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Legal Research Training's End

By Bob Berring, Slaw

From my earliest days as a professional I have taught about how best to carry out legal research. Over the years I have instructed high school students, undergraduates, prisoners, graduate students, paralegals, librarians and many, many law students. Something not quite rational drove my interest. Many times I have paraphrased the lines spoken by John Belushi in the classic movie The Blues Brothers, telling people that I was on a mission from God to teach legal research. I have written books, made cassette tapes, video tapes and DVDs about legal research. If this almost obsessive interest had not been so good to me, I might view it with suspicion. All this said, I think traditional legal research training is going the way of radio drama.

For three decades I have taught a course entitled “Advanced Legal Research” to second and third year law students at Berkeley Law School. My idea was to teach the class to large numbers of students in a style that was largely lecture-based, but which included lots of assignments that would be graded and returned with extensive comments. Using some legal history, a bit of jurisprudence and some information theory, combined with humor, I would try to explain the way that the sources worked. If the student understood how a judicial opinion was created, how legislation was produced, how administrative rules and regulations were made, then she could deal with these materials in any format. The key was to understand the system, not to be a blind user of commercial research tools. The plan was to make them wise consumers of legal information.

That class began in the age of paper. Early on, LEXIS and WESTLAW came into view, but only as exotics. In the 1980s many law students had never used a computer. As the databases took over, the class morphed. LEXIS and WESTLAW became the standard source of research for the students. Personal computers became ubiquitous. Laptops and smart phones soon followed. The Internet pushed us further. Now Google and Wikipedia rule the land. Over the years, I had been joined in ALR by Kathleen Vanden Heuvel and Michael Levy. Michael was our online expert; Kathleen shared general duties with me. The class drew over one hundred students some semesters, and we offered it each semester. But the deeper that Google penetrated, and the more resources LEXIS and WESTLAW invested in training, the more dramatically things changed. Now the bulk of legal research training is done by the WESTLAW and LEXIS representatives who meet our first year students at the door. For the student the systems are free, the help is impressive. There are even games and prizes for research. Now that Bloomberg has purchased the Bureau of National Affairs, maybe we will soon see Bloomberg reps as well. Basic legal research training has been turned over to the private sector. And that training follows graduates into firms and government agencies that can afford to pay the bills.

With such a rich variety of tools available, the current law student in the United States has little need of old style research training. We used to catch them in ALR as second and third year law students. They had context from a year of law school and many had worked or interned in a law office or public interest office for a summer so they knew that they needed to know more. In 2011, the motivation is waning. The thrust of what Google does removes the searcher from the search process. WESTLAW/NEXT and LEXIS/Advanced mimic Google’s search scheme as much as possible. We are asking people who want to drive a car to understand how the engine works.

There is a scene in Cinnamon Skin, one of John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee novels, in which Travis, in 1982, stops and peers into a video arcade. It is filled with adolescents, engrossed in the games. He walks on. Further down the block is a Radio Shack. In it are three teenagers, forerunners of the geeks of today, puzzling over the innards of a computer. Travis thinks to himself, “The ratio is just about right.” Three understand what is going on, two hundred plug quarters into the machines. It is almost thirty years since McDonald wrote it, but I think it applies to legal research training in 2011in the United States. Everyone plugs into the search engine, only a few understand how it works.

Not that I shall give up. My plan is to go down fighting, but I think that I know how this movie ends. 10/31/2011