On the Value of Student Conferences

by Beau Steenken

Earlier this week I emerged from the annual occurrence that my wife refers to as “three weeks of hell every winter,” namely grading and student conferencing. I’ve posted before about how grading is not my favorite aspect of my job. It is time-consuming, mental-energy-consuming, and impossible to finish during work hours (leading to a temporary loss of work-life balance and resulting in my wife’s nickname for it). In short, it’s hard to sugar-coat grading as anything other than an awful necessity.

Holding student conferences is similarly time-consuming, mental-energy-consuming (at least for us introverts), and prone to causing work-life imbalance. (Some of my colleagues hold after-hours and/or weekend conferences to fit all their students into a week. I do not, but having student conferences take up significant portions of my work time for two weeks invariably causes me to bring other bits of work home.) And yet, I do not complain about student conferences the way I do about grading. The reason for this discrepancy is, I think, that I see student conferences as containing a great deal of value… value that I have not been able to convince myself is provided by marked up papers.


via Wikimedia Commons

At the heart of each of the two exercises lie the same goals (assuming that one does not take the cynical view that grades exist to aid firms in making hiring choices): extra instruction beyond the classroom, a diagnostic opportunity to identify flaws in understanding or technique, and–at least in our case as LRW is set up at UK Law–a chance for a not-so-subtle reminder that the student should not be leaving writing an appellate brief to the last minute. However, I firmly believe that each of these goals is much more effectively accomplished via a student conference than via notes written on an assignment (and not just because my handwriting is nigh on illegible).

In terms of extra-classroom instruction, you can’t beat one on one instruction time, even if it is only for 20 to 30 minutes. Over the past six years, I’ve taught 1L Legal Research sections ranging from 13 to 23 students, and I can categorically say the smaller class is a much more conducive vessel for effective research instruction. With the larger classes, I find that the students who really need help still get it, and the students who engage with the material at an advanced level still naturally draw my attention; but it becomes rather difficult to pay attention to everyone in the middle, especially as students in the middle tend to be quiet in class. Requiring everyone to attend a mandatory research conference allows for a partial correction of this phenomenon by mandating at least a modicum of individual instruction for each student. Conversely, while written comments can serve instructive purposes, the students already get extra-classroom written instruction through assigned readings, and it’s difficult to ask follow-up questions of static text.

In terms of diagnostic opportunities to identify flaws, anyone who has ever graded papers can probably attest that flaws become pretty obvious pretty quickly. However, noticing something is wrong in a paper is not the same as understanding why the student has erred. For the second (and much more important) question, the instantaneous feedback loop offered by conferences is much more probative than whatever static words the student chose to commit to paper. For instance, in one of the papers I graded last fall for my students’ smaller memo project, I noticed a particular student did not really understand federalism and parallel court structures. I did not know why or how to correct it, but I was able to identify that a problem existed. Upon conferencing with the student, however, it became clear to me that the student was confused because the student was from Canada. Furthermore, the Canadian version of federalism is different enough, while using similar terminology, to the extent that the student thought she understood what was going on in the U.S. but had subconsciously translated it all to Canadian analogs. I was then able to re-explain the U.S. system by pointing out its differences with the Canadian system (this happened at a follow-up meeting after I did some quick research on Foreign Law Guide’s Canada entry).This semester, the same student turned in one of the best research reports of the class.

Finally, student conferences are much more effective at ensuring students stay on track to complete their writing assignments in a reasonable time-frame than even the most alarmist grading comments on a paper. After all, a paper is easy to stuff in one’s bag or locker with the thought of returning to it later. It’s much more difficult to ignore one’s instructor making eye contact and reminding one that one still has work to do and that the clock is ticking.

For these reasons, I view mandatory student conferences as extremely beneficial to 1L legal research instruction, and I think it is easily worth overcoming feasibility challenges to hold them and to make them required for all students. Now, if only I could find a way to convince myself of the value of graded papers…

Posted in Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general), Work/Life Balance | Tagged | Leave a comment

Law Library Diversity Fellowships

by Malikah Aquilah Hall

THE WORK OF DIVERSITY IN LIBRARIES BEGINS at the crossroad where superiority, inaction, and denial become intolerable. Yet in working toward true diversity, we work without the familiar construct of a mainstream. [This presents] us with questions that serve as teachable moments or paralyzing hurdles. Once at the crossroads, however, there are systematic strategies and operating principles for bringing significance, meaning, and action to this trend called diversity. – Sandra Rios Balderrama in This Trend Called Diversity, Library Trends 49(1), 194 (2000).

