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Shoe Shopping as an Entry Point to Teach Legal Research

Another teacher once told me to begin teaching legal research by asking students to find a pair of black dress shoes online.[1] Students can be very intimidated by the beginnings of legal research, particularly post-search filtering, but many of these same students are quite adept at post-search filtering while shopping online. After giving students a few minutes to perform their shoe-shopping research, the teacher can analogize their just-displayed skills to the skills they’ll need for legal research.

First, ask the room who was shopping for men’s dress shoes and who was shopping for women’s shoes. Likely many people will have pictured shoes which are marketed towards their own gender, but some students/audience members/participants may also have heard the word “dress” and assumed that the teacher wanted to find women’s shoes. This can be a good time to discuss how our own biases affect our research, and the importance of asking clarifying questions when being given a research task. Without enough detail a researcher can flounder, but asking a few questions upfront can avoid needless duplication of effort.

Second, ask about where the students began their search. Some will likely have typed into google “black dress shoes” but many may choose their sites first. Did they look for a site which they know has fast shipping? A site which they know sells shoes at the price point they would prefer? A site which meets ethical considerations in the shoe-making process? Our database choices shape the research we do.

Third, ask the students about their filtering. Many shoe sites allow post-search filtering by color and size. Students can compare this to filtering by jurisdiction and year to find relevant results. The teacher could also point out that a person who grew up in a warm climate might need to learn the options for cold weather footwear, or a person who has only worn flat shoes might need to learn the difference between heel height and platform height. Learning to differentiate published and unpublished cases or filter cases by topic is a similar, and manageable, learning curve.

Two more things may be helpful here: first, remind your students that while shoe shopping online might feel intuitive to them, it was probably frustratingly counter-intuitive for their grandmother’s generation. Remind them that legal research may also someday feel simple but that a good deal of practice will be required in the interim. Secondly, remind students that there will be differences in databases as there are differences in online shoe retailers. I have a specific preference for retailers which allow me to search for shoes between two prices, i.e. shoes over $25 but below $75. This can remind students to pay attention to the tools they use and to become informed consumers of legal information databases. This is certainly not the only analogy for teaching informed, careful legal research, but it strikes me as a particularly good one, so I hope it may be helpful for you.

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[1] I apologize that I can no longer remember whose idea I’ve repeated here. I believe it was mentioned during an Ohio Regional Association of Law Libraries Presentation Analogies Designed to Make Learning Legal Research Easier, by Susan Azyndar, Katherine Kelly, Ingrid Mattson, & Erin Waltz in 2017, but as there was a good deal of audience participation and the idea does not specifically appear in the presentation notes, I must admit that the analogy stuck in my memory better than the originator’s identity. I am grateful for the suggestion.

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