Enthnographic Study Of Lawyers At Work

A new article was just released that is the culmination of a three-year ethnographic study of attorneys in the workplace called Lawyers at Work: A Study of the Reading, Writing, and Communication Practices of Legal Professionals by Ann Sinsheimer and David J. Herring.

From the abstract:
This paper reports the results of a three-year ethnographic study of attorneys in the workplace. The authors applied ethnographic methods to identify how junior associates in law firm settings engaged in reading and writing tasks in their daily practice. The authors were able to identify the types of texts junior associates encountered in the workplace and to isolate the strategies these attorneys used to read and compose texts. 

The findings suggest that lawyering is fundamentally about reading. The attorneys observed for this study read constantly, encountering a large variety of texts and engaging in many styles of reading, including close reading and also reading broadly, skimming and scanning texts for information. Their writing processes typically began by reading and rereading the information they used to substantiate their written work. They functioned in stressful environments in which they felt pressed for time and had to juggle multiple tasks. 

Upon skimming the article, I noticed a portion that is interesting information for law librarians.

The attorneys frequently read online accessing the Internet or documents housed on their firms’ database. Typically when starting a research project, the attorneys turned to the Internet. They were conscious of the cost of commercial databases like Westlaw or Lexis and tried to use free sources whenever possible.

Frequently, they accessed Google or Wikipedia to get a general sense of the issue. However, they all accessed material in hardcopy forms on a regular basis, often expressing a preference to read information from books or to print out information. 

During the course of our observations, the junior associate in litigation at the large firm, L, and the real estate attorney at the midsize firm, G, used their firms’ law libraries several times to access information in books. Our immigration attorney, K, used primarily Internet websites, including government websites, the Code of Federal Regulations in print, and Kurzban’s Immigration Law Sourcebook on a regular basis. She rarely used Westlaw and Lexis. Often the attorneys turned to books or printed text to read in detail or when they needed to annotate a document.

As the authors note, many legal educators have not been in practice for years, and we are working from a hunch about what is actually happening in "real-world" practice. This article is important in that it tracks the trends of the current legal field and offers a real glimpse into how our teaching might align with practical application. I will certainly keep these findings in mind as I plan my own legal research courses and decide what to emphasize.


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