The Rise of Experiential Legal Research Instruction

Law Libraries, Legal Education, Librarianship, Trends Interactive sjarrett

The goal of Trends Interactive is to generate freewheeling discussion on a variety of subjects of interest to law librarians. This article on experiential legal research instruction has been written by Amy Emerson,  Director Cornell Legal Research Clinic


Traditionally, the methods by which librarians taught research skills were focused on conventional lectures and demonstrations, some of which took place in the classroom, but many of which took place at the reference desk and in the stacks. As databases began to overtake print materials as the primary medium for legal materials, librarians quickly recognized that teaching legal research solely through lecture and demonstration was inadequate for optimum student learning.

Also of notorious influence were the assessments of legal education contained in the 1992 MacCrate Report and the 2007 Carnegie Report, which broadly prompted the industry to re-examine legal pedagogy, and moved librarians participating in the 2009 Boulder Conference to produce the Boulder Statements on Legal Research Education and, later, to issue subsequent statements that further clarify legal research pedagogy and best practices, and even to define the term “legal research” itself. The Boulder statements make the language of the Carnegie Report relevant and accessible to librarians, and their importance lies in the context they provide for librarians to implement the philosophy of the Carnegie Report in their legal research instruction. It is to the benefit of librarians and their students that the Boulder Conference has continued to occur each year, and through it, the creation of new materials to aide in developing legal research pedagogy.

For their part, librarians have not only absorbed the content of these materials, they have also accomplished a sea change in legal research instruction. While they continue to teach critical classes in first-year lawyering programs and “one-shot” sessions in doctrinal classes and seminars, they have also expanded their research curricula to successfully create hundreds of advanced, for-credit courses. Some are topic-specific in nature, such as business and corporate law or e-discovery, and some are more broadly intended to thoroughly familiarize students with best practices in research and analysis. Concurrently, librarians have begun to change the nature of their research exercises from treasure hunts to hypothetical examples that are more practical in nature, and to abandon assignments such as pathfinders in favor of typical work product produced in attorney practice, such as memos and briefs.

Recently, the “flipped classroom” made an appearance in legal research instruction. In this model, students receive course content in advance, often through pre-recorded videos, and then enter the classroom prepared to conduct interactive, hands-on research. From there, the instructor fine-tunes the students’ skills by directly working with them on the research exercises they are completing. The flipped classroom is a nod of recognition to the fact that students need to be actively engaged to learn research concepts and platforms well.

The Revised ABA Standards

The American Bar Association (ABA) has significantly revised its Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools to require each law school’s curriculum to deliver at least six credits hours through “one or more experiential course(s).” Simulation courses and law clinics that satisfy the following four components of Standard 303 meet the experiential requirement:

“(i) integrate doctrine, theory skills, and legal ethics, and engage students in performance of one or more of the professional skills identified in Standard 302 [legal research is specifically set forth in Standard 302];
(ii) develop the concepts underlying the professional skills being taught;
(iii) provide multiple opportunities for performance; and
(iv) provide opportunities for self-evaluation.”

ABA Standard 304 defines simulation courses and law clinics. A simulation course provides students with an experience that is similar to that of a lawyer engaged in the work of “advising or representing a client” or other typical lawyering tasks, within a set of circumstances created by the instructor. As well as an educational classroom component, the instructor must provide “opportunities for performance,” directly supervise the students’ performance, and provide feedback and occasion for student self-evaluation.

Like a simulation course, a law clinic offers an educational classroom component, is directly supervised by the instructor, and provides “opportunities for performance,” feedback, and student self-evaluation. In addition, students gain experience in “advising and representing” “actual clients” in a law clinic.

The ABA’s revisions serve to codify industry discussions on the topic of teaching practical skills to law students and to create accountability among law schools to meet these standards for their students. Importantly, they provide not only an opportunity for librarians to further reconsider how they teach their research courses, but also the occasion for libraries to affirmatively step forward to assist law schools with meeting these new requirements.

Evolving Experiential Legal Research Models:
Simulation Courses

Several librarians had already begun to implement change, and many more are immediately responding to the ABA’s directive and modifying their legal research instruction accordingly. Numerous libraries have successfully created, or are in the process of creating, topic-specific simulation courses, including the University of North Carolina School of Law (Corporate and Transactional Legal Research, Intellectual Property and Technology, Research through the Litigation Process, and Global Legal Practice) and Cornell Law School (Law Practice Technology, Research and Analysis in Law Practice, Administrative Legal Research, Advanced Legal Research in Business Law, Advanced Legal Research in Foreign and International Law, and Advanced Legal Research in Intellectual Property Law). At the University of Kansas School of Law, students who participate in the librarian-taught Kansas Supreme Court Research Practicum conduct research on questions presented by judges to produce written and oral work product. At Brigham Young University, plans are underway to unveil a fully experiential Advanced Legal Research course in the spring semester of 2017. And no doubt countless other legal research simulation courses are being taught or created in law libraries everywhere.

Evolving Experiential Legal Research Models:
Legal Research Clinics

Librarians have also entered the clinical realm to offer students the opportunity to conduct legal research for real clients. For example, at the University of the District of Columbia School of Law, librarians have embedded in their Juvenile and Special Education Law Clinic, their Community Development Clinic, and their Legislation Clinic. At the Seattle University School of Law, librarians have embedded in their Administrative Law Clinic and their Immigration Law Clinic. The process of embedding makes the librarians an integral part of the course because they are present at class meetings and case rounds, participate in research strategy and analysis, and in many cases, are treated as co-instructors. The result is relevant, tailored, interactive research instruction that occurs in the moment and lasts into the future.

Some librarians have taken experiential learning a step further by creating and teaching their own clinics. ABA Standard 303 states that, “A law school shall provide substantial opportunities to students for law clinics.” There is no time like the present for a law library to contribute in this unique way to the law school curriculum.

An example is the Norick Municipal Law Research Clinic, run by the Chickasaw Nation Law Library at the Oklahoma City University School of Law, where students research issues referred by the City of Oklahoma City’s Municipal Counselor’s Office on topics such as administration, criminal justice, civil litigation, labor and employment, land use and economic development, and trusts, utilities, and finance.

Another example is the Legal Research Clinic, run by the Cornell Law Library at the Cornell Law School, where students conduct research in all areas of law for nonprofit organizations, indigent individuals, public interest attorneys, and budding entrepreneurs. This fall, the Legal Research Clinic is also adding an international component through which students will conduct research for judges around the world.

Librarian-run research clinics are the result of years of evolution in legal research instruction, combined with the ideal environment currently offered by the new ABA standards. They satisfy the experiential learning requirements set forth by the ABA by providing students with the opportunity to conduct research for real clients with real problems and by doing so, to become adept at analyzing and interpreting the law, exercising legal judgment and counseling clients, and serving the public through pro bono services to further social justice.

The result is an embodiment of the legal research pedagogy set forth in the Boulder statements, which advocate for the inclusion of intellectual and ethical, as well as practical, skills in legal research instruction, deliberately in concert with the Carnegie Report.

Creating clinics is not without hurdles. They are time-consuming to run and, because legal advice is being given, librarians must be bar-admitted to direct and teach them. Nevertheless, these hurtles are not insurmountable and, as the above examples demonstrate, law libraries are continuing their longstanding tradition of finding new ways to serve their students.

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