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Research Conferences as a Practice Skill

Many first year legal research and writing include a conferencing component. Most of these conferences, however, focus primarily on the writing process. Conferences are held after students have struggled through the research process and have drafted at least some part of a memo or brief. There are many pedagogical reasons for the importance of research conferences (e.g. students are provided with individualized feedback), but one that is often overlooked is that research conferences help prepare students for practice by giving them opportunities to collaborate with other legal professionals and to orally communicate about the legal issues they are facing.

Through research conferences, students learn how to discuss the authorities they have located effectively and to communicate how they are relevant to the legal issues they are facing. This practice collaborating is key. As Susan Azyndar noted in her article "Work with Me Here: Collaborative Learning in the Legal Research Classroom, "collaboration and teamwork have been recognized as pillars of the [legal] profession." (1 Legal Info Rev. at 2-3; accessible via Hein)  According to AALL's Task Force on Identifying Skills and Knowledge for Legal Practice, 35% of attorneys begin their research by seeking advice from another attorney frequently or very frequently; another 29% do so occasionally.  (see page 10).

In the practice of law, attorneys are often asked to report back on what they have discovered in their research. Research conferences afford instructors the opportunity to help students learn to think for themselves--something that research has shown millennial learners particularly struggle with.  Research conferences also allow students to have practice critically evaluating their own thought processes by asking questions and to learn to speak about these issues in an organized and coherent manner.

Whilst some may note that writing conferences give students the same opportunities to collaborate, practice listening, and receive feedback, writing conferences rightly focus on the mechanics and organization of the writing--not on the oral communication of ideas and the application of sources.  In conferences focusing squarely on the research, students get to focus more on how the authorities they've located are relevant to the issues they are researching without having to simultaneously engage in the challenging task of communicating those issues in writing. Students need to be able to discuss their analytical processes out loud and to speak coherently about legal authorities with colleagues. They need to be able to strategize, assess, analogize, and synthesize verbally. And, in fact, having these conversations prior to beginning writing will likely result in more thoughtful analysis when it is time for students to start drafting.

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