7 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Teaching Legal Research

By Alyson Drake


Image via Women’s Executive Network.

I started as a Reference Librarian on August 1st, 2012, with just a few weeks before I was expected to take on my role as a law school professor, co-teaching in the first year Legal Research, Analysis, and Writing Program. I had graduated from law school a mere three months earlier–and had zero formal training in how to be an effective teacher (like the vast majority of law librarians and law faculty). I’ve learned a lot since then, but there are definitely a few things I’d wished I known.

  1.  There are a lot of great resources out there to help you. The RIPS-SIS Teach-In Kits; the FCIL-SIS Syllabi & Course Materials Database; the ALL-SIS Sourcebook; numerous articles in Spectrum, Law Library Journal, and LRSQ, among other law and education journals; conference presentations; webinars. No one is expecting you to start from scratch–and regardless of what time of year you’re starting, you probably won’t have time to anyway.
  2. Some of the greatest resources you can use are the other educators around you. I was particularly lucky in this regard. My teaching mentor, Terrye Conroy, took me up to a classroom before every class and ran through the materials. Then, due to being scheduled to teach first in the week, I’d go teach my own classes. The next day, I’d go watch Terrye teach her class. Each of these experiences helped me. In the preview, I’d watch her walk through the content, make sure I had a full grasp of everything we wanted the students to walk away with and see helpful ways she broke down the bibliographic skills we were teaching. Before my own class, I’d also walk through the materials carefully, including the in-class exercises (we created them as a group, so if I wasn’t the original designer of an exercise, this was particularly important). By watching Terrye teach her own class, I was able to learn a great deal about handling classroom dynamics–and sometimes I’d be reminded of things I wanted to emphasize to my class the next time I met with them. But Terrye was not the only professor I learned a great deal from; I went to all the sessions taught by the legal writing instructor I shared my section with the first year. From her, I learned an enormous amount about how to break down material into digestible pieces for my students. You have to be proactive about finding ways to learn from others; I was lucky enough to have Terrye offer to help teach me to be a good teacher, but I had to dedicate myself to it.
  3. Reflection is critically important. You can sense when an exercise doesn’t work well or when students aren’t fully grasping something. Most of the time, we teach the same class about a year apart; if you don’t reflect immediately after teaching and then make a note somewhere you will be sure to look back at it, you’re likely to forget by the next time you teach again. If possible, update any exercises that don’t work perfectly well right after using them, rather than waiting for the next year. Remember that we don’t read questions the same way novice student researchers do, so upon review sometime in the future, we may not see the problem. Immediately after my own class, I’d jot down notes about anything I thought I didn’t handle particularly well or things I wanted to make sure I wanted to remember for next year. I kept all those notes in a folder, so I could review them before I taught that same session again the next year.
  4. It’s okay to say you don’t know something. Students will know you’re uncertain. They’ll respect your honesty if you say you’ll get back to them, and when you follow up, it’ll build trust with your students.
  5. To be a really good teacher, you need to have some grasp on educational theory and curricular design, not just the area of legal research you’re teaching. It’s important to be an expert on the type of research you’re teaching, whether this is UN research or foreign law, but it’s just as important to be well-versed in teaching theory. This means reading about effective strategies for teaching in higher education. Because legal research professors almost never have enough time with our students to properly prepare them for practice, it’s critically important that we’re teaching them in the most effective way possible. Read about formative assessment, backward design, experiential education, etc., and then use what you’re reading about to develop your courses accordingly. Yes, this is challenging, because we are not JUST teachers and have many other tasks to do, but for many librarians teaching is a critical component of our jobs and we need to do it well.
  6. You will constantly have to advocate for your place in the law school and legal academy. Some of your fellow professors and perhaps even some of your students will look down on you because you’re not a “real” professor (regardless of what formal status you have in the law school). Some will see your class as less important and get frustrated if they have to “waste too much time” on your class. So, you’ll have to constantly remind them how much time is spent on legal research in practice and that research is an analytical task, not just Googling. We need to do better at this collectively, as a profession, if we want to progress our place in the legal academy as we’ve seen legal writing professors and clinicians do.
  7. Age, race, and gender matter. As a female professor, I’ve had male students wink at me from the back of class and when walking past me at the Reference Desk in the library. I’ve also had students who have been older than me and as a result thought they knew more than me about everything and students who have been around my age who have thought they could do better in my course by trying to be my friend. There’s no one set way to develop your professional persona or classroom style, as it depends on your age, gender, gender identification, race, etc., but you must put some consideration into your specific circumstances when figuring out how best to present yourself. Your students are going to pass judgment on you before your first class begins, so how you carry yourself and command your classroom matter. For example, I learned that having students call me by my first name in the library in my other role as student services librarian didn’t work, because then it follows into the classroom. I’ve also learned that it’s important to dress professionally, even on “casual Fridays”, to make it clear I’m not a student (though perhaps as I get older this will be less of an issue).

There are lots of other lessons, but I’d really like to hear from others about things they wish they’d known before they started teaching. Please comment below. After all, future librarians benefit from our collective knowledge.


6 responses to “7 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started Teaching Legal Research

  1. Pingback: SWALL Member News | SWALL Bulletin

  2. Hi Alyson,
    Thanks for the shout out:) I always learn something new or a new way to do something old when I observe my colleagues teach or present. I often think to myself, “I wish I had said it that way,” or “I’m absolutely stealing that example.”
    Plus, it’s fun and team-building.


  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

  5. Pingback: Top 18 Posts of ’18 | DipLawMatic Dialogues

  6. Pingback: First Day Adventures | RIPS Law Librarian Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s