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Changing the Narrative About Legal Research

I attended an interesting talk by a colleague and friend recently that has me thinking about re-writing narratives. Specifically, I've been considering how to re-write the narrative about the importance of legal research in legal education.

Legal research instruction has long taken a back seat in the legal academy.  It's even been described as the "stepchild in legal education."[1] As a skills course, it's traditionally been considered of less import than doctrinal courses, though thankfully this seems to be improving. Even within the first years skill course, the dedicated time for students to learn legal research, research often takes a backseat in time and emphasis to legal writing and oral arguments, despite being the foundation needed to be successful at both. This happens despite those hiring new attorneys commenting regularly about their discontent with students' research skills.

It's unlikely in most cases that more time is going to be formally allotted to legal research instruction. At many law schools, students have the opportunity to take advantage of an advanced or subject-specialty research course or to participate in a non-credit research certificate program. But in an already packed curriculum, many students are unable to take advantage of these options--even if they are on the bandwagon that research is a critical skill.

But what do we do about those students who come in with the perception that legal research is not a skill they need or at least want to spend time learning? Or who believe research is lesser than their doctrinal courses?  We need to figure out to reach them in the time we do have.

There are a few different misconceptions of legal research that seem common:
  • Legal research is easy.

    This is perhaps one of the easier misconceptions to overcome. Instructors can hand out a diagnostic on day one testing many of the skills the students will be learning over the course of the year and let the students see how they fare. If you don't want to take this approach--as it can also lead to overwhelmed or frustrated students (not an ideal situation for the first day of class), I find an upfront conversation about some of the similarities and differences to the research students may have encountered before may be helpful. I emphasize that the finding of sources can vary in its difficulty, the challenge of legal research is tying the gathering of sources with the analysis that is intrinsic to legal research. Students must be able do the analysis while they are locating relevant sources. We can help change the narrative by making research less about the bibliographic skills and more about analytical thinking. It ties research to what they are learning in their doctrinal classes.
  • Legal research is boring. 

    Students often enter our legal research classes believing that research is a humdrum activity that they have to survive to get to the interesting parts of lawyering. There are a few ways to help overcome this. First, use interesting hypotheticals as the prompt to your research questions. Even when you are first teaching certain concrete skills, for example, using an index to find a statute by subject, you can still wrap it up in a fun bow by choosing something from the recent news or from popular culture as the context for the problem. Second, we should re-frame research as a problem-solving endeavor; by talking about research as an active, investigative process, we can move away from the image of research as a passive task.
  • Legal research is unimportant.

    This is probably the most dangerous of the three misconceptions, but the one I believe re-framing the narrative can most help us to overcome. Students can receive this faulty message in a lot of ways. They can receive it implicitly in an LRW course because the emphasis in the first few weeks of class is on legal analysis and writing, sometimes with little mention of research. They can receive it because a doctrinal faculty member minimizes the importance of research. They can receive it because it's a librarian--not a "real" faculty member--teaching them research. They can receive it because LRW is pass-fail or only three credits compared to their four-credit doctrinal classes that semester. And so on.

    I used to try to fight back against this narrative using statistics--telling students that studies show that approximately 35% of their time in the first few years of practice will be spent conducting legal research. (Okay, I still tell them this--it's a third of their time! But I'm adding other tools to my arsenal, too.) The fact is, to take this back to my colleague's recent talk, statistics and facts don't usually do a very good job of reaching constituencies (see: climate change). In the last few days, I've made a more concerted effort to present new narratives--stories about how students from last year's class came back and said that all they did that summer was research, stories from students in our Excellence in Legal Research who returned from their internship to report that their research skills far surpassed their fellow interns, stories from students whose judges complimented them on how strong their research skills are. If you're lucky, those former students will even come share their stories with your class or write you a testimonial about their summer experiences.

    I tell them that they too can be legal research rock stars and that this is my mission for the semester--to help each one of them become confident, strong legal researchers so they can impress their summer employer, too. Legal research is no longer boring, or easy, or unimportant--it's a critical skill that can make them stand out from the masses of law students trying to get hired, and that's like catnip to law students.


[1] Robert C. Berring, A Sort of Response: Brutal Non-Choice, 4 Perspectives: Teaching Legal Res. & Writing 81, 81 (1996).

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