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Key to the kingdom

|Written By Michael McKiernan
Key to the kingdom

In the blur of orientation week, between the bonding sessions, the pub-crawls, and the overwhelming stack of introductory materials, you may have a fuzzy memory of an introduction to one of the most important buildings on campus — the library. “Orientation days are programmed to the minute and I will get to talk to them for maybe three minutes,” says Kathryn Arbuckle, head law librarian at the University of Alberta’s John A. Weir Memorial Law Library. “For some of them, it’s the only chance I may have to speak to them in their whole first year.”

With convenient course casebooks doing the search work for you and the multitude of materials available online, the law library can become little more than a social space or quiet environment for exam-time cramming after that first encounter. At Osgoode Hall Law School, which is in the middle of a two-year renovation, the library may struggle even to achieve that status, with rooms and resources scattered across the York University campus. Its main reference section is housed in an old cafeteria in the basement of the Health, Nursing, and Environmental Studies building. Half of its books are still in the old building, surrounded by construction while two-thirds of the reference collection is locked up in a warehouse in Bolton, Ont.

Luckily, there is much more to the library than a building, says Osgoode’s chief law librarian, Louis Mirando. “The library as a physical place is really important, but students shouldn’t forget that it is a resource and an active resource. Increasingly it is the virtual library they are accessing, but a lot of the keys to accessing that are in the library,” says Mirando.

Chief among those keys are the librarians themselves, according to Nancy McCormack, head of the Lederman Law Library at Queen’s University. She says there is nothing better a student can do than to schmooze their local law librarian. “They will do all kinds of things if you are nice to them, and it’s in our nature to help. That’s why we went into libraries.” David Michels, a librarian at the Sir James Dunn Law Library at Dalhousie University, says the staff at his library is its biggest asset. He doesn’t have a background in law, but if there’s one thing he knows, it’s how to find information. He’s happy to work one-on-one with students because they’re more likely to retain the knowledge he teaches them. “Law students and new lawyers are not going to have time to keep up with the latest developments in research practices. I may not understand the specifics of what you’re looking for, but I understand information very well. If you tell me what you’re looking for, I’m sure I can find it,” he says.

Michels believes the technology revolution that has made information so much more available has actually made finding the right material more difficult. Limited space in printed case reports used to force an editor to filter out the boring stuff and highlight the leading cases. “Now memory is cheap, you just put them all in. That puts a lot more onus on the students to be the experts,” he says.

At the University of Alberta, Arbuckle says students waste a lot of time by bringing a “Google search” mindset into the library. She says most library catalogues and databases don’t work the same way as Google, so the results they want end up buried in irrelevant matches. She says their catalogue works more like the Yellow Pages, with resources grouped together by subject. The key, she says, is to understand exactly how each search tool works. “When you open a tool box, you’ve got screwdrivers and hammers and they both join things. But if you try to use a screwdriver where what you really need is a hammer, it doesn’t work well. You’ve got to understand what the different tools do. It sounds pretty basic, but that can save a lot of time,” she says.

Mirando says he is sometimes tempted to cancel Osgoode library’s print subscriptions because so few students make use of them. Law firms, he says, are already closing their print libraries. “We have a summer student who was filing supplements into the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest for us. He said to me, ‘I never knew it was a print publication,’ because he had always accessed it online,” says Mirando. But there are some important exceptions to the no-print rule, he says. Most areas of law have a definitive text that Mirando says can work as a great shortcut in legal research; books such as Stephen Waddams’ The Law of Contracts and Kevin McGuinness’ Canadian Business Corporations Law. “You cannot know anything about contracts in Canada unless you’ve read Waddams cover to cover. When a question comes up in practice, you don’t go to Google or Quicklaw, you pick up Waddams and check the index. They’re ignored too often,” he says.

Kim Clarke, the director of the University of Calgary’s law library, agrees secondary sources can provide a great starting point for a research project. “Why waste all your time analyzing the law when you can read five pages in a textbook that will provide a basic understanding of what the legal issues are,” she says.

