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Getting It from the Source: What Librarians Think About Lawyer Search Behavior

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Abstract

The results from a survey of 132 U.S. law library professionals reveal useful insights into lawyers' information-seeking behavior. Survey respondents reported most frequently that lawyers preferred using electronic resources and communications, likely for reasons of accessibility, familiarity, and time. These results can help new librarians better educate and train lawyers as well as improve reference services.
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LAW LIBRARY JOURNAL Vol. 107:2 [2015-12]
Getting It from the Source: What Librarians
Think About Lawyer Search Behavior*
Renate Chancellor**
The results from a survey of 132 U.S. law library professionals reveal useful insights
into lawyers’ information-seeking behavior. Survey respondents reported most fre-
quently that lawyers preferred using electronic resources and communications, likely
for reasons of accessibility, familiarity, and time. These results can help new librarians
better educate and train lawyers as well as improve reference services.
Introduction……………………………………………………………. ......287
Literature Review……………………………………………………………. ..288
Methodology……………………………………………………………. ......291
Results and Analysis……………………………………………………….. ....292
Conclusions and Goals for Future Study…………… …………………….. ...295
Introduction
1 Law practitioners such as lawyers, judges, and law faculty search for legal infor-
mation to represent their clients effectively, reach fair decisions, and better instruct
tomorrow’s professionals. In doing so, they often rely on law librarians. As per the
American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, practicing attorneys
must provide clients with competent representation.1 In other words, attorneys must
have a solid understanding of legal research as well as to how to apply the law in vari-
ous contexts. Scholars have long argued that many law students do not learn the legal
research skills necessary for basic law practice.2 While curricula in most law schools
instruct across a broad spectrum of practice areas, courses in legal research are often
combined with legal writing and merely introduce legal sources. Such classes are typi-
cally one- to three-credit semester-long courses that offer very little time for students
to develop and design a legal research project that would greatly benefit them as law
practitioners.3 According to a study by Howland and Lewis,4 who surveyed law firm
* © Renate Chancellor, 2015.
** Assistant Professor, Department of Library and Information Science, Catholic University of
America, Washington, D.C.
1. modeL ruLeS of profL conduct r. 1.1 (2015).
2. See, e.g., Donald J. Dunn, Why Legal Research Skills Declined, or When Two Rights Make a
Wrong, 85 Law Libr. J. 49, 49–52 (1993).
3. Robin K. Mills, Legal Research Instruction in Law Schools: The State of the Art or, Why Law
School Graduates Do Not Know How to Find the Law, 70 Law Libr. J. 343, 346 (1977).
4. Joan S. Howland & Nancy J. Lewis, The Effectiveness of Law School Research Training
Programs, 40 J. LegaL educ. 381 (1990).
288 LAW LIBRARY JOURNAL Vol. 107:2 [2015-12]
librarians to assess the legal research skills of summer law clerks and first-year associ-
ates, law school graduates were unable to efficiently and effectively conduct legal
research using LexisNexis and Westlaw, despite their training in law school.5
2 Lawyers’ information needs arise under unique circumstances. They often
work on numerous cases and must digest a tremendous amount of information in
a short period of time. They also have to meet strict deadlines to file court docu-
ments and bear the burden of representing clients from diverse backgrounds. Due
to the heavy demands of attorneys in these diverse environments, it is often virtu-
ally impossible for them to produce immense work product without a skilled sup-
port staff and savvy, competent law librarians.
3 While legal research is a fundamental lawyering skill,6 legal practitioners often
do not have time to conduct their own research. In legal environments such as law
firms and government agencies, legal secretaries, paralegals, law clerks, and other
support staff assist attorneys with locating cases or statutory law. Law faculty are
often assigned student research assistants to assist them with their research. In most
instances, legal professionals rely on legal information professionals like librarians to
help them with their research needs. This begs the question, what perceptions do law
librarians have on the services they provide to their users? This article reports the
findings from a pilot study on this topic. A national survey of legal information pro-
fessionals was conducted to investigate how legal practitioners access and obtain legal
information. Results indicate that although attorneys rely heavily on librarians to
assist them with their information needs, when searching for information indepen-
dently, not only do they prefer to use digital resources but when they need assistance,
they prefer to use electronic communication such as e-mail.
