September 21, 2009
Findings from Survey of Law School Legal Research Programs
First off, I'd like to thank Joe for this opportunity. Our library has recently been discussing the skills we'd like our students to have at different stages in their legal education. So, we decided to poll other law school libraries across the country to find out how their legal research classes were structured.
On September 11, 2009, I posted a survey to the law-lib listserv with seven questions:
In what years (1L, 2L, 3L) does your school have required legal research instruction?
How long are the required legal research classes (e.g., full year, several weeks)?
Is all or part of the required legal research instruction done as part of your school's legal writing/legal skills class? If only part, which part?
What skills are taught during the required legal research classes (if taught in more than one year, break down by year if possible)?
Does your school offer optional legal research classes (e.g., Advanced Research)? If so, how many and for what years? (If your school doesn't offer optional legal research classes, you can skip the rest of the questions.)
How long do the optional legal research classes last?
What skills are taught at the optional legal research classes?
By September 14, I'd received replies describing the programs at ten schools. See table displayed below. The full range of the US News rankings was covered, with six schools in the 2010 Rankings' Top 100 and four in the other tiers. Geographically, one response came from the Western U.S., two from the Midwest, and the rest from the Eastern U.S.
All of the responding schools have some sort of required legal research class for 1Ls; however, at one school, this was in the form of a couple of extra hours that were added to a substantive course that were also supposed to cover legal writing. This school did offer an optional legal research class for 1Ls that covered most of the things a normal 1L research course would teach. One of the most interesting findings was that a large number of 1L courses now teach administrative law and at least a little legislative history in addition to the usual secondary, caselaw, and statutory research skills.
Most respondents said they taught both print and online sources in their 1L courses; some didn't specify. One school said it focused on print resources in the fall, online in the spring. Another school said the librarians administered Westlaw and Lexis passwords during the 1L course, and that their 1Ls did not meet with Lexis or Westlaw reps until after the research course was done.
All of the responding schools offered some sort of optional research class (such as Advanced Research) for 2Ls and 3Ls. In one school, the optional research course could fulfill a legal writing requirement; in another, the research course was required to obtain a Certificate in Legal Writing. Optional offerings ranged from one-credit mini-courses to the more traditional 2-credit full-semester offering to a wide variety of subject-specific research courses. The standard full-semester Advanced Research course, though, still seems to be the most frequently-used option. A lot of the optional courses reinforced 1L instruction as part of their goals, and efficient searching and how to find free or low-cost resources were other frequently-taught skills. FCIL and subject-specific searching skills also appeared a couple of times. There were, however, a couple of schools that did not repeat much of their 1L instruction in the optional classes.
Three of the responding schools taught legal research independent of the legal writing program (or the school's equivalent). Another program taught and graded its legal research classes separately, but the legal research grade could potentially affect the legal writing grade.
So, what does it all mean?
There seems to be a trend of librarians teaching legal research for 1Ls independent of their school's legal writing program, although some of the respondents who taught research independently said they still coordinate efforts with the legal writing instructors.
General opinion seems to be that 1Ls need to know how to research administrative law in addition to secondary sources, cases, and statutes. I admit I was surprised to find as many programs as I did teaching legislative history to 1Ls - I expected more schools to save that for the upper-level courses - but it is an important skill for students to know. The schools that did report teaching legislative history to 1Ls had longer courses, which may make it easier.
Print and online still share the spotlight when it comes to legal instruction; and when it comes to online research, being able to construct a proper, efficient search seems to be considered an important skill.
No matter what exactly was taught, though, all respondents seemed intent on making strong efforts to teach research skills, offering substantial optional classes in addition to what their school requires.
Naturally, there's only so much you can infer from this informal survey; I only collected answers over the course of a weekend, the number of replies was small, and there's a chance of self-selection bias (librarians from schools with strong legal research instruction might be more inclined to answer a survey like this). Still, I think the answers show an interesting course for the future of legal education. Thanks to everyone who responded!
Fred Dingledy, Reference Librarian, College of William & Mary Law Library
Survey of Law School Research Programs
You may also find the legal research section of the ALWD/LWI Annual Survey of interest
Posted by: Dorie Bertram | Sep 21, 2009 9:43:11 AM