Express Class: A Flexible Approach to Legal Resource Training

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By Joseph D. Lawson
March 27, 2014


Now that a substantial portion of legal research is accomplished online, practitioners must acquire at least a basic understanding of electronic research tools. Although training on WestlawNext and other fee-based products is standard in today’s law school curriculum, ABA statistics on lawyer demographics suggest that many attorneys graduated before the 2010 release date of these next-generation interfaces. In Fort Bend County, Texas, where many solo and small-firm practitioners find a home, opportunities for in-house or vendor training can be limited. As a result, the Fort Bend County Law Library had a unique opportunity to meet a pressing need for legal research training when it began offering access to WestlawNext in May 2013.

At first, training was incorporated into reference work and rose only to a level sufficient to research the question at hand. Although a few patrons made the switch, many more expressed interest in a class. When deciding which type of program to pursue, I looked at both the characteristics of the intended audience and the realities of my law library. The audience—local attorneys—is comprised primarily of solo and small-firm practitioners who have limited time and resources to devote to databases training. Between managing a practice and attending hearings, their plates are full, and they have plenty of substantive CLEs competing for their time. Additionally, my law library is small with no training space and only two employees. Although we help many people, there is simply no space to hold lectures or vendor talks and no staff available for offsite programs—especially when participation is not guaranteed. Any solution would have to incorporate flexible scheduling and immediate application for attorneys, as well as minimal space and time requirements for the law library. My solution was Express Class.

The Concept

Express Class is a collection of hands-on, 15-minute training sessions designed to familiarize patrons with the law library’s research tools. In the case of WestlawNext, the traditional one-hour overview class is parsed into four sessions: (1) Introduction to WestlawNext, (2) Document Retrieval, (3) Keyword Searching, and (4) Advanced Template Searching. At the beginning of each session, the participant selects from a menu of classes, so the class is matched to his or her skill level in real time. The objectives for each class are listed on the menu to help participants make a selection. Additionally, participants receive a handout during each class so they can refer back in case a few days pass before they can practice the skills learned.

Sessions are intended to stand alone and to build on one another. The goal of each session is to convey a practical skill that the participant can incorporate immediately into his or her legal research practices. For example, at the end of “Document Retrieval,” the participant should be able to retrieve a document by citation or with source-specific tools (e.g., Find Templates for statutes) and then print or email the document for later use. An attorney who did not previously have this information can immediately begin collecting documents electronically rather than at the copier. The next class, “Keyword Searching,” incorporates new skills, such as crafting searches that take advantage of the search algorithm and arranging results by relevance or date as needed, while letting participants practice skills learned in previous classes, such as drilling down to source-specific tools and retrieving items in an appropriate format.

Scheduling 

Scheduling for Express Class went through a couple of iterations. At first, I offered one- to two-person classes at noon on Fridays, so attorneys could attend a session with time left for lunch before the 1:30 p.m. docket call. However, patron comments and low attendance prompted change. Because of the on-demand nature of the classes, it seemed natural to make the start time more flexible. I decided to offer one-on-one classes during a four-hour window on Thursday afternoons. Participants could sign up for an afternoon and then start their 15-minute class at any time between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on the designated day. While this put me on call, it occupied, at most, an hour of my afternoon two or three times each month. If no one attended, I could continue to work on the next reference or administrative task in the queue. If participants appeared while another class was in session, their wait time was 15 minutes or less. The flexible scheduling scheme proved much more popular with participants.

Marketing

The success or failure of a new service hinges on the marketing. Express Class does not lend itself to a bullet-point description on a flier. Instead, active marketing by law library staff proved most effective. During reference interviews in which the patron expressed interest in learning about electronic resources, staff members would indicate that the law library offers legal database classes. From there, the patron’s interest was reassessed and a different response was developed for each level of interest. Patrons who were genuinely interested in the class received an elevator speech. Patrons who were interested but busy were shown the Express Class description and course lists and allowed to read over the materials at their own pace. Finally, patrons who displayed sudden disinterest were told that information was available at the reference desk and the reference interaction continued. Using these methods, patrons from each response category eventually signed up for a session.

