Law Librarians – We’re Everywhere!

By Melissa Abernathy, Law Librarian

Last month Anna Russell reminded us what a law librarian can do for you here at USD (What (the heck) is a law librarian? Motions, October 2016).  This month we wanted to highlight what firm librarians can do for you while you are at your summer associate positions or as new associate hires.

From an informal poll of law librarians at nine San Diego law firms, we are happy to report that all firms provide some sort of legal research training.  Some firms train in large mandatory classes, others keep training optional or on an individual basis.  Often legal research vendors like Westlaw and Lexis participate.

We chatted with Betsy Chessler, a Research Analyst at Morrison & Foerster LLP with over 17 years of law librarianship experience.  Here’s what she had to say:


  1. Who handles legal research training for new associates and summer associates at your law firm?

This summer my firm welcomed 111 summer associates, and this fall we will welcome a total of 41 new associates. Our summer associates and new associates both receive several days of orientation when they first arrive, often followed by more intensive seminars several months later.  Legal research training is just a small part of the overall orientation process, and is handled by the Research Services team (formerly known as Library Services).  We cover research methodology and our more popular research tools in a little over an hour, via a firm wide video presentation. We use a single slide presentation, but librarians from half a dozen of our offices are assigned specific sections to cover.  We follow up with local library orientations in each office.  This year our training will include a few pop quiz questions to keep things interesting.

We also have Lexis and Westlaw reps come in to give short training sessions.  The emphasis is on cost effective research.

Summer Associates:

Day 1: Welcome Breakfast, Summer Program Overview, HR Policies and New Hire Paperwork, Risk Management video, Benefits Orientation, Welcome Lunch, Meet Your Secretary, Desktop training and iPhone setup

Day 2: Facilities Overview and Office Tour, Library Orientation (30 minutes), Working with Support Staff, TimeNotes Training, Pro Bono Overview and Lunch, Safety Overview, Welcome Happy Hour

Day 3: Lexis/Westlaw training (30 minutes each), Research Methodology and Firm Research Resources (90 minutes), How to Write a firm Memo, Your First Assignment


New Associates:

Day 1:  Welcome Breakfast, HR Policies Overview, Benefits Orientation, Welcome Lunch, Desktop Training, Records Overview, Office Tour, Office Safety and Ergonomic Review, Administrative Overview, Working with Support Staff

Day 2:  Attorney Development overview, Marketing Department overview

Day 2 or 3: Library Orientation and Overview (20-30 minutes), Research Methodology and Firm Research Resources (60-70 minutes), Westlaw and Lexis training (60 minutes),


  1. What are associates expected to learn from the experience?

Summer Associates draw research assignments from a firmwide database, and being eager beavers, often start assignments before we even give our training.  I often tell associates that it’s okay if they don’t remember all the resources, they just have to know how to reach me.  I‘m here to help.


  1. What is the most common legal research mistake you see with novice legal researchers?

I think the most common mistake is jumping into the details before understanding the big picture. If the area of law is unfamiliar to you, and even if it’s pretty familiar, you still need to get the lay of the land. Is this a federal or state matter? Is there controlling primary law?  Is it a single statute or do you need to wade through federal regulations to understand what is allowed and not allowed?  And very importantly, is there some kind of practice guide, a Nutshell or Nolo or other treatise, that can explain it all quickly? For cutting edge law, a law firm article, available through a Google search, can save loads of time in setting the context.


  1. What should an associate do if they are “stumped”?
“It is the job of firm librarians to be bothered and to encourage associates to ask questions, big or small, as they journey to become more efficient and confident researchers.”

Sarah Mauldin

Director of Library Services

Smith, Gambrell & Russell LLP

We use the acronym, “Just ASK.”  It stands for Jurisdiction, Useful tips, Scope of Research, Terms of art, Acronyms, Sources, Key cost constraints.  Hopefully they’ve already asked the assigning partner for background on the projects, suggested sources, and any “gotchas.”  Having said that, new associates are often researching cutting edge law, and frankly, there may not be a clear answer or any answer. But they have to go through the research process to make sure that is the case.  Often a librarian can suggest new sources, new terms, or help broaden the search.  So the short answer is, when stumped, ask a librarian.


  1. How have you seen law firm legal research change over the last decade?

I can’t speak for other law firms, but I can say that in our law firm, we have tried to get away from just providing a laundry list of resources. We want new associates to focus on the methodology, and know about a few essential research tools.


  1. If you could tell associates to master one legal research skill, what would it be?

That’s a tough one.  I could say make sure your citations are good law. That’s obviously essential.  Shepardize and Keycite early and often, and especially at the end.  But maybe a more holistic response is to think of legal research as a circle.  It’s iterative.  You discover a new search term or a new twist in the legal issue, and you adjust your search.  And at the end, you ask yourself, did I answer my original question? Or alternatively, did I answer the question that should have been asked?  If there is no clear answer, am I satisfied I looked hard enough and turned over the right stones?


  1. Anything else?

According to a recent Law Library Journal article*, legal research instruction is a lower priority in law schools.  Only 16% of law schools surveyed had a stand-alone research class.  For most, legal research is just a small part of a writing class.  So often new associates come to the law firm without a lot of experience or knowledge about how to conduct legal research.  They have to do some catch up.  But I’m pleased to report that our new associates are good listeners of our legal research presentations. When they come to me, they’ve already followed our directions and they will let me know what they’ve looked at already. But they often are not aware of other resources out there, or there search needs to be narrowed or broadened.  Research is not some straight linear line (though sometimes it might feel like that in law school).  It can be pretty messy and frustrating. That’s the real world of legal practice.

*Osborne, Caroline, “The State of Legal Research Education: A Survey of First-Year Legal Research Programs, or “Why Johnny and Jane Cannot Research,” 108 Law Library Journal 403 (Summer 2016).


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