January 10, 2007
Teaching Law School Students to "Think Like Law Librarians"
Earlier this year I posted a list of IMHO Awards that covered a number of 2006 developments I thought worthy of highlighting, some good, some not. One positive development highlighted there is very forward-looking, namely NCBE's consideration of developing a legal research component for bar exams. I'm sure many readers wonder how legal research skills can be tested in bar exams, but they can be if legal research is taught by emphasizing principles of legal research in a format-neutral context. I know, some are wondering about the existence of legal research principles; I'm here to say they do exist.
When I was a large law firm librarian, the bane of my existence was teaching young associates how to perform legal research. Most of the young associates I worked with graduated in the ten percent of the top ten law schools. They simply did not learn effective legal research in law school; most still don't.
Access Points & Routes. Back in the mid-80's, Virginia Thomas, currently Director, Law Library and Information Technology at the University of Cincinnati Law Library but then Documents/Reference Librarian at IIT/Chicago-Kent College of Law, and I, then a Research Librarian at Seyfarth, Shaw (Chicago), and occasional guest lecturer on labor law research for the graduate human resources program at Loyola University (Chicago) developed a novel teaching approach that focused on access points and routes using bibliographic analysis of document types within the context of the structure of legal literature. This teaching approach applied, and still applies, regardless of publishing format and the on-site availability of legal resources. It also overcomes one of the most serious problems faced by legal research instructors, namely, trying to teach legal research to students who know so little substantive law. Alas, we both were working stiffs who did not have time to publish but it is rewarding to see that some law librarians have published their insights into similar approaches to teaching legal research. See, for example, J.D.S. Armstrong & Christopher A. Knott, Where the Law Is: An Introduction to Advanced Legal Research (2d ed, 2006).
Anti-Toolbox Approach to Legal Research. At the time, Virginia and I characterized this approach as an anti-toolbox approach to teaching legal research. By that we meant to criticize the still all too common practice of trying to teach legal research by just explaining what each research tool did; "this is a digest, this is a case name index. this is an online research service..." Unfortunately the toolbox method still remains the prevalent approach to teaching legal research, performed perhaps more so by non-librarian legal research and writing instructors, but also still performed by law librarians, even in many elective advanced legal research courses.
Teaching Legal Research Tomorrow. How will legal research be taught if legal research becomes a bar exam component? This is the focus of an upcoming conference at the University of Texas Tarlton Law Library, one I hope all interested parties attend, not just law librarians. Of course I believe the approach Virginia Thomas and I use is one such way, but, relative to law school curricular changes, I also hope serious consideration will be given to requiring a legal research course separate and distinct from traditional legal research and writing courses.
It's time for the legal academy to recognize that legal research and writing classes do a very poor job at teaching legal research; the noise of the writing component drowns out the legal research message and, unfortunately that message is almost universally based, perhaps necessarily so, on a toolbox approach to teaching legal research.
Save the Date for the Tarlton Conference. Must law librarians teach the legal research course I am recommending for your consideration? Absolutely not. Anyone can teach legal research following the approach Virginia Thomas and I have used for years now. Come to the Tarlton conference on Oct. 18-20, 2007 [brochure] to contribute to improving the instruction of legal research in law schools.
Ultimately we must teach law students to "think like law librarians" but law librarians are not the only ones who already approach research thinking this way.
Cross-posted on Law School Innovation. [JH]
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