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Sunday, October 19, 2008

Teaching Research: Next in an Ongoing Series on LRW

Some readers have asked me to address teaching the research aspect of LRW head-on.

Of all of the components of an LRW program, I found teaching research to be the most difficult.  We had help from two resources on this score--librarians and Lexis/Westlaw reps.  The Lexis/Westlaw reps bring a tremendous amount of knowledge about their products to the table.  My sense is that the trouble is that they are trying to sell these products to students.  They aren't trying to teach the most efficient and effective ways to resolve questions.  Thus, they don't introduce all available tools, including actual books (particularly good as secondary sources to get you started on a project) as well as other online resources like government websites that carry many primary sources.

Law librarians are a different story altogether.  They bring a huge amount of knowledge and information to the table, and they can introduce students to a whole range of resources.

None of this has anything to do with how to teach legal research, though.  And like I said, I found it very difficult to teach in an effective way.  I invite readers to drop comments.

Posted by Hillel Levin on October 19, 2008 at 07:20 AM in Hillel Levin, Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I also ask students to track the amount of time they spend on research, giving them a billing rate and a budget limit so that they can see what it's like to work under client cost constraints.

This is so useful and nothing anyone ever bothered to tell me about in law school. Certainly the Lexis and Westlaw reps don't because that interferes with the "Yay, Lexis!" message. I know a lot of students who accidentally racked up huge charges in their first week as a summer associate, not realizing how the per transaction billing worked.

Posted by: anon | Oct 20, 2008 6:16:13 PM

I've taught upper-division legal research seminars for several years, and I try to emphasize practical exercises and assignments as much as possible. I also discuss the kinds of questions that new attorneys need to ask when they receive assignments from supervisors, because new attorneys have a lot of difficulty knowing which questions to ask. Becoming an efficient researcher takes a lot of practice, so I try to keep lecture time to a minimum and use class time for hands-on research exercises. I practiced for a bit before becoming an academic librarian, so for graded assignments I use research hypotheticals loosely based on the work that I was asked to do as a first-year associate. I also ask students to track the amount of time they spend on research, giving them a billing rate and a budget limit so that they can see what it's like to work under client cost constraints.

There are plenty of useful resources for teaching legal research at the American Association of Law Libraries' website:

Posted by: Amy | Oct 20, 2008 4:49:48 PM

I never learned a good way to do it.

But here's what typically happens.

Senior attorney will orally tell me about a problem
I had better take detailed and legible notes.

I read what I think he said.
He corrects and I edit my notes.

Off to the library. (Now I can only afford dead trees)

If i'm lucky, I can get a free/cheap electronic search and find a law review article that's done all of the work for me.

But more typically, I hope that the area of law is described well enough in the index of annotated statutes (or ALR).

If that's not the case, I have to keep stabbing till I find something that can point me in the right direction.

Cut #1
- the ALR/Annotated statutes gives me a group of cases
- I skim those cases
- Sort those cases into relevant, non-relevant
*hopefully I keep notes of where i've looked and why I ruled them out - so I don't double back

Cut #2
- relevant cases get sorted into positive/negative

Cut #3
- shepardize the positive cases
- read those cases
- scan those positive cases for cited precedents

Cut #4
- shepardize the negative cases
- read those cases
- scan those negative cases for cited precedents

At the end, I compile the cases and what they mean, and report back to my senior attorney.

At any point in the process, you may realize you're going down the wrong path.

You continue the research until, you think you've exhausted your resources.

In terms of effiency and speed, ultimately the better defined the problem, the easier this is to do.

You run into problems with
- Ill defined problems
- Areas that aren't litigated often, if ever <- which is the worst, because you think to yourself that you're just not framing the problem right, because in your mind, everything has been litigated in some form or fashion.

