Legal Education Digest
Candy, Points, and Highlighters: Why Librarians, Not Vendors, Should Teach CALR to First-year Students
S G Nevers
 LegEdDig 42; (2007) 15(3) Legal Education Digest 12
99 Law Libr J, 2007, pp 757–777
Picture the following. A vendor stands at the front of a room. A crowd files in taking turns grabbing at a bowl of candy. The group is informed that after a presentation by the vendor each attendee will receive special points that can be redeemed for an assortment of prizes. A fifty-minute presentation about the product then ensues, concluding with the vendor handing out highlighters to those in attendance.
Strangers to the law school community may be shocked to learn that this is not the picture of a formal sales pitch, but rather the typical way law students are introduced to an essential legal research tool. The reality is that law students are all too familiar with receiving computer-assisted legal research (CALR) training from commercial vendors.
The debate over whether vendors or librarians should teach CALR has existed since the early days of computerised legal research systems. Different law schools at different times have had different answers.
When examining who should teach CALR to first-year law students in 2007, arguments favouring the use of vendors as instructors are significantly weakened, while those favouring law librarian instruction are strengthened. By examining each argument from this perspective, this article attempts to show that law librarians, not vendors, should be teaching CALR to first-year students in 2007.
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, law librarians at the University of Oklahoma and at many of the Texas law schools participated in some way or another in the instruction of CALR. Lack of vendor involvement in CALR instruction at this time is illustrated by a survey conducted by Roy Mersky and John Christensen in 1980 of those developing CALR training programs. The question ‘Who will conduct the training?’ was followed by the possible answers: ‘Full-time teaching faculty,’ ‘Library staff,’ ‘Student teaching assistants,’ or ‘Combination.’ Vendor instruction was not even an option.
Besides providing information on who taught CALR, these early accounts also provide insight into how librarians viewed CALR instruction. ‘Time consuming,’ ‘host of difficulties,’ and ‘expensive burden’ were just a few of the descriptors they used.
The heavy burden of CALR instruction, coupled with the willingness of vendors to conduct training sessions at no additional cost to the schools, contributed to a shift away from librarians as CALR instructors. As CALR became more popular, students demanded ‘more and better CALR training.’ And as demand for training increased and library budgets dwindled, librarians ‘were relieved when LEXIS and WESTLAW representatives offered to do the computer instruction.’
Concerns surrounding vendor-led CALR instruction were evident in the first of two articles devoted entirely to the question of who should teach CALR to law students. These 1995 articles are not analytical pieces, but rather a series of answers from the law library community in response to the question of whether vendor representatives should teach CALR. The answers provide a glimpse into the prevailing sentiment of the time. Almost all academic law librarians represented in the article agreed that vendors should either not be involved in CALR instruction or that their instruction should be heavily supervised or supplemented by librarians. Only one academic law librarian supported vendor instruction without reservation.
In 2000, Pauline M. Aranas took up the question of ‘Who Should Teach CALR — Vendors, Librarians or Both?’ She concluded that a hybrid approach, with librarians teaching CALR to first-year students and vendors providing ‘advanced and specialised training for upper-division students,’ was the best way to teach CALR.
Looking at the issue through the lens of teaching CALR to first-year students in 2007 clarifies the need to use librarians for this task. Many of the arguments favouring vendors as CALR instructors are weakened when viewed through this lens. At the same time, many of the arguments advocating for librarians as CALR instructors are strengthened when the question is narrowed specifically to who should teach CALR to first-years in 2007.
While it is true that vendors are (or should be) experts in using their research system, the nature of legal research in 2007 requires librarians to be experts as well. Librarians whether performing their own research or assisting others, use LexisNexis, Westlaw, or both, on a daily basis. Because computers and the Internet have become integral parts of their personal as well as professional lives, librarians no longer have to be afraid of learning a ‘new unfamiliar technology’ as they were in the past.
Teaching CALR to first-year students further weakens the ‘vendor as expert’ argument because the content taught is so basic. While some law librarians may be hesitant to teach advanced CALR techniques, all law librarians should be familiar with the basic techniques that are taught to first-year students.
A second argument favouring the use of vendors as CALR instructors contends that they are the best qualified to provide training on cost-effective legal research.
The validity of this argument has always been in doubt. While it is true that vendors have a better understanding of the pricing schemes as well as the system itself, it does not follow that they will teach cost-effective CALR use. Law librarians have routinely questioned the economic motives of vendors in providing CALR instruction.
Even if vendors would teach cost-effective CALR more effectively than law librarians, today’s legal research environment has weakened the importance of this argument. In 2002, two years after Aranas’s article, Roy Mersky and Donald Dunn reported that ‘[c]harges to commercial accounts are often based on the amount of time spent online, the number of searches executed, or both,’ while only ‘some organisations negotiate flat rates.’ By contrast, in 2006, 74.1 per cent of lawyers surveyed by the American Bar Association (ABA) reported that their law firm had a negotiated flat rate fee structure for their CALR resources; only 9.7 per cent described their fee structure as ‘incremental’ or ‘pay as you go.’
