Teaching Foreign & International Legal Research — From the Beginning

By Beau Steenken

First, allow me to start with a brief disclaimer: though I will be contributing regularly to DipLawMatic Dialogues on the topic of teaching FCIL research, I have taught a course on the subject exactly one time. In fall of 2014, I read an LRSQ article by Cassie DuBay about specialized legal research (SLR) courses and how they represent an improvement over offering just the traditional Advanced Legal Research (ALR).[1] The article got me to thinking about proposing an FCIL-themed course, and the following spring our faculty voted to shift research instruction at the University of Kentucky College of Law (UK Law) to an ALR-SLR rotation, with ALR to be followed by three distinct SLRs, so that we have an upper-level research course offered each semester. My Foreign & International Legal Research course was the first SLR to be offered at UK Law in the Fall 2016 Semester. I will teach it again in Fall of 2018.

Because I am relatively new to teaching FCIL research, and because my class, being new, is still fairly fresh in my mind, I thought I would use my first blog post to go over the steps I took in creating the course. After all, teaching FCIL differs enough from 1L research that it requires a lot of preparatory work before you even get to the teaching part.

Screenshot-2017-10-10 Syllabi and Course Material DatabaseThe first preparatory step that I took was to consult the database of FCIL syllabi that the Teaching FCIL Interest Group of FCIL-SIS maintains on the FCIL-SIS website.[2]  Being able to consult and compare syllabi actually used by more experienced FCIL-SIS colleagues proved invaluable. It also made apparent the need to make an initial choice that I had not considered before looking at the syllabi, namely the decision whether to propose a 1 hour or a 2 hour course. While syllabi are available for either possible iteration, ultimately I settled on a 1 hour course for purely local reasons. First, our ALR is a 2 hour course, and I felt like the SLRs should offer less credit so that students would view them as an addition to ALR as opposed to a replacement. Also, I suspected that offering a 1 hour course might help drive enrollment as UK Law did not have any other 1 hour courses, and over the years I have often overheard students in the library discussing the fine art of schedule-balancing (an art which appears to have the twin goals of staying on pace to graduate while avoiding overloading any one semester).

After choosing the 1 hour format, I focused on 1 hour syllabus samples to gather inspiration on how to fill out my draft syllabus. Based on previous interactions with journal students trying to track down comparative authorities, I knew that in addition to Foreign and International Law components, I also wanted to emphasize European Union research. After seeing how other classes divided these subjects, I ended up with a syllabus featuring an introductory class, three foreign law classes, seven international law classes (my background is more in international law than foreign or comparative law, so the unbalanced components are probably a result of my own bias), and three E.U. classes. I did the foreign component first, followed by the international component, and then closed with the E.U. component, under the notion that E.U. research combines elements of foreign (implementing legislation) and international (treaties!) research. For the most part, I think my initial division worked ok, though when I teach the class again next year, I plan on flipping the international and foreign components, as I think the class I devoted to private international law would be a nice bridge between the two and would work better as a transition moving from international to foreign law rather than the other way around.

Around the same time that I put together the draft syllabus, I also created a list of the overall learning objectives for the proposed course. Partially this was to help in identifying what the focus of each class meeting should be, but mostly it was because the curriculum committee at UK Law started requiring outcome-mapping for all new course proposals following the ABA’s adoption of the standards requiring law schools to use outcomes-based assessment. As such, my proposed learning outcomes incorporated language from our programmatic learning objectives, but I actually found that mapping what I knew I wanted to teach to a pre-existing assessment scheme to be easier than creating outcomes completely from scratch (which I had done during a 1L curricular revamp several years before the ABA and UK Law adopted outcomes based education more broadly). I settled on seven broad course outcomes that could then be tweaked for individual class sessions and individual assignments (the bold parenthetical language are the programmatic outcomes that correspond to my course outcomes):

  • In completing weekly pre-class and in-class exercises, as well as periodic graded assignments, students will find relevant foreign and international legal authorities and apply them to given fact patterns. (#2 – applying rules of law to a focused area of law, namely international law)
  • In order to find relevant authorities, students will learn to recognize the varying sources of law used by foreign/international jurisdictions and the limitations of those sources of law. (#5 – explain ways in which laws are made, what gives different forms of law authority, and how authority is limited)
  • Students will conduct research based on hypothetical fact patterns, since real world research derives from fact patterns. (#10 – analyze a set of facts to determine what legal issues are presented)
  • Students will conduct research before class, in class, and after class. Readings will be about research, as will class discussions. (#11 – research the law)
  • Through exercises, students will read research results to determine whether their gathered authorities answer the hypothetical problems. (#12 – read and interpret complex legal documents)
  • Students will deliver the results of pre-class assignments as practice emails, the results of in-class exercises orally, and the results of post-class graded assignments as written research logs. (#17 – communicate clearly and effectively in oral and written form, including electronic media)
  • Throughout the course, students will be researching foreign and international laws, often teaching themselves about legal systems as a first step. (#25 – self-directed learning to close knowledge gaps.)

 The final decision that I made during the proposal phase then dealt with how to assess the outcomes identified above, in other words, what sort of assignments to include in the draft syllabus. The syllabi I consulted contained a range of different assignment types from traditional legal hypotheticals to more bibliographic focused student reports on either a topic under international law or a foreign jurisdiction. I chose the former for a couple of reasons. First, I thought hypothetical based assignments would make assessing my identified outcomes easier. Second, I noticed that a lot of the syllabi requiring student reports tended to be of the 2 hour variety, and I did not want to give up any of my limited class time in a 1 hour course. Midway through the course-approval process, I discovered a third reason to lean towards hypothetical-based assignments in that our curriculum committee wanted me to adjust the course to satisfy the new ABA requirements for experiential learning courses. This required “practice simulation” assignments as opposed to broader research assignments.

The four initial steps described above; namely, choosing a course format, constructing a syllabus, identifying learning outcomes, and drafting sample assignments; took me a couple of months to complete but resulted in a successful course proposal. Thus, I was able to teach Foreign & International Legal Research for the first time last fall. My next post on DipLawMatic Dialogues will focus on my experiences actually teaching the course for the first time. In the meantime, I encourage anyone considering proposing FCIL research as a new course to get a jump start by consulting the Teaching FCIL Interest Group’s Syllabi Database!

[1] Cassie DuBay, Specialized Legal Research Courses: the Next Generation of Advanced Legal Research, 33 LEGAL REFERENCE SERV. Q. 203 (2014).

[2] FCIL-SIS, Syllabi and Course Material Database, AALLNet, https://www.aallnet.org/sections/fcil/teaching/syllabi (last visited October 9, 2017).


3 responses to “Teaching Foreign & International Legal Research — From the Beginning

  1. Pingback: Searching High and Low: An Initial Foray into Conducting Known-Item Searches for FCIL Resources in French and Spanish | DipLawMatic Dialogues

  2. Pingback: Celebrating DipLawMatic Dialogues in 2017: Top ’17 of 2017! | DipLawMatic Dialogues

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