Preliminary Reflections on Legal Research Instruction: A Law Firm Librarian’s Perceptions on Navigating the Academic Space

By Dominique Garingan (Follow us on LinkedIn)

This past fall, I had the life-changing opportunity of teaching my first legal research course. I extend my deepest gratitude to those who made this happen. It was, indeed, an experience that both reinforced and changed many pre-existing notions.   

Sleep-deficient instances of preparing lectures and assessments in addition to full-time work were interspersed with many “pinch me” moments along with the realization that I was teaching as a sessional in one of two law schools in my province, the only law school in my city, and a very well-regarded faculty in Canada and internationally. This was especially felt during attendance at an instructors’ orientation via Zoom with professors and educators who had well-referenced law books, loose-leafs, and papers to their names, some of which I’ve acquired for my own firm library.

As a law firm librarian, I am grateful for research being a part of my organizational deliverables. Doing what you enjoy is one thing. Teaching it, and hoping that others derive the same challenge, enjoyment, and reward from it, given a certain environment, is another. When I began the course, my initial question was how to inspire law students to enhance their research skills and help them navigate a diverse selection of primary and secondary legal resources at their disposal. After having taught the course, the following preliminary reflective points have come to light. My in-progress answers to these questions have thus far revolved around context and the changing nature of legal research in the profession, and the ways I could respond to that as an instructor.

In the same way research is iterative, I continue to revisit and re-examine this experience for ongoing and future learning.

I. Research as Constructive Practice

Coming from a law firm environment, I used to learn about students’ legal research skills through library orientations and the discussions and queries that followed throughout their term, whether summering or articling. Some students engage in research more than others, and this can depend on several influential factors outside of their sole control including time, interest, support afforded by the firm, rotations, assigned practice groups, and mentors or principals. Students may experience varying degrees of influential factors and bring these to their research approach. 

After having taught in the university setting, I am of the view that law students undergo a fairly rich and diverse ALR curriculum. However, what may be wanting are the opportunities to iteratively put in-class lessons into practice under different contexts. After this first semester of teaching, I’ve learned that a shortage of time may make it difficult for a course to fully align with the prevailing pedagogical perception that learners need to put things into practice, integrate new lessons into pre-existing knowledge, and apply them to new contexts repeatedly to build proficiency. 

A law student asking a lawyer or librarian about what a current consolidation is, what a case digest is, or how to access legislative debates is not indicative of these topics not having been taught or demonstrated in law school. It may just mean that students have only been afforded one or two opportunities to practice a lesson or method before moving on to a more challenging topic. While I think it unlikely that a practitioner in the legal field would judge a law student for asking them for help or advice in their expertise, or for admitting something they’re unfamiliar with, I will go out on a limb and say that practitioners and firms mustn’t be too quick to judge law students and law schools as being deficient in research curriculum and/or instruction absent a view of that curriculum. Just as law librarians and other professionals may need a practice refresher for resources and methods outside of their expertise, or to consult with others with additional expertise, so too do law students who are continuously presented with new information and skills to master.

II. Examining Metrics for Success

Entering the academic world, I quickly learned that research must be taken in its working context, and despite one’s efforts in scenario and assessment drafting, it was quite difficult to replicate the working firm context in a classroom and to apply the same metrics that a law firm has for deliverables. Students with experiences working in law firms and other legal environments were no strangers to tight deadlines, juggling assignments for clients, and receiving multiple research requests for the most authoritative and relevant sources of law applicable to their matters. 

The mandates of academic institutions and law firms, as well as their metrics for success and the manner students are evaluated, differ in a few but integral ways. For example, in academic research instruction settings, proper legal citation, the critical analysis and selection of resources, and research methods used are routinely and carefully assessed in submissions and contribute largely to academic evaluation metrics. In law firm settings, the evaluation of research assignments may involve other value-carrying and behaviour-influencing factors such as time billed, speed of completion, the concurrence of completion with other tasks, associated positive experiences of clients and colleagues, positive and reinforcing feedback from mentors, and how the organization views and defines success. These law firm metrics 1) may be used by students as key drivers for research behaviour; 2) are not easily replicated within the classroom; and 3) may not always reflect the research methods or the final research outputs that contributed to the outcomes.

Key differences in evaluation may influence the research strategies law students use (or prefer to use) as they navigate these different environments. If, to a certain extent, an organization values positive client and colleague experiences and concurrent matters worked on, students may choose to develop and deploy their research skills in manners that maximize these metrics for success. In addition, if an organization values the generation of scholarly output and legal publication (which some may do more than others), the same will apply. Factors that influence and incentivize the development of research skills depend, in part, on environment, and legal research instructors should be cognizant that students have experienced or been influenced by, or will experience or be influenced by, diverse environments.  

III. Transitioning into the Workplace 

Making legal research attractive to law students as they prepare to enter legal practice requires empathy and ongoing awareness of changes in the profession. While students may face a certain level of scrutiny and rigour once they enter the workplace, it may not be the same category of scrutiny and rigour as that coming from the academic environment. Additionally, some students may be looking forward to the transition outside of the academic space more than others. There may be times when, due to a discovery of new facts or a change in litigation strategy, the findings of a research project that a student is proud of may not make it into final briefs of argument. Similarly, there may be times when research projects conclude in uncertainties, for example, when they lead to conclusions that reflect a dearth of primary and secondary sources that provide guidance specific to a client’s situation. While it may seem unlikely at the time, every research project completed and every line of inquiry thoroughly explored based on one’s abilities, when paired with reflection on research processes and methods used and the ways one can improve, contain much value in the context of building research skills, although they may not immediately reflect on metrics for measuring success. 

Legal research is a skill that requires continuous practice and exposure to difficult or challenging problems to explore. Understandably, not every student may be enthusiastic about this when faced with metrics that inspire short-term efficiency and immediate results. With many students thinking about grades, placements, exchanges, jobs, income, partners, families, and their futures outside of academic environments, it takes empathy to meet students where they are to convey that, as a legal researcher, one must be equally invested in the processes and methods as well as the findings and outcomes, and that proficiency in adapting to new resources is equally as proficiency-building as repeated practice using familiar ones.

(Preliminary) Final Thoughts

Although this perception may change if given subsequent opportunities to revisit the course, I am of the view that framing advanced legal research courses as settings where students can explore a breadth of resources available to them and accepting students’ eventual transitions to legal practice, which would eventually narrow their scopes and environments, may align with a more humanist approach to teaching which emphasizes learners as central to the learning process at whatever stage they are in. While curriculum and learning outcomes will always drive the course, as an instructor, one of my ongoing learnings is how to constructively meet students at different stages and having experienced different influential factors.

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

In my view, meaningful learning (still) occurs when learners deem the subject matter relevant to their personal and professional needs and are able to actively integrate new skills and insights with pre-existing knowledge. As instructors, our responsibility is, in part, to inspire students to undertake assessments with the active intention of incorporating learnings into long-term skill sets in addition to the immediate reward of submitting work that checks all the boxes of standard grading metrics. My hope is that the course was, and any subsequent course I teach will be, able to show learners how the overarching cognitive, technical, and soft skills relevant to legal research may be made relevant, even if these are not very obvious outright. The process of building legal research skills may start in the classroom, but it certainly does not end there. 


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.