Despite the fact that flat rate fees are so common today, a first-year introduction to CALR is most likely only a place to mention cost-effective strategies in passing. The bulk of cost-effective legal research teaching can be done in conjunction with preparation for summer clerkships or in an advanced legal research course.
The most compelling argument for vendor instruction is that it is a solution to a law library’s lack of resources.
Ultimately, the solution becomes a balancing act for individual libraries. Do the benefits received by the students outweigh the burdens required of librarians? Burdens, in this analysis, not only consist of time spent, but also the opportunity costs associated with teaching CALR. No-one can fault a library that, seeing needs in other areas, turns its first-year CALR instruction over to vendors. However, the context of teaching CALR to first-year students in 2007 requires a careful re-examination of this balance.
Today the technology is very familiar and relatively stable. Therefore, this cost of librarians teaching CALR is less than it used to be.
At the same time, the benefits of librarian instruction are more critical than they have ever been. As law libraries weigh them against the decreasing costs, they will find that, in most cases, first-year CALR instruction by law librarians is the proper path to take.
‘[L]aw school personnel are better qualified to objectively compare and offer unbiased information.’ Because vendors’ primary job is to sell a product, they will naturally ‘emphasise their system’s strengths and downplay its weaknesses.’
The instruction first-years receive will likely be their initial exposure to CALR. At this point in their legal education, first-year students may not even know what questions to ask to properly evaluate a CALR system. Such students need unbiased guidance, not product promotion.
Next, librarians should teach CALR because they are better able to place it in the context of a ‘comprehensive research program.’ Vendors generally are more focused on teaching the technical mastery of CALR rather than how their system fits into legal research as a whole. CALR instruction must deal with how ‘print and electronic research tools complement each other.’
Additionally, there can be no denying that law students in 2007 prefer CALR over print legal research. Students gravitate toward CALR and must be taught that print still has a place in legal research. If CALR instruction focuses solely on the CALR system and its capabilities, students will not learn the important balance that exists in legal research. Given their concern for the legal research process as a whole, law librarians are better able to teach CALR as a means of legal research and not just an end in itself.
One argument that has not been discussed much is the fact that librarians have the training and credentials to more effectively teach CALR. Electronic information retrieval is an essential part of librarianship today. Librarians can and should be considered information retrieval specialists. As such, they are better prepared to teach first-year law students the proper ways to perform CALR.
Another argument in favour of law librarians is that CALR instruction is an excellent time for librarians to interact with students and demonstrate their unique skills.
Law librarians must take advantage of opportunities to interact with first-year students. Some form of first-year legal research is generally the only time law students are required to spend with librarians. It is hoped that law students will interact with law librarians frequently on their own throughout their law school experience, but interacting as much as possible during their first year will increase the likelihood of that occurring. Taking CALR instruction back from vendors allows librarians approximately two extra class periods of interaction with first-year students. This time can be invaluable in developing relationships with, and demonstrating skills to, these students.
A related argument is that the failure of law librarians to teach CALR sends the wrong impression to law students. First, students may assume that the law librarians do not even know how to use LexisNexis or Westlaw. Second, students may think that the librarians do not value CALR. Finally, even if librarians value CALR, students may think that librarians dislike it (especially at schools where print is pre-eminent in the first-year courses). Such impressions are obviously wrong, but they are detrimental to a student’s perception of law librarians and CALR. With librarians teaching CALR, many of these impressions would be non-issues.
Another reason for librarians to teach CALR that has not been discussed in the literature is that it provides a sense of legitimacy to the instruction. It is difficult to see a vendor as a true teacher when he or she is giving away rewards points, candy, highlighters, or even t-shirts to students. Added to this is the fact that vendors do not require students to be accountable for what they have learned. Howland and Lewis have pointed out that law students perceive legal research as relatively unimportant because such courses ‘are often taught by non tenure-track faculty, are ungraded, and frequently are not particularly rigorous.’ It follows that law students will not consider CALR instruction important if it is taught by non-law school affiliated vendors who do not hold them accountable for what is being taught.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly in 2007, law librarians will not portray CALR as a quick and easy solution to legal research. ‘Training by vendors often gives the impression that CALR can be used for any research problem and can locate any legal authority.’
In a climate of inadequate electronic research skills, the last thing the legal profession needs is vendors giving students the impression that an elementary introduction to CALR is all that one requires to conduct good legal research.
The ease of using search engines and other databases often gives students a false sense of research superiority. If not trained to be better searchers, law students will continue to trust their inadequate computer search skills when they really should not.
This false sense of security is perpetuated as vendors spend enormous amounts of time and money to make systems more user-friendly. As CALR systems become more and more like ‘fast-food drive-thru’ systems — that is more like Google — students are given the impression that they know what to do. Of course, usually what they know how to do is search poorly, without realising it.
As CALR instructors, law librarians can help first-year students understand the limitations of CALR systems, as well as their own limitations as researchers. We can craft examples and exercises that are closer to what law students will actually see when they enter the ‘real world’ of legal research. By teaching CALR to first-years, law librarians can combat the idea that CALR is a quick and easy solution to legal research.
While vendor instruction offers certain benefits, librarians are in the best position to accomplish the CALR instruction needs of first-year law students today.