4 This article contributes to existing literature by offering insight into librar-
ians’ perceptions of how lawyers search for information. Knowledge of these
research processes can lead to more effective services. It can also inform future
studies of attorneys’ and students’ research and research writing practices.
Literature Review
5 There has been significant literature written on related theories, ideas, argu-
ments, approaches, and recent developments within the sub-discipline of informa-
tion seeking. This literature review offers justification and establishes a framework
for this study.
6 Much of the work that has been done on the information-seeking behavior
of lawyers stems from studies on other professions. Early studies of information
seeking of professionals were conducted within the discipline of science. However,
Tom Wilson and David Streatfield’s groundbreaking work on social workers7 paved
the way for other studies that were not within the field. Library and information
5. Id. at 387.
6. am. bar aSSn, Section of LegaL educ. & admiSSionS to the bar, LegaL education and
profeSSionaL deveLopment—an educationaL continuum: report of the taSK force on Law
SchooLS and the profeSSion: narrowing the gap 138 (1992) (MacCrate Report).
7. T.D. Wilson & David Streatfield, Information Needs in Local Authority Social Services Depart-
ments: An Interim Report on Project INISS, 33 J. documentation 249 (1977).
289
Vol. 107:2 [2015-12] WHAT LIBRARIANS THINK ABOUT LAWYER SEARCH BEHAVIOR
science scholars who were interested in the need for and use of information in daily
work began to expand their interests to professions beyond the field of science dur-
ing the late 1970s. This expansion to incorporate ‘service-oriented’ professionals
included such groups as: doctors, lawyers, teachers, nurses, librarians, accountants
and engineers.8
7 Komlodi explored legal information seekers’ use of their mental memory by
externally recorded search histories.9 Sutton theorized that attorneys construct
mental models of the law when performing legal research.10 While these studies are
useful in understanding some behavioral practices of lawyers, they do not examine
the relationship between lawyer and information specialist, particularly when the
attorney imposes a query onto the specialist, which is common practice and a very
important aspect of how lawyers obtain information in a law firm environment.
Chancellor explored how the notion of time is a critical factor in lawyer’s search
process.11
8 A survey of the library literature on this topic indicates that not one compre-
hensive work fully investigates the multifaceted behavior of lawyers. “The small
number of studies that do exist that address the information-related needs of law-
yers demonstrate that access to a wide variety of information is crucial to their
wo r k.” 12 However, several studies offer a glimpse into the information needs of
lawyers. Japhet Otike contends that although significant research has been con-
ducted on the information-seeking behavior of lawyers, very few studies have been
documented in the literature.13 This is largely because a number of studies have
been the subject of master’s theses and dissertations and thus rarely appear in
major bibliographical works. In addition, many of the studies were conducted out-
side of the United States. Although U.S. attorneys practice law and access and
retrieve legal information somewhat differently than do other countries’ attorneys,
some commonalities exist in their information-seeking behavior.
9 Otike’s study on the information needs and habits of lawyers in England and
in the United Kingdom determined that lawyers’ information needs are influenced
by the nature of the work they do.14 This contention is supported by research con-
ducted in Canada15 and Ireland.16 Results published by Ibraham Haruna and Iyabo
8. Gloria Leckie et al., Modeling the Information Seeking of Professionals: A General Model
Derived from Research on Engineers, Health Care Professionals and Lawyers, 66 Libr. Q. 161 (1996).
9. Anita Komlodi, Task Management Support in Information Seeking: A Case for Search Histories,
20 computerS in hum. behav. 163 (2004).
10. Stuart A. Sutton, The Role of Attorney Mental Models of Law in Case Relevance Determinations:
An Exploratory Analysis, 45 J. am. Socy info. Sci. 188 (1994).
11. Renate L. Chancellor, Legal Information Seeking in a Time-Constrained Environment: A Con-
ceptual Model for Lawyers, 38 intL J. LegaL info. 282 (2010).
