Notes from the Technology Trenches: Free Gift (with Purchase)

Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C. and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.

It’s been a quiet month in the technology trenches, though a couple of things have happened that I want to be sure to let you know about.

AALL Poster Program Materials Available

First, regarding my last column on enhancing your training handouts and other business materials: The American Association of Law Librarians (AALL) conference program I referenced was very well received and the materials from it are now available on the Web at The session was, ironically, about as low-tech as possible, and consisted entirely of posters. An unexpected advantage of the poster format was that people could stop by, ask questions of the presenters if necessary, and move along to another program they didn’t want to miss if they liked. Since the presentation was entirely based on re-printable materials, it was easy to pick up handouts on a particular topic of interest or just check out the entire show on the Web later. I’ll be curious to see if there are many other poster presentations at future meetings as a response to its success.

In case you missed it, topics covered included tips on a range of issues under the headings of management, technical services, the Internet and intranets, research and reference and training. I really enjoyed participating in the project, though I wasn’t able to make it to the conference in person this year. In fact, I had so much fun that I’m thinking about doing a marketing program for either or both the Private Law Libraries and AALL conferences next year. If you have any stories about great marketing ideas or cautionary tales about big marketing bombs that you’d like to share, please send them on. I’d be happy to include your suggestions in a future column. This is about as close to a free lunch as you’re likely to get — great AALL programming ideas at no cost to you, unless you choose to share a few marketing stories. How sweet is that?

Lexis and Westlaw Costs Awareness

Another technology-related story that is all about the costs of free access came up earlier in the spring, but I got a little sidetracked from it by my summer associates. Now that they are almost done with their program, I thought it would be worth revisiting. Every spring I send out a survey to the incoming summer and fall classes to get a little feedback on their legal research skills. The summer 2000 version of the survey is available online, but I modify it every year in response to suggestions from our interns and their responses to the survey itself. One of the sections we haven’t made many changes in over the years is the part about Lexis and Westlaw use. I included that portion of the survey initially to get an idea about when our interns and new associates had last had training and who taught it: their school’s Westlaw and Lexis representatives, a librarian, etc. The idea was to see how current their skills were, and what the focus of their training had likely been. Well, either way, it wasn’t costs, let me tell you, or at least that portion of their training didn’t often stick.

I’m fairly happy with the basic search skills of our summers. We don’t spend much time on the rudiments of search syntax, for instance. Instead, we concentrate on encouraging them to use alternatives to full text research and in helping them become more cost effective researchers. When we get to concrete discussions about cost, they always seem so shocked at the database pricing that it would be funny if it weren’t such a gigantic portion of our library budget. Obviously, we take some pains to let them know about the costs they will incur, and to some extent, about the details of our contracts and how their searching may influence our future contract costs. We also try to remind to make them more mindful of the costs to them, and to our clients, of wasted time. The tricky thing is to make them concerned enough about pricing that they are careful, but not so concerned that they are paralyzed by fear. Somebody always seems to go too far in the other direction, searching for fruitless hours using a free source on the Web, for instance, when they could easily have retrieved what they needed from Westlaw or Lexis at minimal expense.

Anyway, I finally became curious about what their expectations were at the outset. I knew their access to both services was free at school, but what did they think costs would be in a fee-based environment? I kept thinking that since law school students, like everyone else in school these days, spend so much time online, they must be getting some idea about the actual costs. Looking back at previous survey groups, they had certainly become more aware and skilled about many other aspects of Web searching over the last four years. So, this year, out of curiosity, I asked them to give me a ballpark estimate for a search in typical large, multi-source (all case law) and small, single-source (case law from one state) databases. Now, picture me rolling my eyes and reaching for the Advil. Out of our response group, top students from great schools, about one third guessed that searches in either size database would cost under $5.00. One extreme optimist in that group guessed that a search in a small database would cost about a fifteen cents and in a large database about seventy-five cents. A little less than a third estimated costs fairly accurately or a little high, and the bulk in the middle ranged anywhere from the $5.00 mark up to accurate.

I don’t know why I was surprised — clearly they don’t expect the costs to be anything like what we tell them they are when the arrive — but I had no idea that for most the discrepancy would be so extreme. Knowing the costs has a huge impact on them here, and it really does help them focus on being more cost effective. I have to wonder whether knowing the costs throughout their time in school would help them become better searchers. It would definitely have got my attention — when I was in graduate school I was living paycheck to paycheck and didn’t have the giant debt of law school tuition hovering over my head. $5.00 was a big outlay for me at that point, and $150 was unimaginable. Now that I know the kinds of cost incurred during the litigation process, $150.00 does not seem so extreme, but I also known that concern for our clients and for our own budgets forces us to look out for every penny. So, if you are aware of any law school programs that seem to be especially successful about communicating information about the costs of Westlaw and Lexis searching, I’d like to hear about them, and to share them as well.

Gadget Follow-Up

Last, for those of you who read my column on gadgets, you might be interested to know that I finally succumbed and got a relatively inexpensive Palm Pilot. It’s been great, though I have to confess that so far its most useful feature is that it works as an alarm. I actually do remember to put information in it, and I love that it dings me about all the other things I need to remember. I also sync it regularly so that I don’t think I’ll have any problems losing information. I’m a chicken, though, so I still also have a little pocket diary to jot appointments in. I haven’t added much extra software, though I did opt to be able to carry a few baby pictures and some audio files. So thanks to all of you for your thoughts and advice, it’s been very helpful. If you have any other technology suggestions, rants or raves, please send them along.

Posted in: LEXIS, Notes from the Technology Trenches, Training, Westlaw