Using the “A” Word in Legal Research Instruction

By Alyson Drake

Both the legal academy[1] and librarians[2] have long recognized that analysis is a critical component of the legal research process.  Despite this, legal research has long been put on the back burner in legal education and is often viewed by our colleagues and our student as a rote, mechanical task.  This is partially due to the fact that we don’t talk about research explicitly as an analytical task, probably because analysis is so entrenched in legal research that it seems obvious to librarians.

As legal research instructors, it is critical that we point out the analysis inherent in our research classes to our students. Students will value our courses more and get more out of them if they do not view research as simply a gathering task. Students will also become better researchers and attorneys by practicing engaging in analysis while they research.

Yes, this can be difficult to do. After all, it can be challenging enough just to teach students how to locate materials using the wide variety of databases and other sources they must be familiar with, and we only have so much time with our students. This may be especially true in FCIL research courses in which students are often researching outside of Westlaw and Lexis for the first time. But separating the ability to locate sources from analysis only serves to diminish the importance of researching as a lawyerly task.

So how can we bring the analysis into our classroom, even if we don’t always have considerable time to spend on it, due to the need to also teach the bibliographic side of legal research?

  1. Have a discussion about the values of a good legal researcher. In a fantastic post on the RIPS-SIS Law Librarian Blog this past week, Paul Gatz identified several virtues valuable to the legal researcher, including curiosity, intellectual honesty, perseverance, adaptability, and humanity. This discussion should expand into what skills legal researchers should have. Part of this discussion should include the importance of analytical thinking in conducting research effectively. Trust me, if they’re not hearing it from us, they’re definitely not hearing it from anyone else in their law school careers.
  2. Have discussions with your students about where analysis comes into play in legal research, from research planning to evaluating resources to knowing when it is appropriate to stop researching (plus many others). Without pointing it out, these times when students must use their analytical skills stay hidden. Students won’t be necessarily be able to identify those times when analysis is important if we don’t tell them; instead, they’ll look at research as just using technology to gather sources, rather than a problem-solving endeavor.
  3. ELRclass

    Whenever possible, try to incorporate simulations into your practice exercises so students have an opportunity to use their analysis skills.  Not every problem has to require students to analyze the sources they’ve found to a factual scenario–after all, first we do need to ensure they can locate a foreign law or a bilateral treaty. But they should do this regularly enough that analysis becomes a regular part of the research process for them. These simulations do not have to necessarily be long fact patterns; they can simply ask the student whether a certain provision of a treaty they just located would apply in a given situation and asking them to explain why. This simulates exactly what they would do in practice–considering whether that source would be relevant to the issue they’re researching.  Just like any other skill law students are learning, there must be multiple opportunities for practicing their legal research analysis. Treasure hunts, while they have a value for the bibliographic skills we must teach, tend to reinforce the ideas that research is just gathering and that analysis is a separate task.

Analysis does not belong solely with writing in the law school curriculum. By the time students sit down to write, they should already know which sources are helpful for which issues. As analysis has long been the hallmark of legal education, reclaiming it as a legal research skill may also be key to illuminating the importance of legal research in the law school curriculum, which is long overdue.

 

[1] See, e.g., Am. Bar Ass’n Section of Legal Educ. & Admissions to the Bar, Legal Education and Professional Development—An Educational Continuum: Report of the Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession: Narrowing the Gap 138-141 (1992) (MacCrate Report).

[2] See, e.g., Am. Ass’n of Law Librarians, Principles & Standards for Legal Research Competency (2013).

 

4 responses to “Using the “A” Word in Legal Research Instruction

  1. Pingback: 7 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Teaching Legal Research | DipLawMatic Dialogues

  2. Pingback: SWALL Member News | SWALL Bulletin

  3. Pingback: Teaching FCIL Research: Revisiting 15 DipLawMatic Posts on Teaching | DipLawMatic Dialogues

  4. Pingback: Celebrating One Year of Weekly Content on DipLawMatic Dialogues! | DipLawMatic Dialogues

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