When we train legal researchers, we are addressing an information literacy need. Because of the way legal research training tends to be provided, we end up repeating this literacy approach. But if, as I’ve blogged about before, the issue isn’t literacy but experience, then we’re not really getting those we train to where they need to be. I’m still stuck, though, on how to extend that legal research arc.

I am not underestimating the challenge of doing this. I’ve taught 1L legal research and I realize that much better teachers spend much more time than I did, and I felt like I spent a lot of time. You’ve got to introduce the researcher to the tools, to the content, sometimes to how government is organized. There are examples and exercises to create and manage.

Once the legal research course is completed, it may be difficult to get access to the students. The curriculum may not use integrated legal research support or embed librarians in advanced subject areas. Outside of academia, the amount of time librarians can have the undivided attention of researchers may be a lunch hour or a couple of days.

But if we are repeating this process – reintroducing tools, reminding about content – I wonder if we’re really moving researchers along the experiential path.

I suppose one take is they’ll get it on their own … or they won’t. One phrase that irritates me is that we can’t “spoonfeed” them. But I can’t help but feel that, if our role is to turn out lawyers that can research, that it requires us to help provide experience.

This is the mental picture I have of the current environment. Almost universally, there is a 1L legal research class. A school may offer an upper year elective that is advanced legal research. Law students who work in practice areas that have law librarians may receive a refresher at the start of summer.

A chart showing the educational progression of a lawyer and when they might run into legal research experiences. The green arc suggests the goal, which is to provide access to experience throughout rather than literacy opportunities at key points.

In countries like Canada, where there is an apprenticeship period (articling or the law practice program in Ontario), this may iterate again at the start of this period. And finally, when a lawyer reaches practice, there practice environment may offer a repeat.

Each of these experiences is valuable on its own. Each one will be customized to the needs of the environment the lawyer finds herself in. But if they were meeting the experiential needs, I don’t think we’d have the ongoing discussion about whether new lawyers know how to do legal research.

Again, this is an oversimplification, but the end goal is something akin to the difference between a story time and a summer reading competition. In a story time, you have a discrete event in which the listener learns the mechanics of how a tool is used and receives content. It’s a great way to introduce books.

A summer reading program, though, shifts the work to the reader. It provides a path to a goal, one that is measured but without any particular pressure. The reader can choose the context (so it’s not practice area dependent) and each book read builds experience as a reader. This process can be repeated each summer and each summer’s experience stacks.

How do we create an environment where the law student, having completed the literacy component of legal research, can then revisit that toolset and learning to build experience all the way into the start of their law practice?

I focused on the “who cares” approach on law library value recently and I have considered that here as well. If a lawyer isn’t likely to be dinged for malpractice because of an inability to do research, or is involved in legal work that requires little legal research, who cares if they have any experience? Are we dealing with a relatively small number of lawyers who litigate who need to be able to do research to meet their court obligations?

Extending the arc of legal research learning can’t be for the sake of it. But I also wonder whether turning out lawyers who are better legal researchers will eliminate some of the anxiety about whether they’re getting the law “right”. Is a more experienced legal researcher potentially a more confident or happier lawyer?

I’m starting to think the next step is to figure out how to survey new lawyers and assess what would incentivize their participation in an extracurricular legal research experiential phase. There are so many successful gamified systems that there must be one that would suit legal research.

It also seems pretty clear that a single organization wouldn’t be able to pull this off on their own. But I’m on the fence. If the summer reading model merely measures the number of books and not the success of understanding or even complexity, could you build a legal research experiential system that just looked at how many exercises were completed? Does it matter if they’re done well, so long as the researcher can confirm success or failure against an answer sheet?

At first I thought you might need a librarian involved because I think the law student needs to have some sense of whether practice makes proficient. But I could also see where a student, unguided, works through a battery of examples and can see by their own efforts that they’re getting more fluid with the tools and context. Perhaps our role is to cheer that on and coach, rather than to evaluate and prod.

As a courthouse librarian, it would be interesting to find a way to develop that arc for people who will not have accessed law school. If there is a legal research training component for the public, how to extend that arc out so that, for the time their matter is making its way through the courts, they are gaining their own expertise.

Obviously, this is all still a mystery to me. But I think it would be an interesting nut to crack, to have some ability to dampen the concern that new lawyers don’t know how to research.