Program Review – A7: It’s All About the Money: Rethinking the Way We Teach Cost-Effective Legal Research

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Presenters: Kathleen Darvil, Coordinator, Brooklyn Law School Library; Sara Kasai Gras, Mediator, Brooklyn Law School Library;  Caren Biberman, Speaker, Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP; Mark A. Gediman, Speaker,  Best Best & Kriger LLP; Connie Smith, Speaker, Morgan Lewis & Bockius; Cheryl Lynn Niemeier, Speaker, Bose, McKinney & Evans LLP.

Moderator Sara Gras began this session with the results of an informal survey of ALL-SIS members on teaching cost effective research.  While most respondents (95%) incorporate cost-effective research into their classes, well under half (only 37%) addressed the focus of the session, recovery of research costs. 

In light of this lapse, the session aimed to highlight the law firm library’s role in cost-recovery, place cost-effective research in the context of cost-recovery and present methods to train cost-effective researchers.  To that end, four law firm librarians were invited to explain cost recovery methods in their firms as well as how they train summer and new associates to conduct cost-effective research.  The ensuing discussion met the first two session goals admirably but addressed the third goal with rather broad strokes.

The librarians presented four very different cost-recovery models.  Ms. Biberman’s firm charges clients for Westlaw and Lexis only, although attorneys use many other resources.  The firm passes through the exact cost, including vendor discounts.  Mr. Gediman’s firm developed its own algorithm to identify a flat per search fee (undisclosed), resulting in costs predictable to both client and attorney.  For similar reasons, Ms. Smith’s firm established an hourly rate (undisclosed) based on the firm’s usage history.  Ms. Niemeier’s firm alone did not concern itself with cost recovery; as a small firm, the expense of administering a cost-recovery program is not worthwhile.  The firm focuses instead on efficient use of attorney research time.

Amidst this diversity of approaches, a strong point of consensus emerged.  The law firm librarians agreed that precision should be the primary research focus.  While, as Mr. Gediman pointed out, model rule 1.5 prohibits using research as a “profit center,” reaching the right answer for a client is paramount.  Lack of quality research can lead to firing, so students should know there are real world consequences for mediocre research skills.

The librarians also agreed that firms believe law students do not know how to research, that they rely on a “Google mentality.”  As an antidote, Ms. Biberman noted that law schools should emphasize the research process and offer more research courses.  Mr. Gediman emphasized repeatedly that we pay for subscription services for a reason, accuracy, and he advised telling students not to use Google at all. 

The panel offered few specifics vis-à-vis their own approaches to training, but some offered general descriptions.

Westlaw and Lexis reps visit Ms. Biberman’s firm five days a week for two hours a day, and the library shares a tip of the week.  Summers are “let loose” for two weeks, and then that research is converted into a dollar amount.  The librarians discuss with the summers any problems they see in this initial period.

Summers and new associates at Ms. Smith’s firm must meet with a librarian or a rep before obtaining a Westlaw or Lexis password.  She also sends out quick tips and maintains a file of tips attorneys can always access.  Further training occurs during events like practice group meetings.

Some firms offered incentives for training attendance, for example, attend six out of seven training sessions and be entered in an iPad drawing. 

The most specific research comments arose during the Q and A.  When asked about the utility of “advanced platforms,” the panelists noted that “basics still matter.”  Students should take care to consider jurisdiction and type of case (e.g., motion for summary judgment v. motion to dismiss). 

Based on this discussion, what should law schools do to train effective researchers?   First, law schools should emphasize quality and, to that end, the continued value of subscription services.  Second, as Gras noted in her introductory remarks, firms adopt varying cost-recovery methods; we should not then train students on only one method, especially retail pricing sheets.  Although the panel did not address assignment design, here is one possibility:  require students to track both time spent and number of searches on an assignment and compare the results.

Ultimately, the firm librarians encouraged law schools to collaborate with firms employing their graduates.  Possibilities include bringing a panel of local law firm librarians to your school, an annual meeting with law firm librarians in your area, or inviting law firm librarians to your classroom.

Gras identified three main challenges to teaching cost effective research strategies:  vendor price sheets are fictional (most firms do not pay these prices); economic models evolve “constantly”; and firms’ approaches vary widely (“infinitely”).  Responding to these challenges will not be easy, but surely collaborating with local law firms can help law schools train their students in cost-recovery.

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