Teaching Legal Research

By , July 9, 2010 4:36 pm

by Kerry Fitz-Gerald

Before heading to AALL, I will be in Boulder, attending the second annual Boulder Conference on Legal Information: Scholarship and Teaching. The goal of this conference is to create a pedagogy in support of the Boulder Statement on Legal Research Education.

In preparation for the conference, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about information literacy and teaching legal research. As a teacher, I find there is a real conflict between the need to teach particular skills, like how to find a case or a statute, and the need to teach broader skills, like how to identify and use an unfamiliar database.  Usually, by the time one’s taught the basic skills, there’s no time to teach anything more ambitious.There’s a tension too, in figuring out just what needs to be taught. I know they need to know how to find cases, but do students really need to know how to use print resources? Do they really need to know how to structure a boolean search? Should we spend a lot of time teaching them to use the expensive tools well, or should we focus on introducing them to free sources? And speaking of teaching those expensive tools and boolean language, do we try to teach them good search construction or do we try to teach them cost-effectiveness?  How do we teach them to identify the tradeoffs between speed, cost and quality?

I also think, as I teach, about the fact that I’m working in an academic environment. The research skills I use and the tools at my disposal are potentially quite different from the skills our students will need and the tools they’ll have access to once they graduate. A significant number of graduates come back and tell us that they’re working in new, small firms with no print materials whatsoever. And others tell us they’re working in places with almost no Westlaw or Lexis access. I worry that the longer I stay in academia, the less I’ll know about what really happens out there in the real world, making my teaching less and less relevant.

As you can tell from this post, I have more questions than I have answers. To that end, I’m looking forward to the Boulder conference and learning from the other attendees. But I also hope that through LLOPS we’ll keep the information flowing, and that those of you working with new lawyers in practice will let those of us in academia know what you wish we were teaching them.

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