By Mary Rumsey
After years of teaching, I’m convinced legal research instructors shouldn’t make students buy textbooks.
We all know the tremendous financial strain affecting most law students; they accrue appalling debt. We shouldn’t impose any costs on students unless the benefits greatly outweigh those costs. Unfortunately, the benefits of textbooks don’t outweigh the costs.
Researchers can use an FCIL research text in two different ways. First, they can look up specific tasks or questions as needed. Second, they can read assigned sections before doing research.
The latter practice doesn’t work for most students. The information isn’t “sticky,” because it’s arbitrary and—let’s face it—boring. Students find nothing interesting in instructions for finding treaties on the OAS site, for example. Unlike other subjects in law school, legal research techniques have no human interest or policy implications to help students remember them.
Well, how about using textbooks as needed? That will help sometimes, but the lifespan of an FCIL research textbook is short. Websites, the primary tool for FCIL research, change often. For example, the Council of Europe’s HUDOC site, the UN Treaties database, and the EU’s legal research site have been completely overhauled at least once in the last several years. Databases such as GLIN (which had thousands of foreign laws), EISIL, and the WHO Health Law database have disappeared. Foreign government websites, particularly from developing countries, flicker on and off. New websites, such as the UN’s Women’s Family Law database (a work in progress) arrive without warning. Moreover, reading about a research process will never implant it as firmly as using that process.
For these reasons, teachers should focus on helping students navigate the legal information landscape. In my experience teaching and observing students over the past twenty years, the most effective method for learning legal research techniques is doing legal research; the least effective is reading about it. In practice, lawyers will be jumping into unfamiliar databases and figuring out how they work, so it makes sense to have them practice doing that.
Better than reading:
- Use research problems for practice and to assess their learning
- Show students how to find and use “about this site” information, FAQs, search tips, help pages, and updated research guides
- Push them to think about what organizations might collect information on topics—literacy rates, patents, or denials of asylum—and to test their ideas
- Provide a target case in a foreign language and ask them to use online translation tools to find it on a court website
- Use brief demonstrations (live, or on video) to show how to find information on complex databases (e.g., EUR-LEX), or how to do things like use Google site-searching instead of a site’s own search engine
- Let students work together rather than read alone
- Ask them to write descriptions of how they found information, or to teach other students
- Instead of reading assignments, give them problems to research outside of class
Lots of practice along these lines will be more effective than teaching from a mandatory textbook. Granted, if we could pour the contents of a recently published textbook into students’ brains, they’d learn a lot about FCIL research. But since we can’t, consider making textbooks optional and placing one on reserve. Your class can be just as effective and you’ll have done your small part in reducing the crushing debts many of your students are accruing.