Clarke advises all students to take an advanced legal research course where it is offered by their university. Her school is one of very few in North America where both the introductory and advanced classes are mandatory. Most schools have a compulsory research class in the first year of law school, but that’s not enough according to McCormack. “They need to go in-depth in upper years because they don’t have the context in first year. They haven’t spent a year reading cases and digesting the substantive content of law,” says McCormack. “Every year I get e-mails from graduated students saying they don’t know how they would get by without a research class. It’s not a sexy course, but it’s a skill and once you have it, you’re grateful to have learned it.”

Much ink has been spilled in the heated debate over when students should be taught research skills, says Mirando. He would like to see more instruction as part of upper-year courses, but says professors are reluctant to give up their already-scarce class time for a session with a librarian. That puts the onus on students to attend refresher courses and extracurricular sessions put on regularly by his staff. “Students should think of research as an integral part of whatever law they go into. It’s not a separate thing. These are basic integrated skills you need as part of thinking and acting like a lawyer,” he says.

In library circles, the only issue more contentious than when students should be taught is exactly what they should be taught. “We are about training in the academic discipline of law. Whether we should be more of a trade school to teach practising lawyers is a debate,” says Arbuckle.

Before arriving at Osgoode, Mirando spent 15 years working as a librarian for Torys LLP, where he felt as though he had to start from scratch with articling students because they didn’t know the research skills they needed in practice. “There’s a feeling that the law schools have lost touch with the practice of law and there’s always a bit of tension between the academy and the bar,” he says. “Students come out and they don’t know how to search a case. They don’t know how to write a case digest. You need to be able to read through a case and summarize the points of law and the decision. We’re not training graduate students, we’re training lawyers.”

Again, the University of Calgary takes a unique approach, attempting to bridge the gap between academia and practice in its advanced research class. “My assignments are activities they would do in practice. They learn how to use a memo to find more current relevant cases to see if the law has changed. They know how to do historical research to find out what the law was at a given time,” says Clarke.

McCormack says law students need to develop strong research skills now because the profession revolves around thoroughness. “At the end of the day, your research will involve a client and it will involve your own professional credibility. Law is not a thing you want to skip steps in because you could miss out on a huge part of the answer, which makes you look bad and also could lose the case for your client,” she says.

And despite its unglamorous reputation, McCormack says the skills they learn in the law library will quickly pay dividends. “When you’re articling and summering, it’s basically an extended job interview. Everything you do counts and if you know how to be accurate and find the right answers, you’re showing that you can be trusted and that your work is sound.”

Keys to legal research success 

Get to know your librarians
These people are the oracles of legal information and they want to help you. David Michels says he even answers calls from graduates stumped by a research problem. “We won’t chide you. We’ll teach you as many times as it takes until you can learn these skills. We’re a service profession,” he says.

Take an advanced legal research course
That mandatory first-year course gives you the basics, but if you want that information to stick, you have to keep it up, says Louis Mirando. At the very least, take advantage of the refresher and training sessions offered by the library. “In first year, you have neither the context nor the opportunity to put into practice what you’re learning.”

Get out of the Google-search mindset
Each database works differently, so ask the librarian to show you how it works and the tricks for getting the best results. “You don’t want to end up with 500 hits where the leading case is on screen five of the results, because you’re going to give up before you get there,” says Michels.

Look beyond Quicklaw and Westlaw
Kim Clarke says students are too reliant on the two largest legal research databases, when there are many other useful resources for specific areas of law. “They are the primary databases, but don’t get into a rut. There are plenty of other databases.”

Use secondary sources
Why waste all of your time redoing work somebody has already done for you. “Greater minds than yours have tackled most problems and there are books by them,” Mirando tells his students.

Know when to stop
If you’re spinning your wheels on a particular issue, call for help. “When you’re spending an hour on something, you’re not getting anywhere and you’re just getting frustrated,” says Clarke.