Legal Research as Music Festival

By Michael Muehe (Follow us on LinkedIn)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned since moving to San Francisco, it’s that California loves its music festivals. From Coachella to Joshua Tree, Stagecoach to San Francisco’s own Outside Lands – located conveniently right behind the USF School of Law – these events often have a number of stages and performers over multiple days. And, believe it or not, drawing a metaphorical connection between these stages and legal research stages left my students more excited about completing their research than I’ve ever seen before.

With my Legal Research & Writing students and my upper-division writing students, I firmly and regularly emphasize that legal research – indeed any research – requires a process (especially after I read the astounding back-and-forth articles between Christopher & Jill Robinson Wren and Robert Berring & Kathleen Vanden Heuvel about teaching legal research). This year, with each workshop, I tried providing the students with high-level stages to contextualize the lesson and so that they could “see the forest through the trees.” Yet, I wrongly assumed that students would absorb this framework without any further explanation. 

Photo by Colin Lloyd on Unsplash

After getting their assignments, whether a brief, seminar paper, or class presentation, student after student approached my office either unsure where to start their research or stuck after immediately starting their research with case law searches in Westlaw and Lexis. Groan. Upper-division students especially struggled, having only experienced LRWA-style research instruction via Zoom, and otherwise having a wide range of rusty – if existent – research skills from prior academic programs. I grew concerned, answering the same questions and addressing the same rudimentary skills over and over. Would a short primer help them see a research process better?

I scoured some writing resources for inspiration, and eagerly compiled a “legal research playbook” for LRWA, and a longer playbook tailored to specialized seminar courses, such as Art Law, Sexuality Law, and Blockchain Law. With these manuals, I placed into “stages” the various lessons we covered throughout the semester, being particularly careful about presenting them as neither linear nor finite steps and rather as recursive and iterative stages. These include:

  • Stage 1: Familiarize (Understand the Assignment), featuring JUST ASK, TARP, and Background Research.
  • Checkpoint 1: Write the Question Presented
  • Stage 2: Plan (Where Do You Need to Direct Your Research?), featuring Search Terms, Secondary Sources, One Good Case, and Research Folders.
  • Stage 3: Find (Start Looking for Authorities), Featuring Secondary Sources, Primary Authority, Advanced Search, and Filters.
  • Stage 4: Understand (What Are the Authorities Telling Us?), featuring Reading, Note-taking and Writing, Updating, and Skeleton Outlining.
  • Checkpoint 2: Revise the Question Presented
  • Stage 5: Apply (Apply Findings to the Facts) featuring Client Facts, Distinguishing and Analogizing, and Revisiting the Outline.
  • Stage 6: Communicate (Present Your Findings), featuring Communication methods, Revisiting Stages, and Final Validation.
  • Pro-tips & Resources

Similarly, albeit fleshed-out and tailored to scholarly research assignments, the upper-division playbook features: 

  • Stage 1: Familiarize
  • Checkpoint: Write Thesis
  • Stage 2: Plan
  • Stage 3: Find
  • Stage 4: Understand
  • Checkpoint 2: Revisit the Thesis
  • Stage 5: Communicate
  • Stage 6: Reflect, Critique, and Revise
  • Pro-tips and Resources

Despite my careful language, comprehensive coverage, and professors’ amazing willingness towards distributing the guides to their students, presenting research as stages still didn’t click as much as I hoped, and I began thinking about how I could better frame this framework. In fact, as a neurodiverse learner, I often need to anchor new information to what I already know, usually finding metaphors the most helpful. These anchors help me retain information and sometimes see unlikely connections between disparate information. One of my LRWA colleague instructors also uses metaphors in our co-teaching, such as seeing research platforms like grocery stores, which resonates with his students, giving me hope that my plan would work too.

I began reviewing these manuals one-on-one with students when they made their research appointments (admittedly, some had not read them closely), and I suggested that the stages were like a music festival, where you might go to different stages depending on who you wanted to see at which time. When the vibe changes, move to a different stage. My upper-division students expressed a real love for this metaphor and appreciated seeing the playbook as a map for completing their papers. At the end of my meetings, I always ask students how they feel, and most recently a nervous student, who had only developed an idea and done some case research, applied the metaphor to her current process and exclaimed, “I went to the main stage too early; the headliner wasn’t even on yet!” Recognizing how many other stages existed, she, as have many students this semester, said she felt excited and better prepared for the assignment.

While I can’t say whether this ultimately helped student papers (they’ve haven’t yet submitted them) this metaphor seemed successful here – if anything, the students grew enthusiastic about doing a research assignment. So, it leaves me wondering: What other metaphors can we use to help students draw connections and anchor their legal research instruction?


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.