The Inside Guide to the Cornell Library Continues with Julie Graves Krishnaswami on Legal Research + the Importance of Scholarship

Lawyer Librarian, Julie Graves Krishnaswami is passionate about legal research and information. Read on to learn about the misconception that incoming students have about Legal Research—seriously, it is actually more complicated than finding a restaurant and hair salon on Google. In the interview, Julie also notes that if you can’t do legal research efficiently, you can’t write well, and usually you can’t think well. Julie also discusses her latest scholarship.

What is a lawyer librarian and how do they differ from say, a librarian at an undergraduate institute?        
The term Lawyer Librarian is a bit of a misnomer because I am not a lawyer for the library, even though I am a lawyer. I have a JD and I currently maintain two law licenses, one in NY and one in NJ. The difference is, typically that, law Librarians teach legal research and advanced legal research courses and they bring their knowledge of the practice of law, the terminology, and the different subject matters, to their work. Legal materials are specialized and are very different from other materials in a college or university library. But there are a lot of great law librarian who do all these things without a JD, too. And there is a valid question in our field about whether a JD is necessary for law librarians—and whether it is even economically feasible given law librarians salaries and earning potential and the rising cost of legal education.

So your specialty is being able to access legal materials?       
Yes, accessing and also instructing patrons how to find legal materials.

What is the part of your job that you like the most?                
The part of my job that I like the most, is teaching.

I also like challenging reference questions that pull me into a new areas of the law that I don’t know about. In answering reference questions, we are often taken into new databases and sources which we have never used before—that is really fun.

The other part of my job that I really like, is the scholarship, and writing that I can do. I have to really make it a priority in my schedule. As a law librarian, I think what I can contribute to the institution, and my field, are my thoughts on teaching legal research and how to use and understand sophisticated legal material.

I know that scholarship is really important to you. I want to know why you think it is important for Lawyer Librarians to publish? Why does that matter? In particular, I know that the field of lawyer librarianship is undergoing a lot of changes, and I am wondering if you could touch on that?

That is a good question.

The reason that scholarship is so important is because there is so much change in the field: technology is changing, the substance of the law is changing, the character of our students is always changing and the needs of our institution and values of our institution are also changing. We need to consider these things when we think about what types of collections we want to build, and how we are going to teach students to use legal materials. These are complicated questions and require considering the tools, history, and information stake holders such as publishers, vendors, law schools, copy right holders, etc. when answering them.

I’ll give you an example. Right now, the ABA is pressuring law schools to teach law students the skills of being a lawyer. This is different from what is taught in doctrinal classes where student learn how to read appellate court opinions, make arguments, and synthesize rules based on those decisions. These are defiantly skills you need to be a lawyer, but there are some other skills like the ability to interview a client, the ability to take a problem and break it down into ways that make your client and firm happy, and make the court happy. Teachers of legal research have a lot to contribute in regards to lawyering skills. We need to sort that out these contributions through scholarship. For example, my own research discusses how legal research can teach and reinforce problem solving techniques. Questions about the library’s collection are also relevant; how do we deal with ebooks? How should substantive areas of the law and the ABA’s focus on legal skills inform our collection and collection development policies? There are many complicated issues related to legal research and legal information and thinking about and possibly proposing answers is why I like this field.

On that note, you recently returned from the Institute for Law Teaching and Learning conference. I was wondering if you could talk about what you presented?
At the conference, I presented with two other law librarians on teaching legal research using pop culture. We read the research on why using pop culture works when you are teaching. Pop culture works well when you are teaching new material because you anchor, or hook, material onto information people already know. And you do that by using pop culture—you can use a clip from The Office, or a television commercial—these are good anchors. The other thing about pop culture is it gets students attention, and it kind of humanizes you as a teacher. In this panel we talked about why pop culture works and then some ways not use pop culture in the classroom, and some ways to use it well. It was a great panel and a lot of fun.

What are some the projects you are working on?  
I just finished a project evaluating our government documents depository and consider whether we should stay in the program. I am finishing a paper on incorporating critical thinking into legal research teaching, planning my advanced regulatory research class for the spring, and am making some changes to my fall legal research class.

And always thinking about that legal research book?

And my legal research book, when I can fit it in…

Thank you so much Julie, I really enjoyed talking to you!

Interview by HEC