In Fall 2015, I was hired as the first Cornell University Diversity Fellow immediately upon graduating from a J.D./M.L.S. joint-degree program. While reading the Balderrama article referenced above and interviewing the next Diversity Fellowship candidates, I could not help but reflect on my time with Cornell. Specifically reflecting on how more opportunities like this fellowship are needed to create diversity and inclusion in law librarianship through immersion in the field.

The Cornell University Law Library Diversity Fellowship, the first of its kind in law librarianship, was created to provide opportunities for new law librarians from underrepresented groups. Cornell does not define “underrepresented” or “diversity” to the applicants. Instead, applicants are asked to define what diversity means to them. Some responses include belonging to a different nationality or religious background, being a member of the LGBTQ community, having experience working with or being a person with mental or physical disabilities, or being a person whose first language is something other than English. It is the brain child of Cornell’s Director, Femi Cadmus, to effectively recruit representatives that move the profession toward diversity and inclusion through tangible action.

The fellowship is essentially an immersion program: you learn by doing. You are required to teach (not co-teach!) twelve sessions of your own section of the first-year legal research and writing course and work at least eight hours a week at the reference work. Outside of these requirements, the program allows you explore different areas of law librarianship (technical and/or access services, collection development, administration etc.), with a concentration on your particular area of interest.

If the fellow chooses to stay on for the second year, they are given an opportunity to develop and instruct an upper-level advanced legal research course on a subject of their choosing. They can also work on their professional development skills via committee work, speaking engagements, and/or through publication. During my time with Cornell, I was able to create my own advanced legal research course that met the ABA experiential standard, accept a chair position for PEGA-SIS and the BCAALL, and speak at the annual meeting for our local AALL chapter ALLUNY.

Diversity fellowships help the profession to move toward true diversity and inclusion. Moreover, they also help to train and incubate the future of law librarianship through immersion. While some institutions may have certain constraints, these fellowships can be catered to a specific institution. At Cornell, the fellowship lasts up to two years. At a smaller institution or an institution with a limited budget, the fellowship could be the length of a semester or academic year. Perhaps your institution has a special project or goal they would like to accomplish – a diversity fellow could give a different or fresh perspective. There are so many program tailoring options available.

I am hopeful that other institutions will create similar fellowships to meet the charge of diversity and inclusion in the profession. Diverse representation and active experience help to move this profession forward. As I begin to transition out of the fellowship position, I can safely say that I feel more confident as a librarian. I am ready to actively contribute to the profession, and others deserve a similar opportunity. I challenge institutions to try to provide such an opportunity.

Posted in Issues in Law Librarianship, Training | Tagged | Leave a comment

RIPS-SIS Virtual Business Meeting Survey

RIPS-SIS will be hosting a virtual business meeting in June. Details on the business meeting will be the subject of an upcoming post. The Board would still like to have an informal event at AALL in Austin, and has secured Monday, July 17, from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. as a meeting time. The Board would like your feedback on what kind of a meeting we might have, if we don’t need to spend our time on the business meeting. Please the brief three question survey to help us plan the event!


Posted in AALL Annoucements, RIPS events | Tagged | Leave a comment

“Hello” From Your RIPS Board

The Board and I can’t believe it is mid-February already! I hope everyone has been keeping track of all of the exciting things we have going on at RIPS but just in case something has slipped you by… I wanted to highlight a few committee updates and opportunities for our members:



  • The Legal Research Competency Committee has put out a call for the use of assessment in instruction. Share yours with Kerry Lohmeier at lohmeier@law.utah.edu.


  • Following comments from the 2016 RIPS Business Meeting, we have decided to do a virtual business meeting in 2017! More information will be posted on the Blog at the beginning of March. In the meantime, please stay tuned for a survey which will be posted to gather feedback on what our members will want our dedicated time to be used for at the annual meeting in July (no early morning business breakfast but we still want to get together and meet with our members)!
  • We are updating our website! There are still a few spots available on our Task Force. If you are interested in volunteering, e-mail Alyson Drake at Alyson.Drake@ttu.edu.


