From Keele Street to Bay Street: Learning About the Writing & Research Skills Necessary to Succeed in the Legal Profession

As part of a new Academic Success and Wellness program at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, Ronda Bessner, the Assistant Dean of the Juris Doctor (JD) Program, led a session this past Monday called From Keele Street to Bay Street: Learning About the Writing & Research Skills Necessary to Succeed in the Legal Profession.

I had the pleasure of being one of several persons on a panel of practitioners who dealt with legal research and writing in their work in one way or another, along with Chief Law Librarian Louis Mirando and a 3rd year Osgoode Hall student who had summered at a downtown firm.

Around half of the audience of close to 30 to 40 students were in first year law with the remainder being upper year law students or (international) graduate law students. The group seemed relatively engaged in the discussion and I appreciated the fact that they came out to such a session, the purpose of which was (in part) to discuss the importance of legal research and writing in law practice and what students can be doing in law school to better prepare themselves.

At the risk of over-simplying the discussion, what follows below is a summary of the advice of the various panel members, advice that seemed relatively unanimous across the entire panel.

From Keele Street to Bay Street:

  • in law school, research demands are sometimes artificially simplified since students are often given the cases or other readings, lessening the need to find relevant material on their own
  • in addition, writing in law school tends to be more academic, whereas in practice, there is a need to be more practical, more direct and pointed in your conclusions
  • some students might be surprised by the importance and role of legislation in law practice (and in real life)
  • lawyers in law firms who assign research to a student want the comfort to know that students have first consulted the standard secondary research tools (books, journal articles, encyclopedias, case digests, reference tools) before delving into case law or legislative research
  • updating research is critical, whether case law or legislation
  • students new to conducting "real life" research in law firms are sometimes initially too shy at coming to conclusions in their memo or may not grapple with the issue and do the required analysis of applying the law to their client’s issues.
  • in some situations, no amount of research practice in law school can prepare you for some unique research problems in real life
  • talking to someone (a peer or law librarian, for example) can save hours of research and help identify issues or put your research into better context
  • legal citation and good writing matters both in law school and law practice – get to know your McGill Guide citation
  • legal research and writing is critical to the work that lawyers do; some students might be surprised by the level of scholarship in law firms (in the form of the books, papers and articles that lawyers write)
  • research is an iterative or circular process where you often revisit the same resources as you refine your research and identify new avenues or approaches; using checklists to make sure you have not missed any steps is also useful
  • in addition to research memos, letters, and sample court pleadings/factums, students will often be called on to help write CLE papers, client bulletins or chapters in books; for drafting agreements, most lawyers consult internal or commercially-published precedents, something law students are not necessarily exposed to in law school
  • finally, there was brief mention of knowledge management and legal project management, two topics important in practice but (understandably, in a way) not discussed much in law school

A big thanks to Ronda for organizing the session.

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