Lessons I wish I had been taught

- In forming the initial inquiriy - How to ask my senior attorney better questions at the start, so I don't have to bother him. (Law firms that I've worked at are typically areas of intellectual elitism, where publicly you're encouraged to ask questions, but privately discouraged from doing so)

- How to figure out faster whether i'm going down the wrong road
- A better method of keeping track about where i've been
- A better way to keep track about why I thought a case was good for our side, bad for ourside, or not relevant.

Posted by: Anonymous Frustrated Lawyer | Oct 20, 2008 2:17:45 PM

I have been a law librarian for over 20 years. I taught legal research for over a decade in a stand alone legal research class to first semester 1Ls (this was a semester long class that met 2 hours each week and it was a graded class). We had major writing assignments throughout the semester but legal research was the main focus. After legal research, the law students were required to take legal writing during their second semester first year and their first semester second year.

For the past several years, I have been at different law school where I don't have to pay ridiculously high heating bills in the winter months. LRW is taught by full-time LRW faculty. They are wonderful legal writing professors; however, their legal research skills are just not there and it really shows. The law students haven't a clue of how to do competent and efficient legal research. Legal research ain't rocket science, it is a skill. Unfortunately, it is a skill most first years don't learn in traditional LRW classes.

If a law school had the right group of law librarians (in some schools this is a big if), a law school could have a top notch legal research program. Sadly, this just isn't the case in most law schools and there is little desire to do this.

To think that a bunch of Lexis or Westlaw academic reps could effectively teach CALR (which is only one component of legal research ) is a joke. Academic reps from Westlaw and Lexis are the same people behind these bullshit "if you show up to this 5 minute training session you could accumulate 300 Westlaw or Lexis points and that will get you an iPod" programs! Academic reps are there to pimp Westlaw or Lexis. They are incapable of saying anything critical about their online services.

Get the reference librarians in your law schools teaching legal research because they are the people who know how to do legal research. If they don't want to do it, fire them and get a newly minted University of Washington law librarianship graduate in there to do the job.

Posted by: anon | Oct 20, 2008 1:32:41 PM

At most schools LRW is a two credit class (once a week). And two hours once a week is even less effective that two hours separated into two one-hour sessions. Most students can't focus more than an hour and a half. With that in mind, what many people overlook is that in order to teach technique (whether writing, reasoning, or research) it has to be based on an underlying area of law - "extra" reading for only a two credit course. And for the lessons to work well, the students' understanding of the law must be pretty good - better than the average grasp of material displayed in class discussions. Thus, there is often not nearly enough time to do even less than all of the ambitious things being discussed in these blog entries. This is a good reason to try to integrate LRW with one or two first year substantive courses. Basing LRW problems on cases discussed in other classes would lessen the additional work and also help to ensure that students thoroughly understand the law they are applying to the LRW problem.

Posted by: anon | Oct 19, 2008 10:35:52 PM

The best writing in the world isn't going to save an argument based on the wrong law. I agree that research education suffers from being taught by corporate representatives. A problem with teaching comprehensive research in the first year is that the students simply don't know enough law to be able to process the different techniques for finding that law. I'd favor a problem-based class (lectures on research are deadly) in the upper level years for the best broad-based research education.

Of course, the ABCs still have to be taught in the first year.

Posted by: anon | Oct 19, 2008 7:48:29 PM

You're focusing on the wrong LRW component. Let's talk about the "W," not the "R."

The world's savviest research skills won't do you a lick of good if you can't write reasonably well. What good is researching the law when you can't explain the results of your research to your audience.

As we all know, the average attorney -- to say nothing of the average young attorney -- writes very, very poorly. If I were Dean for a day, I would hire writing coaches/experts just as I would bring on an economist. At the very least, I send them all to a Bryan Garner seminar. I'd require the students to spend a semester studying good writing. They'd read ...

-- Fowler or Garner,
-- The Green Bag Almanac,
-- Other exceptionally well-written briefs and opinions, and even
-- The best popular journalism, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker.

Posted by: Adam | Oct 19, 2008 1:55:18 PM

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