Please stay tuned for our next Board Blog Post where we will provide even more information, and updates, about exciting RIPS developments!

Katie Crandall
RIPS Chair

Posted in RIPS Teach-In Kit, RIPS-SIS Reports | Tagged | Leave a comment

CARA: The First Year Associate’s Pocket Calculator

by Erik Adams

Anyone who has watched a child learning to do math will have heard the complaint that doing it by hand shouldn’t be necessary in the age of calculators. Or, I suppose, in the age of the Calculator app, right there on the home screen. Why should the child carefully write out “342 – 173” and work out the answer with pencil and paper when 8 quick button presses and the answer is there? I kept coming back to this images as I watched a demo of CARA, a new artificial intelligence product from Casetext.


CARA is described as

… your automated research assistant. Securely upload any brief or memo, and CARA searches the universe of federal and state law to find relevant cases you or opposing counsel may have missed. Once you find a case, you can read it in full — and see how it’s been cited — so you’ll have all the information you need to win.

From this description, it might seem that CARA is a competitor to West’s Westcheck or Lexis’s Briefcheck – i.e. a software tool that will extract citations from a document and then report on whether or not those cases are good law. It does do those things, but CARA’s party trick is that it will also recommend cases that the uploaded document has missed.

This is where the artificial intelligence comes in. CARA doesn’t just look up a citation and then present a red flag or stop sign; it will find other cases that deal with the same issue and attempts to present the results with a little more finesse. For example, if you upload a brief that cites 3 cases in favor of an argument (all of which are good law) but ignores 3 cases that are opposed to the argument (which are also all good law), CARA will offer up all the cases, with an explanation. CARA will also point out oversights in research: if a brief fails to cite to a key case on an issue, CARA will let you know.

My first question for the people at Casetext was if we subscribe to CARA, what will our first year associates do with themselves? The salespeople had obviously heard this question before, and had a ready answer: CARA automates the most tedious parts, but the real work still has to be done by a human being. It will offer up the list of relevant cases, but it is still necessary for an attorney to review that list and decide how important the missing cases are.

I know a librarian who used to show new associates how to Shepardize cases using the books as a part of his library orientation. Then, after spending 5 minutes processing a single citation, he would demonstrate how to use Westcheck. The idea was that if new associates knew how complicated a task this used to be, they would appreciate all the more how simple it is today.

CARA has a slick web interface and is very easy to use, as a modern web application should. But as I was watching the demonstration, I kept thinking of the child who is tired of long division (or the first year associate who is tired of Shepardizing in print). At some point his or her teacher will be satisfied that they have mastered the basic skills, and now having to do the work is only going to be scut work and keep the child from learning new skills or applications for what they have already mastered. Similarly, CARA automates what can be a truly boring task: checking citations in a brief. But as with a calculator, I can’t help but wonder when we should be letting our first year associates start using it.

Posted in Artificial intelligence, Legal Research, Legal Technology | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Deadline Extended: Contribute to the 25th National Legal Research Teach-In Kit Today!

by Ashley Ahlbrand


[Image created using Canva]

For over twenty years, the National Legal Research Teach-In Kit has served as a source created by law librarians, for law librarians, on instruction, assessment, and other patron outreach activities. RIPS is a beautifully diverse SIS, and we’d like the Teach-In Kit to reflect that: whether you’re at an academic law library, a firm law library, a court law library, or somewhere else entirely, we all provide services to patrons, and we can all find inspiration from each other! Perhaps you offer training to summer clerks, students on journal, or research assistants; maybe you offer lectures in introductory or advanced legal research courses, or even to students outside of the law school. Your materials might be handouts, lesson plans, or today’s hottest topic: assessments! In the past we’ve had games, tutorials, and research guides. The Teach-In Kit provides an excellent channel for sharing with your colleagues and benefiting from the wealth of material colleagues have contributed in the past; and we would like to see the Kit become as diverse as our membership. But we can’t do it without YOU!