I also used some passive advertising. Posters with minimal detail seemed to work best. For example, I placed posters where my target audience would see them that displayed the questions “Want to learn about electronic legal research?” and “Got 15 minutes?” along with instruction to talk to law library staff. This was designed to pique the interest of the patron and prime them for an elevator speech at the reference desk. 

Finally, a considerable amount of attention was given to branding Express Class materials. Because the concept was new to my target audience and there was no event where I could introduce it, placing the same logo at the top of handouts, class lists, and posters helped tie an otherwise nebulous concept together. Regarding brand selection, I chose the word “express” and the train graphic in the logo because trains are locally significant. For example, a nearby town was recently added to the Train Town USA Registry. In a tech-focused region, “NanoClass” in front of a circuit board might catch the patron’s eye. Regardless of the brand selected, placing the same logo at the top of every document provides a cohesive feel for the patron and adds to the sense that these short classes are educational experiences separate from the general reference assistance offered by the law library.

From the Law Librarian’s Perspective

The on-demand nature of Express Class means that there are start-up costs for the law librarian, but the benefits outweigh the costs over time. If you are keeping count, the law librarian must prepare four lessons, four handouts, and a session menu for each database covered. Additionally, the overall program materials, including the description, a sign-up sheet, and posters, must be in place before anyone signs up for the first class. As a result, starting Express Class with four WestlawNext and four Westlaw Classic offerings, as I did, requires the equivalent of preparing for two hour-long classes with plenty of handouts. 

Nevertheless, the investment of time can produce great results, especially in law libraries that want to offer educational opportunities but have limited staff or space to spare. With traditional lecture-style classes, one might be offered every three months due to space and time considerations, and there is the risk of no one attending (something I and, to be sure, a few readers, have faced). Express Class, on the other hand, allows the law library to offer classes incrementally and in-house. Sessions can be offered two or three afternoons a month as reference schedules allow. Even with slow sign-up and no shows, there is opportunity for double-digit attendance each quarter, and, in the event that no one attends, the law librarian can work on other tasks. In small library settings, this could be the difference between offering some classes or none at all. In other settings, Express Class could supplement a successful lecture series with hands-on opportunities. 

The Outcome

My experience suggests that Express Class works. For example, in the last quarter of 2013, I offered sessions on eight afternoons. At least two patrons signed up for each available day, and a total of 12 participants attended. Taking into account no shows and cancellations, I experienced a 54 percent attendance rate. Additionally, several sessions extended beyond the scheduled 15 minutes due to patron questions. Based on informal feedback and several participants’ expressed desire to attend future session, Express Class was well received, including by stakeholders who are happy to see ongoing educational opportunities in the law library.

One unexpected outcome of the program was the composition of participants. In addition to attorneys, participants included paralegals, legal assistants, and employees from other county agencies. A few local attorneys have expressed interest in the classes as a way to provide continuing training for support staff as new legal research products emerge. This seems like a natural partnership that could be reproduced between law libraries and local legal communities across the country.

Conclusion

Express Class was a great solution for the Fort Bend County Law Library. It allowed me to offer flexible educational opportunities concerning available technology and resources to local attorneys, paralegals, and legal assistants without overextending my law library’s resources. Although there were substantial start-up costs, the return on investment over time makes it worthwhile, especially in settings with limited resources or where participation in traditional lectures is problematic. Additionally, the ongoing nature of Express Class gives law libraries a chance to market their services to patrons as well as to stakeholders, who always like to see us do more with less. If you think Express Class might work in your setting, please feel free to use these materials to get started. 

Joseph D. Lawson (jlawson@fortbend.lib.tx.us), Law Librarian, Fort Bend County Law Library, Richmond, Texas