From barristers to international law firms to law schools, legal research is an important activity. It is what enables legal professionals to keep up to date with the law and advise clients appropriately, and law students to learn about the law and develop their own knowledge in specialist areas.
In a recent study conducted by Justis, involving staff and students from over 70 universities from 13 different countries, evidence suggests that the student experience and education in legal research is inconsistent, potentially leaving students at a disadvantage when applying for training contracts.
This study identifies students’ preferred way of learning about legal research; reveals the possible impact on library and academic staff; highlights the level of confidence students have in approaching legal research, and finally the impact this imbalance in teaching is having on law firms.
Below we discuss preliminary findings from this study while we conduct our final interviews, complete a full report and prepare to present our findings at BIALL 2019.
Inconsistency in legal research education
A key finding from this research study is that there is little to no consistency in the teaching of legal research across different universities.
Some universities hold compulsory lectures, or library sessions, on how to conduct legal research and use tools, such as JustisOne, to find cases and legislation. However, in many universities these lectures or library sessions are optional. In some instances, the survey revealed that students and staff from the same university disagreed as to whether these sessions were compulsory and assessed. Similarly, staff and students at the same university were in disagreement as to which legal research platforms they had access to, suggesting that students (and staff in some instances), do not know they have access to some online legal information providers.
The platforms that universities subscribe to was discussed in an interview with a library staff member from a London-based university. They disclosed that the legal research platforms their institution acquires are those used by law firms they have relationships with. However, it is important that universities prioritise the needs of their students and consider the ways in which legal research platforms can be used to teach students about the law as well as the range of features they have which may enable students to enhance their own understanding.
Lack of awareness can lead to other issues, including when students struggle to find cases and legislation, requiring individual support from law librarians or other members of staff. Furthermore, in our focus groups, students disclosed this can lead them to use other ‘unauthorised’ websites that were specifically not recommended by their university.
The question of communication between the law school, libraries and students is one that has likely been discussed internally at universities many times before. However, can legal research providers do more, in collaboration with law schools, to ensure that students are aware of the resources available to them, educate them in how to use those resources efficiently, and prevent students from using unofficial websites and forming bad research habits?
Additionally, the study identified that both staff and students agreed that student confidence in legal research is relatively low across all levels of study, supporting the idea that universities may need to reconsider how they are supporting these students when it comes to learning how to conduct legal research.
While the lack of exposure to and education in legal research and legal research services can have a potential impact on the student experience, it also impacts the university and law firms who are required to invest in additional training and support.
Learn more about this research
This research study grew organically from a student focus group in August 2018. Since then Justis has completed a survey which was sent to students, academics and library staff across the world to explore student experiences on a wider scale and to get a sense of the provision of legal research teaching from universities.
To validate our findings from the focus groups and survey, and to understand in detail the status of legal research education, we conducted interviews with library and academic staff, as well as legal practitioners, including those involved in supporting trainees and former trainees themselves.
We will be presenting the full findings of the survey and study at BIALL 2019, and we will produce a final report which will be available on the Justis Blog this coming spring. If you would like to find out more please follow us on social media, and check the blog for future updates.
The research is being conducted by Dr Matthew Terrell, Head of Marketing at Justis, and David Hand, a doctoral candidate from the University of Nottingham and Communications Analyst at Justis.
What are your thoughts on the issues raised above? If you would like to share your opinion and experiences of teaching or learning legal research please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org