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Friday, November 26, 2010

Research Assistance

In the past, I have relied on research assistants almost exclusively to bluebook and cite check my footnotes prior to submitting an article for publication.  As another contributor noted in a post earlier this week, research assistants are not always good at bluebooking, but often, they are even worse at substantive research assignments.  Perhaps I do not explain what I need them to do well enough, or perhaps they do not have enough legal research training, but it usually takes me longer to supervise a research assistant than it does to just do the research myself.    

Recently, however, I hired a research assistant who seems remarkably capable of researching substantive legal issues.  This RA was a former student, who, though quiet in class, consistently emailed me relevant news articles with (and maybe this is the key) her own thoughtful analysis and ideas.   I realized that (a) she was intellectually curious and (b) her research interests paralleled my own.  Eventually, I asked her if she wanted to be my RA and we have been working well together ever since.   

I am trying to pin down what it is about the student, or the hiring process, that leads to a successful Professor/RA relationship (mainly so that I can replicate it when my current RA eventually graduates). Any thoughts?    

Posted by Ashira Ostrow on November 26, 2010 at 03:56 PM | Permalink


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Look for students with substantial prior work experience, preferably as a paralegal. Review the candidate's grade in legal research and writing (a mediocre or poor grade shouldn't be a deal killer, but it should be treated as a red flag). Also, talk to the candidate's instructor to get his or her impressions of the candidate. After you hire the RA, send them to a seasoned librarian before they start the first few projects so that they can get a better handle on research strategy and have another resource for research questions as they progress through each project. When you are ready to hire another RA, ask your current RA to recommend some fellow students.

Posted by: Amy | Nov 29, 2010 6:04:46 PM

I completely agree with Sal. Genuine interest is key. Pure smarts are important, but understanding of and enthusiasm for your research project is what separates a great RA from a mediocre one.

Posted by: Hanah | Nov 29, 2010 11:29:20 AM

As someone who likes conducting research on a broad range of topics and have been complimented on my skills, I would have to say that you need to look for someone who not only finds you relevant material, but also has a passion for learning and is genuinely interested.

For instance, you mentioned that your current RA comments on the material that is sent to you. That is important for several reasons. The first is that by commenting, you will know that your RA has familiarized themselves with the topic enough to comment. Secondly, while some of those comments may be useless, there will be a time when they are very useful and can lead to a broader or a novel perspective on the subject matter.

It does you no good to have someone just do keyword searches and dump what they find on your lap. You want the RA to weed out all of the nonsense and give you the most pertinent information they can. That can only be done if the RA takes the time educate themselves in the subject matter.

One other item that helps is a basic understanding of how to search on both Lexis type data and Google. Knowing the right way to search will get you the best research and at a faster rate than anything else ever will.

BTW, I plan to start law school very soon. ;-)

Posted by: Sal | Nov 28, 2010 9:23:05 AM

... figure that one out (on a broader level) and the world will beat a path to your door. This is a fundamental puzzle of delegation and management -- not unsolvable in a given situation, but each environment has its own nuances - one reason why it's hard to provide a perfect generalized answer. A few thoughts:

* obviously, there's a quality component - the more (and better) people you have to choose from, the better the work product/relationship.
* providing specific, clear, and substantively meaningful directions are important - on the other hand, at a certain level of effort on this point it just gets easier to do the work yourself -- which leads to the next point..
* Certain directions or communications are repeated over time with minor revisions/adjustments - developing "direction templates" may take a lot of time (see above) but may pay off in the long run as they can be used repeatedly.
* it seems to me that incentives matter and this is often a problem with these type of work relationships - the pay isn't awesome and there is usually little variability or discretion in determining pay/raises/bonuses. Unless the student/worker is *really* counting on a reference letter from you they lack proper incentive (I know, I know, they should just want to do good work for its own sake, but ... incentives matter). Any type of incentive program you can come up with will likely help.

Posted by: Jeff Yates | Nov 26, 2010 4:14:00 PM

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