We are now five classes into the semester of my first time offered course of International & Foreign Legal Research at the University of Richmond School of Law. Each class thus far has been a significant learning experience. You truly never master a subject until you are asked to teach it.
During our first week I gave an introduction on researching international law generally. I wanted to draw similarities between the legal research process students are familiar with in researching domestic law and then apply that to the international legal research context. One thing highlighted was the importance of beginning research using research guides and secondary sources. In emphasizing the utility of research guides I have assigned a corresponding research guide for the topic considered each week as material to be consulted prior to class. This way students not only get an idea of the type of sources we will be discussing, but can also see the value of having such a compilation.
I also emphasized secondary sources in this first class. As with any unfamiliar legal research topic, secondary sources are always a good place to begin to gain a better understanding of the subject matter you are researching. With international law, however, sometimes these sources can be the only means of searching for primary material by subject. If they took away nothing from this first class, I wanted them to take away this concept. Max Planck’s Encyclopedia of International Law was a great source to highlight for this purpose. An entry in Max Planck can quite literally “direct” you to primary authority through use of the Oxford law citators. A great example of this is the Max Planck entry for “UNCITRAL”. The first paragraph indicates that UNCITRAL was established by “UNGA Resolution 2205 (XXI) of 17 December 1966.” Clicking on the link to this resolution, you are directed to an Oxford Law Citator entry which then allows you to navigate to where this document can be found on an external web resource.
Following this introductory class, we covered U.S. and non-U.S. treaty sources. Having spoken on this topic before, including guest FCIL research lectures in our law school’s general Advanced Legal Research class, I was confident this area would not be difficult to prepare for. This was true, but now I had more of an opportunity to expand upon the information delivered and give my students more practical instruction with treaty research.
The next topic we addressed was researching intergovernmental/nongovernmental organizations. This transitioned nicely from non-US treaty resources since the students were already familiar with the UN Treaty database. While we discussed the elements of an intergovernmental organization and how to find nongovernmental organizations, much of the material was focused on the United Nations. In the future, I may consider researching United Nations material as a part of its own separate class. We could have gone into much more depth but I made the mistake of allotting this topic to a single class.
In contrast, I do not believe my next week’s topic of international courts and tribunals should not have been allotted an entire class worth of material. While I like the idea of transitioning from talking about intergovernmental organizations to talking about their judicial organs, I could have summarized this information without discussing individual international courts and the type of material they produce. The students quickly grasped the material and the in class exercises proved rather simplistic.
Thus far, each class has been a tremendous learning opportunity. One of the benefits of only having 5 students is that there is constant dialogue and questioning. My students are keeping me on my toes and forcing me to answer questions I have yet to think of myself. In those moments where I clearly do not have the answer, I never shy from admitting to it. Instead, I tell them “let me make sure I give you the correct answer to that at a later time” and always make a point of following up either through email or in the next class.