Ashley Ahlbrand

Research Makeover: The Overlooked Lawyering Skill

I thought I’d start my first column by introducing myself.  My name is Ashley Ahlbrand, and I am a law librarian at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law in Bloomington, Indiana.  Whenever I make such an introduction, the first (natural) response is, “Oh. What’s a law librarian?”  Simply put, a law librarian is, as the title suggests, a librarian who works with legal materials.  We can be found in law firms, courthouses, stand-alone law libraries, or, as in my case, law schools.  Depending on where you find us, our roles can vary; my proper title is Educational Technology Librarian, meaning that, in addition to fielding questions at the Reference Desk, assisting faculty with research, and teaching in the first year Legal Research & Writing program, I take on various technology-related projects for the library and faculty, such as managing our social media and crafting online research guides for courses.

If the first question I always get is “What is that?” the second question inevitably is, “How did you decide to become a law librarian?”  To answer that, I have to take you back to my 3L year, not so long ago, at William & Mary’s Marshall-Wythe School of Law.  I rarely met a legal subject I didn’t like, so I was having a hard time narrowing down what I wanted to do with my law degree.  All I knew for certain was that my favorite experiences in law school included my advocacy work with clients in the Veterans Benefits Clinic and my role as a Notes Editor for the Journal of Women and the Law.  A friend suggested that I talk to one of our librarians about law librarianship; following that advice, I learned that our librarians taught legal research, assisted faculty with their research, and got to conduct research of their own.  Amazing – my favorite things all rolled into one career! 

I went home that night and filled out applications for Library Science programs across the country; after finishing my Masters in Library Science at Indiana University’s School of Library and Information Science, I started my job at Maurer Law in 2012, promptly ran out and fulfilled my longed-for dream of getting a dog (Sparkle, who’s only slightly spoiled), and the rest is history.  I could not be happier doing what I do, and if any of you are curious about alternative careers for your JD, please feel free to contact me!

Sparkle

So enough about me; your next question, surely, is, “Why would you write a column on legal research?”  Fair enough.  Without putting too fine a point on it, legal research is a critical lawyering skill, and one that is often taken for granted.  A 2013 report from the American Association of Law Libraries delivered the results of a 2012 survey of practitioners across the country about their own research behaviors and their impressions of the research skills of new hires.  Questions in this latter part of the survey ranged from the new hire’s ability to develop a research strategy to his/her use of specific types of materials (response options were “poorly,” “adequately,” “well,” or “very well”).  Unsurprisingly, the most positive responses dealt with the ability of a new hire to perform statutory or case law research, materials emphasized in first-year legal research programs (majority of responses were “well” or “very well”).  Questions pertaining to the research process yielded more average results, mostly in the “adequately” category.  The poorest responses revolved around researching legislative histories, administrative regulations and decisions, non-legal research, cost-effective research, and knowing when to stop.

Employer dissatisfaction with legal research skills of new hires is nothing new – I could cite another dozen surveys that yielded similar results.  So why is this skill so easily taken for granted?  Many theories abound, but I think it comes down to two things: assumption of skill and information overload. 

Assumption of skill – You would be hard-pressed to find someone who has made it through college and law school without doing a lick of research.  Even if it was just for a seminar paper, we’ve all had some exposure.  But when you are researching a client’s case, you are talking about an entirely different kind of research – it’s academic research versus practice-oriented research.  When you’re researching for a client, you need to have a research plan; you need to know what you’re looking for, which resource(s) to use to find it, and how to do so cost-effectively.  Unfortunately, unless you participated in clinics and externships or advanced legal research courses in law school, you probably had minimal practice with this process, perhaps only in the first-year research and writing program.  It’s a completely different ball game from the academic research process most of us grew up with.

Information Overload – A common theme of these practitioner surveys is the inability of new hires to choose the right resources to conduct their research.  Perhaps ironically, I think choosing the right resource is becoming increasingly difficult as more resources become available.  It can be hard to evaluate these resources to tell which will best answer your question, and, as you click more and more buttons on a website, it can be difficult to know what exactly you’re looking at.  It’s easy to assume today that you can surely find the right answer because you have so many readily available resources, but discerning which resource will best answer your question is a skill unto itself.  Add to that the ever-changing interface of databases you use on a regular basis, and legal research can become a real chore.

Throughout this year, I hope to help you develop stronger research skills by addressing some of these common problems.  I will highlight existing and emerging resources in legal research, offer tips and strategy along the way, and, yes, probably throw in a few more pictures of my dog (because while I love research, I’m a realist, and I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea).  See you next month!

 

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