12. Leckie et al., supra note 8, at 173.
13. Japhet Otike, The Information Needs and Seeking Habits of Lawyers in England: A Pilot Study,
31 intL info. & Libr. rev. 19 (1999).
14. Id. at 38.
15. canadian dept of JuStice, operation compLex: the information needS of a practicing
Lawyer (1972).
16. Gillian Kerins et al., Information Seeking and Students Studying for Professional Careers: The
Cases of Engineering and Law Students in Ireland, 10 info. reSearch (2004), available at http://www
.informationr.net/ir/10-1/paper208.html.
290 LAW LIBRARY JOURNAL Vol. 107:2 [2015-12]
Mabawonku name nine information needs of lawyers in Lagos, Nigeria;17 similarly,
a separate Canadian study by Margaret Wilkinson identifies the information-
seeking behavior of lawyers.18 One element identified by Wilkinson is the knowl-
edge of where and how to find the law. I argue that this is also an important need
for lawyers in the United States.
10 Perhaps the best-known model in this arena is that developed by Gloria
Leckie, Karen Pettigrew, and Christian Sylvain in 1996. From previously published
work, Leckie et al. constructed a model of information seeking that illustrates the
characteristics common to all three of the professional groups studied: engineer-
ing, healthcare, and law.19 The model consists of six elements:
1. Work roles
2. Tasks
3. Characteristics of information needs
4. Sources of information
5. Awareness of information
6. Outcomes
This work illustrates a causal relationship that begins with work roles and ends
with outcomes. Arrows show the relationship between each of the components of
the model. The basic premise of the model is that the roles and tasks performed by
professionals throughout the course of daily practice dictate specific information
needs. As a result, an information-seeking process occurs.
11 Leckie et al.’s six-element model is predicated on the hypothesis that infor-
mation seeking begins with the enactment of a particular work role. Specific roles
(element 1) and their related tasks (element 2) result in information needs, which
in turn are affected by certain characteristics (element 3). Characteristics of the
needs can be influenced by certain variables (such as profession, age, or area of
specialization) that may affect the outcome (element 6). Furthermore, sources of
information (element 4) and awareness of information (element 5) flow from the
characteristics of information needs as representative of other elements of the
model.
12 These elements directly influence the outcome as it relates to an individu-
al’s access to sources and intended use of sources. The availability of the sources is
also key to obtaining the necessary information required by the user. The outcome
is determined by the completion of the task. This is accomplished ideally when the
professional obtains the information sought. If the information has not being
obtained, the model includes a feedback loop that links to the characteristics of the
information. This loop serves as a method of repeating the steps of the model to
obtain more clarity in the information needed or to refine the role/task in the pro-
17. Ibraham Haruna & Iyabo Mabawonku, Information Needs and Seeking Behaviour of Legal
Practitioners and the Challenges to Law Libraries in Lagos, Nigeria, 33 intL info. & Libr. rev. 69
(2001).
18. Margaret Wilkinson, Information Sources Used by Lawyers in Problem-Solving: An Empirical
Exploration, 23 Libr. & info. Sci. reS. 257 (2001).
19. Leckie et al., supra note 8.
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cess. Once the task is completed and the user has the information requested, it is
said that his or her information need has been met.
13 Although the Leckie et al. model is useful in understanding how various
professionals search for information, it is by no means a comprehensive model.
One cannot help but wonder whether a model based on the research of engineer-
ing, healthcare, and law professionals applies equally well to all professionals. Fur-
thermore, although Leckie et al. present a compelling argument as to why there is
commonality in the information needs of engineering, healthcare, and law profes-
sionals, I argue that there are probably far too many differences within each profes-
sion to group it with all others into one general model. The information-seeking
needs of lawyers differ from those of healthcare professionals, for example. Lawyers
are unique because they often practice at different levels, specifically in the law firm
environment. Partners, associates, and law clerks occupy different skill levels and
therefore have different information needs. Generally, the Leckie et al. model is a
good basic start for exploring the information-seeking needs in professions. How-
ever, this generalized model does not adequately address unique behaviors of indi-
vidual groups such as lawyers. Therefore, I contend that further research is needed
to explicitly address the specific and unique information needs of lawyers.
