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The American Association of Law Libraries’ Task Force on Legal Skills and Knowledge for Practice has released three reports about how legal research is conducted in the practice of law, based on surveys of more than 600 attorneys and 150 law librarians from all over the country. Formed in 2011, the Task Force was charged with “identify[ing] the current and future research skills that law school graduates need to succeed in legal practice.” Data was compiled “to help law schools determine how to develop their curriculum to meet the research needs of their graduates.” The results have broader implications. They speak to how people look for information in the digital age, and how we can do better with better tools.

The first two reports gathered quantitative data from practitioners and law librarians, while the third report, issued in June, 2015, summarized qualitative responses from a survey of practicing lawyers evaluating new associates’ research skills. The third report states “In many cases, the qualitative survey data mirrored the quantitative data set forth in the Practitioner Survey Final Report. For example, the quantitative survey data from the Practitioner Survey Final Report shows that over 40% of recent law school graduates conduct research of legislative histories, administrative decisions, and non-legal sources ‘poorly’ or ‘unacceptably.’ One comment to the open-ended question noted recent graduates’ deficiency with respect to legislative and administrative research: ‘[New law school graduates] rarely go to sources beyond case law or statutes unless requested. Legislative history, governmental opinion letters, statute annotations, are good sources of information that they do not typically use.’ ”

The reports bring to the fore a number of questions. Is it the job of law schools to teach lawyers how to do legal research, or can they learn on the job? Or to take a broader look at the picture drawn, are recent graduates of our institutions of higher learning depending on free easy-to-use resources, and moving away from more in-depth tools (in the case of the law, secondary sources like standard treatises , manuals, digests, encyclopedias, etc.)? Are the answers that they are coming up with to their queries less sophisticated or on target than what they might have been in the past? Is there a way that we can do a better job so as not to dumb-down research sophistication, and put value back in critical thinking?

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