Research Skills: Law Schools and Law Firms

It’s that time of year when law students turn into lawyer-trainees, whether because of articling or summer jobs, and from everything I’ve heard most hiring law firms give their students a crash course in legal research. Brenda Johnson recently laid out for us the elements of her program at (the burgeoning) Bennet Jones LLP. This, and the fact that I too am in the process of hiring a research assistant for the summer, got me thinking about the relation between law schools and law firms.

Law schools have been known to bridle at suggestions from practice that they aren’t doing what they should be doing; and the bar has been known to make some pretty short-sighted recommendations to the academy. All of which typically sends false dichotomies — theory-practice, “real world”-“ivory tower”, Pericles-plumberPericles and the plumber [by] W. L. Twining. An inaugural lecture delivered before the Queen’s University of Belfast on 18 January 1967. — flying into the air to join the fur and feathers already there. Yet legal research is one area in which both “sides” might be able to develop a strong commonly agreed aim: I know from my own experience that law faculties claim to want students to develop good research skills, propose in fact that they are teaching students to learn to learn, and almost without exception make Legal Research and Writing a mandatory subject. (Of course, LRW is universally taught by folks other than the full-time faculty, who, when the staffing question arises for that course, turn out to be wholly uninterested in stepping up. But let’s put that aside for the moment.)

Perhaps if law firms were clear and relatively unanimous in their expectations of students’ research skills, perhaps if those expectations were conveyed to students more or less directly (LRW teachers would be willing messengers), and perhaps if hiring were to any extent at all influenced by a candidate’s demonstrated research skills, law students might pay attention.

This alone wouldn’t accomplish a revolution: the schools would have to chime in with their own re-emphasis on research. They might consider research skills certification as a serious matter apart from the business of awarding a grade in LRW. They might require students to make public a portfolio of some of their research efforts, including the research plan, research record, outline, and the rough draft. Law schools might even have the courage to ensure that faculty members know what they’re doing when it comes to research techniques. If they did this, things might change.

Legal skill at research is everyone’s idea of a good, a rallying point for real collaboration on legal education between firms and faculties. Slaw could be an honest broker here.



  2. Simon,

    Our firm hires both first and second year students. We expect to have to teach them and our articling students how to do research and we devote considerable resources to the task. In my experience, students only know how to use QL or Westlaw/e-Carswell and they have little idea how to do this well. My earlier comment about the value of texts was in part prompted by the extraordinary uphill battle I, our librarian and a few of my colleagues have to get students to make anything other than an impetuous leap into the electronic databases that they know when they have to find out the law. It’s even a huge battle to get them to use CanLII. Free access has done its job only too well.

    The problem is not wholly caused by the inadequate training law students get. It is caused by at least three other factors: (i) almost every problem law students encounter in law school comes labelled either by the course or by the assigned moot topic; few students ever have to deal with a simple cry for help from a client; (ii) in my experience at law schools — and it may be different now — almost all research was done in the context of litigation or moots and, while that’s obviously an important focus, it’s not the only one; and, perhaps the most important factor, (iii) the lawyers who give the students work far too often ask the student to “find a case” — this is almost universal focus of litigators — and are uninterested in either context or principle. I have developed a category of “all purpose cases” which I can give to students to provide them with a case and, at the same time, one that states a useful principle, approach or attitude. I also have the huge good fortune to be able to say to a lawyer, “Here’s the principle you need, the case that states the principle and the recent case that applies it.”

    What can we do about this? I find that, by giving our students drafting exercises, I can get them not to leap into the electronic databases. If you are asked to draft a contract for the purchase and sale of a vending machine or a contract that a dog-walker might ask her customers to sign, what words would you search for? I would be delighted to be asked by a law faculty to take a small number of students under my wing and, over the course of a term, take them through some actual or imaginary problems and show them what to do. Perhaps Slaw could get a list of volunteers for the law schools to use.

  3. Perhaps it’s time for a new post on this topic