In today’s modern world, you may be among the law students who believe the law library is a relic of the past, a giant space filled with books you’ll never use. And honestly, that last bit about never using the books may well be true for some of you.
But a library is more than merely a warehouse of books. It’s more like a portal to the vast world of legal information, with research and reference librarians as your guides. Get to know your librarians now, and it’ll make your life easier throughout law school and even your legal career.
We feel your pain
According to attorneys, legal research is the most important skill for law school graduates to develop in the short term. After all, you can have amazing writing, negotiation, or oration skills, but you need to be able to figure out what the law is before you can present it.
New associates spend significant amounts of their time performing legal research, and partners by and large are displeased with their skills.
I’d recommend that every law student take an advanced legal research course, but short of that, at least get to know your reference librarians. They can be more helpful than you might imagine.
You should know that almost all reference librarians employed by American law schools have both juris doctor and masters of library and information science degrees. We’ve been through law school, so we understand what you’re going through and how we can fit in to make the experience less painful.
Many librarians have experience as practicing attorneys, too. We’re experts in legal information and legal research, and we’re at the reference desk to make your lives easier. Service policies may vary from school to school, but here are some ways your librarians can help you:
They can give you a push. Struggling with your first-year legal research and writing assignments Feeling overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe of legal information? Can’t make sense of how Westlaw works? Librarians can help you with all these things.
While we’ll never walk you through an assignment (at least not before it’s due) or actually give you an answer, we can show you how to start researching, how and when to use specific resources, and how to construct effective searches.
They can make journal less stressful. We can help with all sorts of things related to working on a law journal. Can’t seem to find a source? We can help you locate it. Ready to throw your Bluebook out the window in frustration? We can help you make sense of it. Can’t settle on a good note topic? We can show you some resources to get your creative gears turning.
They can help you impress your boss. We can help with more than just schoolwork, too. Can’t seem to find that perfect case that your internship boss wants? Ask a librarian for help. We can show you how to use resources like secondary sources and annotated codes to find cases and how to figure out if you shouldn’t even be looking for cases in the first place (hint: Some issues are purely statutory or regulatory in nature). And we can help you figure out when you’ve reached a reasonable stopping point (sometimes your boss will just have to accept that the perfect case doesn’t exist).
They can help you with things you’re clueless about. Sometimes you’ll receive an assignment
that completely baffles you. Maybe you’ve been asked to draft a software license agreement. You aren’t even sure what exactly that is, let alone how to draft one. We can help on both accounts, showing you how to find explanatory materials, sample documents, and forms.
They can help you, gasp!, with old-fashioned resources. And yes, if your old-fashioned legal research and writing professor insists that you use print case reporters or statutes, we can show you how to use those, too. But don’t blame us!
One more thing: Most law school libraries, even if they aren’t open to the general public, are open to alumni. And even if you move far away from your law school after graduation, many libraries provide research and reference assistance by phone, e-mail, or online chat as well.
So get to know your librarians and learn how to effectively and efficiently use your library’s resources now, while you’re a student. It will help you immensely, now and throughout your legal career.
MATTHEW E. FLYNTZ is the research/instruction librarian at the Hugh & Hazel Darling Law Library at Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law in Orange, Calif.