by Robert Hegadorn
An education isn’t how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It’s being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don’t. It’s knowing where to go to find out what you need to know; and it’s knowing how to use the information you get.
As part of the overall law school experience, is legal research instruction, and library skills instruction in general, still useful? Does this training do the 21st Century law student or attorney any good? The short answer is (no surprise) “Yes.” In keeping with William Feather’s observations, an attorney’s education and experience will tell him or her how to “differentiate between what [they] know and what [they] don’t,” and “how to use the information [they] get.” The Law Library is the place “to go to find out what you need to know” in law school and in legal practice. And of course today you may still go to the Library, or else “go” to the Library’s many online legal information resources.
The legal research instruction that students receive as part of their legal education teaches future lawyers how to find the information they need from amongst the vast range of print and online resources available. Law students learn to “think like a lawyer,” that is, they learn to identify the legal issues presented by a description of events—a narrative of recent history or a proposed plan of action. By using their training in legal principles, in the existing forms of the law, and in the procedures of the courts, legal practitioners can then advise clients on likely legal consequences and attempt to shape the most positive legal outcomes. Legal professionals also learn how to continually educate and re-educate themselves about the dynamic fields of law and legal practice. The well-educated lawyer will of course know much law, but he or she will also be able to recognize that they do cannot immediately know the answer to every legal problem. Yet they will know how to get the information they lack, by having learned when and how to use secondary legal sources such as encyclopedia, treatises, law reviews or American Law Reports to learn about unfamiliar areas of law; to use forms when drafting legal documents; to use digests and reporters to discover the current state of the law in their jurisdiction; to use annotated statutes and legislative update services to keep abreast of statutory law; to use free online resources for federal statutes, regulations, or to find other government publications and official information; and to make use of any good library to find the wide range of legal and other information they must have.
The information Villanova Law students need is available at the Villanova Law Library in print, or in online databases, or in both—learn when and how to make the best use of these resources. And learn to make the best use of all the other information resources that may become available to you—experienced colleagues, “institutional knowledge” (e.g., your employer’s “brief-bank”), and, of course, your friendly Law Librarian.