Article – RIPS Law Librarian Blog: Are Students Ready for Real Life Legal Research?

This question turns around in my head as I work with my ALR students.  How well is legal research instruction in law schools really preparing law students to practice?

Now, I am happily back in academia this semester, where a steady stream of law students asked to be added to my oversubscribed ALR class.  Each of these students had a story about how overwhelmed they were at their summer jobs, pleading with me to increase my enrollment so they could join a research class.  These students had experienced first hand that, while so much of 1L research is focused on cases, as a practitioner they need skills beyond case law research to succeed.  As an ALR instructor, I see it as my job to do my best to bridge the law school/practice gap.  But how?

Tulane Public Relations, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons.

I think about my own experience.  After many years as an academic law librarian, I transitioned to work in a large law firm library.  It was eye opening.  With the exception of Westlaw and Lexis, many of the resources I relied upon in my work at a law school were vastly different from the ones I needed to use in my role at the firm.  I was introduced to Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) research, DIALOG for technical articles, patent searching, multiple news resources, expert research, factual research (was it raining on a specific date in a specific location?), finding forms (a late evening search for a California form of deed which I finally located as an appendix in a CLE publication), and a whole lot of administrative law.  While new attorneys may not face all of these specific research challenges, I still observed first hand how difficult the transition from law school to real life legal research was for the vast majority of summer and new associates.  Memories of summer associates who came to me in tears, breaking my heart to know this was at least partly tied to their inexperience with research.

CC License. This image, originally posted to Flickr,.

A few weeks ago, I read with keen interest the recent Bloomberg Law 2021 Law School Preparedness Survey.  There it was in charts – what law students use to do research, and what lawyers use in their practice.

Resources which the students said were key to research were quite different from most of the tools practicing attorneys indicated were most useful.   Both agreed statutes and annotated codes were important (82% students, 87% for attorneys).  However, 74% of law students found law reviews and journals useful tools compared to 57% of practitioners. Attorneys ranked regulations and agency documents very high (71%) whereas in law school, fewer than 50% of students highlighted administrative law research. It makes sense that practitioners find practice guides, forms and checklists very helpful (71%) while law students did not (40%).  Of particular interest to me (I spent a few years working at a business college), and not even on the typical ALR course radar, is company, industry and market data, which practitioners noted was helpful in practice (49%).

Attorneys, librarians and law students surveyed all agreed legal research skills should be taught at law school.  Students at a slightly lower rate (72%) than librarians and attorneys (both over 80%). When I saw this high level of consensus, I wondered: why isn’t legal research instruction a larger part of the law school curriculum?

CC License. This image was originally posted to Flickr by Ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken Licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

Should there be a research component to upper level law school courses such as Administrative Law, Tax, Bankruptcy, Immigration, Corporations, etc.?  Should Advanced Legal Research be a required course for all ABA law schools?  Maybe ALR should  be a multi semester course?  There is no easy answer, but it definitely seems like something we as law librarians should all think about – how can law schools better meet the students’ need for research instruction, and how can we advocate on their behalf, as we send another group of 3Ls out to sink or swim in a few months?