To allow more time for people to submit materials, the RIPS Teach-In Kit Committee has extended the deadline for submissions to next Friday, February 24th. We invite you to send submissions as email attachments to Annmarie Zell at ZellA@mercury.law.nyu.edu.

We thank you in advance for your contributions to this great resource!

Posted in RIPS Teach-In Kit, Teaching (general) | 1 Comment

On the Value of Teaching the Chemical Structure of Water

by Paul Gatz

The American writer David Foster Wallace began his 2005 commencement address to the students of Kenyon College (published in 2009 as This Is Water) with a parable:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

While Wallace takes this story and uses it to reflect on boredom, freedom, and other weighty matters, it stands out as an apt analogy for how we interact with information these days. With our mobile devices always within reach, offering wireless access to an unprecedentedly vast amount of information that is easily discoverable through the black-box magic algorithms of Google, our lives have become seamlessly integrated with the online information universe – so much so that life beyond that universe becomes unthinkable.

When the alternative becomes unthinkable, the actual becomes the default. And, to borrow from Wallace again, adjusting your “natural default-setting” takes serious effort. If you teach legal research and want your students to be able to critically evaluate information, the difficulty of adjusting default settings regarding information use should be both familiar and troubling.

To start off my Advanced Legal Research class this semester, I therefore wanted to do something to shake my students out of their default settings – to call attention to the water all around them. My colleague Ingrid Mattson does something along these lines in her Advanced Legal Research course, when she provides her students an overview of how Google’s search and ranking operations work. This sort of peek under the hood empowers students to be able to question the results they receive and to strategize ways around Google’s limitations.


This is not water.

The value of this knowledge of the underlying structure is that it, in turn, structures the student’s own thoughts about their research process. Indeed, the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education recognizes that a key part of being able to access relevant information is developing an understanding of “how information systems (i.e., collections of recorded information) are organized.” I therefore decided to begin the semester by introducing my students to some basic concepts from library and information science to start them thinking about information as something that possesses an organized structure that both enables and limits the retrieval of relevant information.

My choice of concepts to introduce was greatly influenced by my own experience as a law student in Paul Healey’s Advanced Legal Research course at the University of Illinois. Professor Healey’s class first introduced me to the information retrieval concepts of recall and precision, as well as the general library science idea of intermediation. In addition, he also invited Anne Robbins, the acquisitions librarian at Illinois, to give a guest lecture on the structure of information, in which she covered concepts like metadata, access points, and taxonomies. Sitting in that class as a 3L, my understanding of legal research was transformed from a practical knowledge of the mechanistic application of specific sources to a critical awareness of legal information as something existing within a structured context.

Since my course has two credits fewer than Professor Healey’s, and since I lack Professor Robbins’s detailed expertise, I decided to focus solely on recall and precision, along with intermediation, for my initial class meeting. Before class, I asked my students to read an excerpt from Relevant Search by John Berryman that helpfully illustrates the concepts of recall and precision in an accessible manner. In class, I wove those concepts together with intermediation to suggest a distinction between search, which is our default setting for information retrieval, and research, which involves a greater awareness of the tools and sources at our disposal.

Search is bound by the trade-offs between recall – the retrieval of all the relevant documents in a database – and precision – the retrieval of only relevant documents. The higher the recall of a given search, the less likely it is to be precise, and vice-versa. In practice, multiple searches are therefore necessary, as the searcher calibrates the search to generate a manageable number of hits without missing anything directly on point.

Research, on the other hand, relies on intermediation as a shortcut around this endless searching and sifting. I provide a broad definition of intermediation as any act of human intervention designed to help researchers find their way within a text or between texts, including as examples a table of contents, indexes, headnotes and key numbers, secondary sources, and even librarians. These are tools that not only structure and organize legal information, but also enable the user to understand the content of that information.

Wallace ends his address by emphasizing the importance of “a simple awareness.” I don’t expect every student to carry these concepts with them into practice, although I will be sure to call back to them throughout the semester. But I hope they leave my class having developed an awareness of the information all around them – how it fits together, how it works, and how they can navigate it.

I would be interested to learn about how others incorporate LIS concepts or details about information structure and organization into their courses. If you’re so inclined, please share in the comments below.

Posted in Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general) | Tagged , , | Leave a comment