by Jamie Baker
Caroline Osborne recently posted an article to SSRN titled The State of Legal Research Education: A Survey of First Year Legal Research Programs or ‘Why Johnny and Jane Cannot Research’. Osborne makes many valid points regarding the research deficiencies of law school graduates. From the abstract:
Dissatisfaction with the research skills of the new associate is an oft-repeated refrain. This article explores the state of research education in the law school curriculum. Questions explored include: whether or not legal research is a required first year class; the number of semester of research instruction; the expertise of the professor; number of credits awarded for legal research, scope of the curriculum and observed challenges. Also considered is the impact of a more vigorous writing focus on research skills education. Survey data collected from the two hundred ranked law schools is used to explore these questions and as the basis for reforming research education.
Osborne highlights the two seminal events that led to the decline in legal research skills:
- an increased emphasis on writing; and
- the adoption of computer-assisted legal research.
The author reviews legal research education at two hundred law schools, and ultimately identifies four necessary elements in the for a basic legal research class:
- a required research class of a minimum of two credits taught in the spring semester of the first year (1 credit) and the fall semester of the two-L year (1 credit).
- a professor with both a JD and an MLS or MIS, preferably admitted to the bar and possessing some experience in the practice of law or an equivalent level of practical experience.
- a grading schema equivalent to that of the first year doctrinal courses.
- a curriculum that includes research strategy; the fundamental resources of secondary sources, case research, statutory research and the administrative state; problem-solving; and concepts of efficiency and effectiveness.
Osborne’s recommendations are valid and, if adopted, would help improve the research skills of law graduates. Further, law librarians need to build on these recommendations to teach connections in legal research. A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article discussed the connections that are made in everyday life to a given discipline.
If we want students to develop expertise in our fields, then, we have to help them thicken up the connections — from the first week of the semester to the fifth, from the last course they took in our discipline to this one, from the course material to their lives outside of class. The more connections they can create, the more they can begin to formulate their own ideas and gain a wider view of our fields. James M. Lang, Small Changes in Teaching: Make Connection, The Chronicle of Higher Education (Feb. 8, 2016).
In the realm of legal research, this is where law librarians can step in to make a strong, lasting impact and help law students develop an expertise in our field.
The newly established ABA outcomes require formative assessments that will help law librarians create and “thicken connections” through feedback given to the students “from the first week of the semester to the fifth.” Researching across the law school curriculum will help the students make connections from the last course they took to a new one. Learning to think like a lawyer and understanding the sources that inform arguments help the students connect the material to their lives outside of class.
Each of these connections helps the students internalize the legal research process, and they can begin to formulate their own ideas and connections to gain a wider view and understanding of the important role of legal research to practice. After all, over 30% of a new associate’s time is spent doing legal research. Giving law students the ability to understand and make connections between a fact pattern and the sources that they need to find precedent and make sound arguments is an extremely important part of their training as future lawyers.