14 In one of the first empirical studies conducted in the United States, Wilkin-
son enhanced Leckie et al.’s model by including the various ways lawyers perform
their work.20 She argues that organizational context is important in understanding
attorneys’ information needs. She claims that lawyers possess unique qualities that
set them apart from the service-oriented professionals that the Leckie et al. model
addresses. Wilkinson’s study focuses on the specific roles of lawyers in their quest
for information. Her data collection included interviews with more 150 attorneys
in Canada, and she found that law firm size is a significant factor when performing
legal research. Attorneys at smaller firms are more likely to utilize resources outside
of the firm as compared to mid- to large-sized firms, which often use support staff
to conduct legal research.21
Methodology
15 Methods of investigation involved literature review, described in the section
above, and a quantitative survey. The data derived from and the ideas incorporated
from the literature were analyzed using SurveyMonkey, a commonly used tool for
collecting online data. The present study used procedures that are investigative. Law
librarians who subscribe to the Law Librarians Society of the District of Columbia
(LLSDC) and online members of the American Association of Law Libraries
(AALL) were surveyed.
16 Participants accessed the survey by directly selecting a web link from the
survey e-mail announcement or by copying and pasting the URL into their brows-
ers. The first page offered a brief lay description of the survey. By clicking on Next,
respondents were directed to the questions. The multiple-choice questionnaire was
20. Wilkinson, supra note 18, at 260.
21. Id. at 269.
292 LAW LIBRARY JOURNAL Vol. 107:2 [2015-12]
four pages, and each page was equipped with Back and Next options. Respondents
checked the appropriate response in each section; a total of sixteen questions were
asked.
17 Through skip logic technology, sections of the survey were skipped when-
ever a respondent checked the answer at the end of one section that indicated a lack
of knowledge, awareness, or information about the upcoming section. Taking the
survey required that participants read questions and check boxes; however, in some
instances, they were given an option to specify or explain their answers. At the end
of the questionnaire, participants had an opportunity to provide additional com-
ments. Participants who preferred not to take the survey online were offered the
option of using fax, mail, or telephone. The tag line at the end of the questionnaire
invited participants to take part in follow-up interviews. Follow-up interviews were
conducted and will be analyzed for the second part of this study.
18 Results from the questionnaire were entered into an online survey pro-
gram, SurveyMonkey (http://www.surveymonkey.com) to facilitate data analysis. A
total of 132 librarians completed the questionnaire. The small sample size is not
sufficiently representative to draw definitive conclusions about why lawyers prefer
particular digital resources. Conclusions, therefore, are necessarily preliminary.
19 Despite its limitations, this study plays an important part in ongoing
research into the information-seeking behavior of lawyers. It offers a valuable pre-
liminary understanding from experienced legal information professionals of the
information needs of lawyers. Thereby, it serves as an important foundation for
future, larger-scale research that further tests these perceptions.
Results and Analysis
TABLE 1
Summary of Selected Survey Responses (N=132)
Questions and Responses Percent (%)
What is your gender?
Male 23
Female 77
What is your age?
26–35 12
36–45 30
46–55 24
Over 55 33
What is your educational background?
M.L.I.S. 61
J.D. 27
Other 9
None 3
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Questions and Responses Percent (%)
How long have you been a librarian?
Less than 2 years 5
2–5 years 9
5–10 years 22
More than 10 years 65
In what type of law library do you work?
Law firm 57
Law school 20
Government 13
Court 4
Other 7
How many years in current position?
Less than a year 11
1–5 years 15
More than 5 years 33
More than 10 years 30
How many attorneys at law firm?
20–50 5
More than 50 93
Other 2
How many hours per week spent conducting reference services?
None 3
1–5 hours 19
5–10 hours 24
10–25 hours 54
Who are primary users?
Attorneys 70
Faculty 4
Judges 3
Public 6
Students 13
Other 4
How would you characterize most reference requests?
Ready reference 54
Research 46
TABLE 1 continued
294 LAW LIBRARY JOURNAL Vol. 107:2 [2015-12]
Questions and Responses Percent (%)
How are most reference requests received?
