Creating Opportunities to Do Legal Research in Other Courses

As an instructional services librarian, my entire professional existence revolves around teaching students the practical skills they need to learn in order to be effective lawyers. Unfortunately, it often seems like these goals are at odds with the traditional law school curriculum, which emphasizes familiarity with various legal doctrines over writing and research.

That means I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to integrate legal research into doctrinal courses. This often takes the form of the one-off guest presentations with which we are all exceedingly familiar. While these are a convenient way to quickly apprise students of different resources, I do worry that students will have trouble retaining this type of information if they don’t get the chance to use it or apply it.

That’s why I was so excited about the intensive, application-oriented legal research module that I recently developed for the law school’s new Legislation & Regulation course. Although the module was a single ‘one-off’ class session, there was no presentation or lecture component. Instead, students learned by doing, spending the class time working on a librarian-guided, hands-on exercise that asked them to delve into the fraught history of the FDA’s efforts to regulate tobacco products.  

Like any integration of library instruction into doctrinal classes, this module arose from effectively marketing the library to the professors who teach those courses. Although this particular situation actually involved the leg-reg faculty reaching out to us, my predecessor laid the groundwork by consistently promoting the library’s instructional services and delivering those services in a way that earned us a great reputation with our faculty.

This eased the way for a fruitful collaboration. I knew the research module was going to live or die based on how it aligned with the expectations of the faculty, so I asked a lot of questions. Not only did I nail down the more mundane details, such as the timing of the module and the desired coverage, I tried to make sure I had a good grasp of the big picture: What did they want the exercise to accomplish? How did they envision the library’s role?

As you might imagine, this info was very useful to have when I sat down and started to draft the module. In addition, my own experience taking leg-reg in law school ended up being beneficial. My familiarity with the course’s structure helped me make the module a more organic part of the course, with earlier questions that nodded to previously-covered content and later questions that looked towards future topics.

When creating content for another course, it’s important to recognize that the goals of that course are likely very different, even as they relate to research-oriented concepts. Although many of the concepts I covered would be at home in a dedicated legal research course, the differing goals of leg-reg led me to approach those ideas very differently. Thus, instead of crafting the type of open-ended, process-oriented problem I would ordinarily use for my Research Methods course, I structured the leg-reg exercise as more of a “guided tour” of the sources and concepts associated with the subject. For example, I linked students to the relevant NPRM; instead of asking them find it, my questions asked them to make sense of the relationships of the NPRM’s different parts, both to one another and to the regulatory process that is at the heart of the course.   

Although drafting the module was a solitary endeavor, when it came to actually teaching it, teamwork was essential. The focus on application meant that there was no lecture to deliver, but we wanted librarians to ‘float’ around the classroom and work with any students one-on-one as questions arose. And because all of our leg-reg sections take place simultaneously, this would have literally been impossible if my exceptional colleagues at the law library had not been generous enough to volunteer their time and expertise. Fortunately, all of us teach regularly, so that allowed everyone to quickly get on the same page about our instructional goals.

Positive experiences like this one can have cascading effects. Leg-reg is a required course, and there is some real enthusiasm among the faculty about making this research module a recurring feature (I’m working on some updates right now!). Even more than that, word of the module’s success has spread to other professors in other subject areas, which has already led to similar application-focused modules in other courses. These modules have already started to make the library’s already-excellent relationships with the rest of the faculty even better. More importantly, it is my hope that students will not only find the modules to be useful and informative in the moment, but that they will also meaningfully figure into the big picture of their legal education as a bridge between the substance of their doctrinal coursework and their practical, day-to-day lawyering skills.  

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