The Librarian's Role in Fostering a Confident Approach to Legal Research

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The Librarian’s Role in Fostering a Confident Approach to Legal Research

By Christine Jaworski

I understand that for law students (some more than others), it is awkward to approach the reference desk. They are, after all, smart people and have made it pretty far, academically. They may not want to tell someone they need assistance finding information. Things are made even less approachable if the reference desk is in an area where there isn’t any privacy. Maybe some students don’t want other students hearing their questions. It is no secret that there is an element of competition in even the most collegial of law school environments. Also, if the reference area is busy, the noise and activity can be disruptive.

Therefore, I would like to provide a “Top 10” list of suggestions for librarians to impart upon their students, especially the 1Ls. The goal of this list is to foster confidence in working with library staff and resources.

Top 10 Hints for Legal Research

  1. YOU ARE LEARNING . . . ASK QUESTIONS AND HAVE CONFIDENCE! Ask now. You don’t want to be struggling with basic research skills upon graduation. You will risk second guessing your work product, not to mention embarrassment among colleagues.
  2. Do you know academic law librarians all have Master’s Degrees in Library Science, and a lot of us have law degrees? We know what law school is like. Have confidence in us to help you understand library resources, as well the educational road you are on.
  3. Our goal is to help you locate sources and how to find information within them. The strategy that often works best is a dialogue-based team approach. Be proactive in your participation. If you feel you and the librarian are not thinking along the same lines, say something. Search strategies can be adjusted.
  4. Bring your own laptop/tablet to the reference desk. The best results come from students performing the searches themselves. If a student does not have his or her own laptop or tablet, we try to have the student sit at a nearby terminal to do the searching, and the librarian assists. It is much more hands on than watching a librarian look through sources. When you log in, you also retain your search history, so you do not take time repeating searches. Search histories are available in Westlaw and Lexis but may or may not be available for other online products.
  5. If the reference desk in your law library is in a central area and this disrupts your focus, ask to make an appointment with a librarian.
  6. Try not to start sentences with “I know this is a stupid question . . . .” There is no such thing as a stupid question. It doesn’t matter how you get started, just get started. Similarly, avoid starting a sentence with “I know you have better things to do, but . . . .” While working at the reference desk, we do not have better things to do. To clarify, we do fill time between reference questions with other projects. But if the librarian looks busy, ask anyway. It is not that we don’t want to assist; it is that we want to fill gaps of time with work. Reference questions come first.
  7. Avoid hierarchical thinking. There have been instances where a student gets to information before we do. They let us know, and we are grateful. There is a good chance you know more than you think you do. Trust your intellectual instincts. Share your ideas and suggestions with library staff.
  8. As a student, you have been researching topics since an early age. Believe it or not, the basic paradigm for research in law school is similar to that in elementary school. If unfamiliar with a topic, you head for an encyclopedia or a more general source—this is true in both fourth grade and law school. Most often, current sources of information are essential to good research—again, in both fourth grade and law school.
  9. Try not to confuse sheer volume of information with difficulty of information. Volume does not make a single task essentially difficult, but bringing together many tasks can make it seem that way. Break down your research to manageable segments. This is a common problem-solving skill.
  10. Use your research skills to help your performance in classes. Most of us think of education as preparation for eventual employment and helping others. We do not think of using the knowledge we have gained in the present to advance our own learning. If you are having difficulty understanding a topic such as hearsay exceptions, try a secondary source to get a clearer understanding.

A Few Tips for Librarians

  1. Whether assisting at the desk or in a research class, reinforce the idea that though law school can be a cerebral enterprise, students should not forego listening to their intuition or instincts. Most often, any individual can tell you if they have an innate understanding of a concept. 
  2. As in many other businesses and occupations, approachability and accessibility are key factors in building successful results. For example, asking a student to let you know how his or her research efforts have developed helps cultivate good customer relations. Let students know they can return to the desk if the information initially found was not quite what they had in mind. The focus of examination can change from the initial research of an area of law.
  3. Be sensitive to the visual learner. It may be helpful to use such study aids as charts or diagrams to more easily convey information. In my opinion, Westlaw’s Graphical Statutes is an excellent resource.
  4. Especially with 1Ls, focus on what is already familiar. Encourage them to look to tables and indexes—just as they have in the past. Although they are embarking on a new discipline, knowing that they can identify with the basic tenets of research can reduce the sense of the law being completely foreign, as well as decrease the overwhelming feeling that they are being confronted by huge amounts of information.
  5. Emphasize independent research. Completing even the most straightforward and introductory research can be done in different, individual ways. One student may get a case citation from Lexis, another from Westlaw, a cost-free site, or paper format.  Uncertainty sets in when students compare assignment results without recognizing that alternate search approaches can render the same result.
  6. When creating assignments for class, strive for interesting fact patterns that are engaging. Encourage interaction, questions, and debate. Assign group projects. Invite a practitioner who is willing to discuss the particular research tools he or she may be using. Resources in a pro bono environment will be different from that in a large law firm.

Demystifying the Process

Every law school is different, and every student is different. Law school can be a challenging three years. My purpose is not to oversimplify but to demystify some of the process of finding and using legal information. I firmly believe informing students about what reference negotiation looks like from behind the reference desk and providing them with insights into the oftentimes unwritten factors that can enhance their motivation and comfort level can be as instrumental as teaching the resources themselves.

Christine Jaworski