Teaching Online Legal Research

Article excerpt

Teaching law students or attorneys about online legal research can be a challenge. One reason is that novice researchers sometimes get lucky with a rough, poorly-constructed search, and then consider themselves masters of the system they used. Another reason is that those who have truly understood the Rule Against Perpetuities (RAP) may approach the systems with a clueless, yet overly confident attitude.

A case in point involves a law student we'll call Iggy. I attempted to teach Iggy about online legal research using LEXIS with the following hypothetical problem. "Suppose a man goes into a bank wth a bar of soap that he has carved to look like a gun. He takes the soap from beneath his coat and points it at the teller. The teller gives him all the money from his station without a word, and later tells the police that he turned over the money after the man pulled a black object, which looked like a gun, from beneath his coat. The issues is whether the man could be guilty of armed robbery given the facts."

"Let me do it!" Iggy insisted. He typed in black object and coat, and searched frantically for the key. After he punched it, LEXIS dutifully retrieved nine cases. "This is amazing!" he exclaimed.

AN EDUCATIONAL GAP

I know a lot of you are thinking that you have Iggy in your law firm. Most firm librarians have theoir own horror stories of an Iggy destroying a large chunk of their budget during a crash session at a library terminal.

A telling point was made by an online legal service representative when I asked why there were not more training sessions for advanced online legal research. She replied, "There just is no call...the vast majority of legal online searchers simply do not get beyond the basics."

This continued lack of education in advanced legal research techniques recently has been identified as a serious problem in law firms. Law librarians throughout the country have begun to attend extensive seminars on how to teach legal research, particularly computer-assisted legal research. In addition, advanced legal research classes, formerly a rare offering in law school curriculums, are now available in ninety of the country's law schools.

The truth--which online legal services hesitate to reveal to the novice searcher--is that the more one knows about WESTLAW or LEXIS, the more powerful, and less expensive it becomes. Until now, most online legal research know-how has resulted from individualized experimentation online, so it was important to get the novice searcher to experiment enough to learn. However, some level of competence should be required to associates before they access the online systems at the expense of a client.

AN IN-HOUSE SEMINAR--FILLING THE GAP

At one law firm, I conducted full-day seminars on LEXIS and WESTLAW searching for associates. The attorneys who attended received continuing legal education credits, mandatory under a state bar program.

For an introductory review, LEXIS and WESTLAW representatives were invited to give one-hour presentations on their systems' features. Then we plunged beyond the basics, where few of the attorneys had ever ventured though some were regular searchers.

A SAMPLE SEARCH

To explain the strategy involved in a thorough online research session, I always chose a timely reseach issue. Ideally, it was one that presented a challenge, but that could be resolved in about an hour of online time. I recreated the search online for the class, at the same time having a terminal available for each associate so they could duplicate the research themselves.

In one exaple, I explained that I had recently heard from an attorney who had found only four cases discussing an issue. He wanted me to check WESTLAW to see if there were cases he had misses using the books. His client, a bank, was ready to collect a judgment against a partnership. …