E-mail 50
Intranet 5
In person 35
Telephone 5
Social media 5
Do attorneys prefer print or digital resources?
Print 30
Digital 70
Which electronic resources do lawyers prefer?
Westlaw 30
WestlawNext 25
Lexis 20
Lexis Advance 15
Bloomberg 5
Google 5
When do users prefer their information?
Within 30 minutes 33
Within an hour 25
1–5 hours 31
More than 5 hours 12
Is time a factor in providing reference services?
Yes 90
No 10
Where is time more a factor?
Academic 10
Agency 6
Court 14
Law firm 64
Public 6
20 Several key themes emerge from the survey data. The demographic makeup
of the participants is primarily experienced law librarians who have worked in the
field more than ten years. Therefore, they should have a good sense of lawyer
information-seeking behavior. The majority of study participants are employed at
law firm libraries; therefore their perspectives may differ from those working in
TABLE 1 continued
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Vol. 107:2 [2015-12] WHAT LIBRARIANS THINK ABOUT LAWYER SEARCH BEHAVIOR
other legal environments (such as courts, academic institutions, or government
agencies). Nevertheless, the survey found that seventy percent of the respondents
work with attorneys. And most spend between ten and twenty-five hours per week
working on reference and research requests.
21 The majority of respondents characterized most reference requests as ready
reference rather than in-depth research inquiries. This may have many meanings.
First, it may be that lawyers simply do not have time to conduct their own searches
and therefore rely heavily on law library staff. Furthermore, lawyers may know the
value of using library services and simply feel more comfortable going to informa-
tion experts.
22 According to the findings, seventy percent of those surveyed believe that
attorneys prefer using electronic resources to print ones. This is not surprising
given the ease of using technology and the time pressures lawyers typically face.
Likely for similar reasons, lawyers are perceived to prefer electronic means such as
e-mail to communicate with library staff. This predilection for accessibility is con-
sistent with Wilkinson’s study on lawyers.22 According to ninety percent of the law
librarians surveyed, time is a factor in providing reference services. Attorneys prefer
to receive their information within thirty minutes. This speaks to the expedient
nature of the legal environment, specifically in law firms, which eighty percent of
respondents identified as the most likely to communicate time pressure.
Conclusions and Goals for Future Study
23 In addition to its specific results concerning lawyers’ information-seeking
behavior, this study highlights the important insights that information profession-
als can offer to the field. The data collected in this study suggest useful ways to
improve the methods law librarians and other information professionals use in
providing legal reference services, particularly as related to the demand for elec-
tronic resources.
24 The need remains for further study to fully understand the behavior of
lawyers and how they use information services. Surveys of librarians and personal
interviews would provide valuable information about the reasons for libraries’
choices, the full extent to which tools are promoted to users beyond mention on
library websites, and the evidence of success or failures in experimenting with these
tools.
22. Id. at 258.
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This article examines the information seeking and evaluative behavior of attorneys as they search the corpus of law for primary authority in order to solve context sensitive legal issues. First, the dynamic mental models attorneys construct of the law as expressed in its published artifacts is explored. The relevance judgment of cases is then explicated in terms of these models. The conclusion reached is that relevance judgments shift along a knowledge continuum depending on the status of the attorney's mental model, and that the factors underlying these judgments are complex, multidimensional, and knowable. Current empirical research into the retrieval effectiveness of two full-text legal databases is evaluated in light of the behavioral theory and mental models developed. The implications of attorney information seeking behavior for future information retrieval system design for this domain are also explored. © 1994 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
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This paper reports the results of two empirical studies which explored the information seeking behaviour of engineering and law students in Ireland. Findings reveal similar patterns in the information seeking behaviour between students studying to become professionals and information seeking patterns of these groups identified in Leckie et al.'s model. Students learned their information seeking strategies, including effective and less effective approaches, from educators and continuing mis-perceptions of libraries and information professionals. The studies suggest that engineering and law students in Ireland could benefit from greater information literacy training and awareness, enabling them to acquire the information skills they need to function effectively and efficiently in their future professional work lives.