by Margaret Jane Ambrose
I am adding my two cents to Christina Glon’s excellent post, Setting the Thanksgiving Table on the First Day of Class. Long story short, I agree it is important to entice students to the legal research buffet by whetting their appetites with a well-written syllabus. The only [wish]bone I have to pick with this idea is that I think it is important to recognize two potential obstacles that need to be overcome before students can fully appreciate the smorgasboard of benefits that legal research instruction can bestow upon them.
The first is their own perception of what lawyers do. Anecdotally, we know that many students enter law school with the words of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird echoing in their brains, or they remember Jack McCoy on Law and Order. Or, more recently, what woman (or man, for that matter) thinking about entering the legal profession wouldn’t want to be Alicia Florrick or Diane Lockhart? Personal turmoils aside, they are fierce and smart (not to mention the fact that they are always impeccably dressed).
As great as these characters are, they are just that—characters. They give great closing arguments and lead exciting fictional lives. They have private investigators that do research for them that often leads to a dramatic climax: a secret folder is handed over at the last minute so the character can present a crucial piece of evidence to the court that will crack the case wide open.
Between these dramatic scenes and the many inspiring speeches, there are rarely (virtually never) scenes showing these iconic lawyers toiling away on Wexisberg or consulting a legal treatise. Add to this first obstacle (i.e. legal research is usually left out of the mix of law drama trope), the second obstacle—the fact that first-year law students learn pretty quickly to prioritize what merits brain space if they want to survive their doctrinal classes and earn a decent GPA—and an enticing syllabus may just not be enough for some.
What then is the legal research instructor to do when vying for student attention, competing with scary constitutional law professors and the students’ own perceptions of what happens in legal practice? Certainly, the job is easier after the first summer when law students come back from their first taste of law practice where they were asked to research something they had no clue how to research.
That is not to suggest, however, that I think legal research instruction should take a back seat until students undergo this crucial experience. Instead I think it is important to prime the ground, making it sufficiently fertile so a healthy respect for legal research and its importance can take root. Priming the ground could include giving student a glimpse into their future.
In his article Rebooting Legal Research in a Digital Age, for example, author Steve Lastres points to a survey that indicates that new associates a) spend more than 30% of their time doing legal research and b) in both large and small firms over half of new attorneys found that their firms expected them to have strong legal research skills, but did not provide them with any or very little instruction or training.
Put another way, it is important to clue first-year law students in on the reality that they will be expected to hit the ground running as new associates. They will be expected to be proficient researchers, and they may or may not be given instruction when it is convenient for them to learn these skills in their first few years of their practice. Then it will be sink or swim and could mean the difference between success or failure.
Driving this point home, I and many other Cornell Law Librarians were recently invited to attend a training at Lastres’ firm, Debevoise & Plimpton, to observe how they train their first year associates through their very robust Knowledge Management Services Department (which is a luxury not every first year associate will enjoy). One of the takeaways from that session was that these information professionals wish law students came to them not thinking they know everything about legal research (i.e., step away from the google—or at the very least—maximize your google use). Another takeaway was to quiz new associates—and quiz them in a way that they have to seek out assistance from others. This helps drive home the point to students not only the skills they are learning, but also the fact that they do not know everything about legal research.
Turning back to first year instruction, I think it is important for academic law librarians to expose law students to the types of questions they will encounter as summer associates. Let them sink or swim in a safe environment and find out just how deep the sea of legal research is while they still have the life jacket of academia to keep them safe. Coupled with some facts about how they will be spending their first years in practice and what they will already be expected to know, these types of real world questions can help break down student misconceptions about their own abilities and make what information professionals have to offer much more appealing.
Long story short, by priming the ground to readjust slightly law student priorities, a well-written syllabus as per Christina Glon’s article, can make legal research instruction as enticing as even the most decadent fare this holiday season has to offer.