient time to provide a thorough review of the multitude of database options and research complexities.
It is not inconceivable that as we continue to work remotely, the current push for more interconnectivity and interaction via video-conferencing will provide additional opportunities for specialized legal research training, such as certification training courses. How the COVID-19 pandemic will permanently alter law librarianship is still to be determined. There are easy steps the LL can take to create a warm and supportive environment during the NA’s remote new hire orientation. Some examples include: offering to add the NA to the same newsletter and other routed materials as their mentor, alert creation for tracking client and industry news, and providing helpful tips about research or the culture of the organization (i.e. this is where to locate a helpful list of client-matter numbers or your spam/quarantined e-mail; attach a copy of your research history to time-intensive projects to demonstrate the breadth and depth of your research skills; there is a widget shortcut to retrieve non-billable judicial background reports to consider attaching to your written document and make yourself stand out as going the “extra mile” to your supervising attorney). The NA has quite the trek over a daunting mountain of new skills and information and will surely be grateful to the trusted LL guide at their side, helping shoulder their burden and guiding the way over to the other side.
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