Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Keeping Solo Practitioners in Mind

I was perusing a Law Library Journal the other day when I came upon an article of interest: "What about the Majority? Considering the Legal Research Practices of Solo and Small Firm Attorneys" by Joseph D. Lawson, Deputy Director of the Harris County Law Library in Houston, Texas.

Specifically, it discussed the use of fee-based resources by practicing attorneys. The author in the past had expressed concern about the research needs of solo practitioners, since they were often underrepresented in surveys. Working at a library that was open to the public and used by many attorneys unaffiliated with a firm, meeting their needs was of substantial importance. Interestingly, he found that as of 2005, 49% of all private practicing attorneys in the US were solo practitioners. However, when the American Association of Law Libraries conducted a survey on practitioners "understanding how practicing attorneys conduct legal research," solo practitioners comprised only 13.77% of the sample population. These survey results may have unintentionally favored the needs of attorneys working at law firms.

Another survey was conducted by the Ford Bend County Bar association to collect data from its local members. In order to generate a higher response rate, the questionnaire was distributed with the annual election ballot; more than 50% of respondents in this case were solo practitioners. These respondents reported similar usage of print and free online resources as the ones from the national survey, but reported using fee-based sources far less frequently. In fact, 42% of local respondents reported that they never or rarely used fee-based resources.

There are, of course, implications of this study for law libraries that are used heavily by practicing attorneys. The article concludes that in order to understand how attorneys conduct legal research, attention must be paid to the behaviors of solo practitioners. Library response to their needs should come in the form of providing access to fee-based online sources, especially expensive databases that are often cost prohibitive for solo practitioners and attorneys are small firms.

At my own library, I've noticed a number of professionals who've come in, relieved to find that they can access a lite version of Westlaw (called "Westlaw Campus Research"). The ability to search cases and statutes, as well as to generate KeyCite reports, is an invaluable resource for them. Keeping their needs in mind should be a key part of the mission of any law library.

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