Program Review - G2: Meeting the Needs of Students and Their Future Employers: Discussions on Legal Research Instruction and Student Services Inspired by Practitioner Feedback

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Presenters:  Maureen Cahill, Co-moderator & Speaker, Student Services Librarian, University of Georgia; Patricia Dickerson, Co-moderator, Student Services and Reference Librarian, North Carolina Central University School of Law Library; Shawn G. Nevers, Speaker, Head of Reference Services, Brigham Young University; Erin Schlicht, Coordinator & Co-moderator, Access Services Librarian, University of Minnesota Law Library

At the 2013 Annual Meeting this week, I attended several programs and roundtables centered on improving legal research instruction and meeting the needs of students. This program, however, differed from the other programs in that it was based on empirical evidence, rather than purely anecdotal information, of how practicing lawyers conduct legal research and practitioners’ opinions of new associates’ research skills. From that evidence, program attendees brainstormed specific solutions to meet the gaps in students’ and new associates’ legal research skills. I found that this program zeroed in on things we librarians can do to make our instruction and services more relevant to the practice of law.

In 2011, the Academic Law Libraries Special Interest Section appointed a Task Force on Identifying Skills and Knowledge for Legal Practice. This Task Force was charged with identifying the current and future research skills that law school graduates need to succeed in legal practice. To accomplish this charge, the Task Force developed and distributed two surveys, one for practicing attorneys and one for law firm librarians.  Both surveys were designed to determine how current practitioners conduct research and the adequacy of the legal research skills of new associates. While the law librarian survey is still being reviewed, the results of the practitioner survey have been reported and were the basis for Program G2 at AALL 2013. 

To begin the program, Shawn Nevers reviewed the data collected from the practitioner survey and shared questions he believed arose from the results. Maureen Cahill then addressed the question of how a “Student Services” librarian could use this information to change both teaching and activities outside the classroom. She emphasized that we must listen to students, faculty and administrators to learn what students will be doing in the future and to anticipate student needs. We then must take this information back to the law library and involve all library staff in adapting law library collections and services to those needs. 

Some highlights from the roundtable brainstorming sessions include:

1. The survey data indicated that younger attorneys start their research with Google. Mr. Nevers asked whether we were teaching the strengths and weaknesses of Google.  Suggested solution: Use the infographic “Get More Out of Google” from HackCollege.com.

2. The survey data showed that attorneys use indexes and tables of content frequently and continue to use terms and connectors searches. Mr. Nevers asked how we would show these survey results to students to emphasize the importance of legal research tools. Suggested solutions: a) Prepare videos of summer associates/interns speaking on the importance of legal research, or b) Insert into class power points quotes from recent grads on “what I wish I had learned in legal research class.” 

3. Ms. Cahill exhorted us to go where the students are, talk with them, and listen to them. How do we get students to talk to us about what they need? Suggested solutions: establish relationships of trust, show your enthusiasm for legal research, and demonstrate your understanding of the practice of law by providing real life examples of research problems.

4. One discussion question focused on the assessment of students’ legal research skills. Suggested solution: Conduct a practical skills test at the end of each semester. Each student has 45 minutes to demonstrate competency in using both a digest and the “one good case” method to find case law. Each student also must demonstrate competency in using a citator. This type of test also may present “teachable” moments that stick with the students.  

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