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Legal Implosion
Law Libraries Going Extinct

Here’s another indication that law schools are in deep trouble: Law libraries are going the way of the dodo. A working paper by law professor James G. Miles claims that as law schools shrink, revenue-losing departments such as legal libraries are likely to be among the first things to go. Although he notes that the importance these libraries has long been boosted by some odd incentives in the US News and World Report rankings, the cutbacks are reaching a point where retaining them will no longer be justifiable. The WSJ reports:

The problem isn’t just about money. It’s also about demand. Legal historians are “still attached to traditional law libraries,” he writes, but most faculty now are doing most of their legal research electronically. […]

“Going forward, [college’s priorities] will not be law libraries,” Mr. Milles concludes. “Revenue-­‐generating departments such as development, alumni relations, and career services, and perhaps status-­‐enhancing programs such as law journals, interdisciplinary programs, and research centers, will be strengthened, while revenue-­‐draining departments will be cut.”

This  may be the end of an era, but it’s not altogether a bad thing. A legal education has become far too expensive for the value of the degree, and excessive spending on unnecessary programs like law libraries, which have been rendered mostly obsolete by new technology, is one reason why. These institutions may have some sentimental value, particularly academics used to the old system, but the plight of the law library pales in comparison to the problem facing the thousands of law grads entering the market with six figure debt and no job.

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  • Fat_Man

    Back in the 90s, I was a partner in a law firm that collapsed. It was a painful and expensive experience. One lesson I learned was that law libraries had lost their value even then. Materials that had cost us thousands of dollars were sold for a few cents per volume.

    Since then the internet and computers have become even more pervasive. Law libraries have very little value to practicing lawyers who need the most recent laws and opinions. If I were starting a law firm in 2014, it would not have a library.

    I guess law students should learn something about dead tree libraries so as to be able to understand older cases, but need not learn the fine art of research in those places, as they will never be required to do any.

    • rheddles

      Ever read a charter roll?

      • Fat_Man

        No. I was a practicing lawyer in a state that was howling wilderness 200 years ago. Thank god. The three guys in the US who care about charter rolls can find them at the British Museum. The rest of us don’t need to susidise their hobby

        • rheddles

          Actually, the PRO translations are available on line. My point is that there is no reason to learn how to use dead tree storage facilities as everything is or soon will be on line, even the originals for the two attorneys who know law french.

    • Jim__L

      At some point Google should be required to post its search algorithms… could you imagine a legal research world where some points of law or cases are deliberately ignored by the search algorithm?

      Down the memory hole…

      • Fat_Man

        Lawyers do not use Google for legal research on focused questions. They use services like Lexis, Westlaw, and Casemaker. They have for a generation now.

        • Jim__L

          Same point applies…

          • Fat_Man

            It is not perceived as a real problem. It is a competitive market, and adversaries would point out ignored cases.

  • Corlyss

    “A working paper by law professor James G. Miles claims that as law schools shrink, revenue-losing departments such as legal libraries are likely to be among the first things to go.”
    Reminds me of my favorite episode of New Tricks, the Brit dramedy about a cold case unit consisting of retired cops. It involved a college whose hard-copy library was being scrapped and transmogrified into a “Learning Center” full of computer terminals connected to the Internet. The decision to do resulted in one professor taking priceless volumes that would either be thrown away or sold for pennies on the dollar to used book dealers. He would then sell them to “antiquarian book dealers” for a handsome price. The philistine behind the decision was a former head of the finance department now the head of the college – tantalizingly named Jeremy Ventham.

    One really wonders with Lexis and Westlaw and the Internet, what took ’em so long. The bad thing about the internet vs. Lexis & Westlaw is the absence of the services’ updating of case law. Unless a lawyer knows the complete history of an argument or legal principle in that jurisdiction, very unpleasant things can happen.

  • Bretzky1

    Law libraries will persist, they’ll just get smaller. Gone will be the rows upon rows of hard copy versions of the case reporters, treatises, codes and regulations, and bound copies of journals. This material is readily available and more accessible on Westlaw and Lexis.

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