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Meredith, S --- "First Year Law Students, Legal Research Skills & Electronic Resources" [2007] LegEdDig 18; (2007) 15(1) Legal Education Digest 49

First Year Law Students, Legal Research Skills & Electronic Resources

S Meredith

[2007] LegEdDig 18; (2007) 15(1) Legal Education Digest 49

U Oxf Fac L Research Paper Series, Working Paper No. 42, 2006, pp 1–11

Law undergraduates are expected to learn legal research skills as part of the curriculum following the 1997 UK National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education Report (known as the Dearing Report) and the 1999 Law Society and Bar Council ‘Joint Statement’ on qualifying law degrees. There are two main models for skills teaching: embedded and stand-alone models. Embedded models — learning skills in concert with content — are considered better for successful learning, but often this means course redesign. In stand-alone models students learn skills separately from content, and often take this learning less seriously than their main subjects, particularly if it’s not assessed. Educationalists who have written about skills learning promote models in which skills learning goes hand-in-hand with content learning, throughout the entire curriculum. Research supports the notion that skills learning has to be iterative, the skills becoming more complex as the student’s understanding of the subject deepens.

Universities fulfil the research skills requirements in different ways, sometimes incorporating skills learning into online segments of subjects or including skills learning in introduction-to-law subjects or expecting research skills to be developed during the process of coursework.

This paper is a case study of a stand-alone model, the Legal Research Skills Programme (LRSP) in the Oxford University Law Faculty. This compulsory three-unit programme provides training in the use of legal information resources (both paper and electronic), legal research, and teamworking. The LRSP runs over three terms in first year: in unit 1, students learn how to get materials on their reading lists from major online databases; in unit 2, they learn how to use Halsbury’s Laws, Halsbury’s Statutes, case citators and journal indexes in both hard copy and online forms; and in unit 3 students do an all-day group legal research activity, culminating in a presentation and discussion session. The programme is assessed on a pass/fail basis; students are expected to be able to demonstrate competency in each Unit. The programme is not formally integrated into students’ main subjects, although exercises in Units 1 and 2 are based on materials on reading lists.

Having outlined the context, I now outline the methodology used in this case study. There has not been much evaluation of what law students actually do with what they learn in legal research skills programmes.

To find out more about what first year students do with the skills they learn in a stand-alone legal research skills programme, I began a study in 2004 focusing on what legal (and other) resources students use and how they use them. Answers to these questions should provide some insight into whether or not students transfer the skills they learn in stand-alone programmes to their main area of study, and give some guidelines as to how students’ skills can be further developed. The research used a combination of open-ended interviews, surveys and observation at two points in a two-year period. In 2006, I developed a new survey, keeping key questions from the 2004 survey for comparison, and adding more questions based on observations of students’ research strategies in Unit 3.

The 2004 survey was completed by students when they attended their LRSP Unit 2 class early in second term; the 2006 survey was distributed by email at the end of first year. Apart from having more experience being law students, the 2006 students have studied more subjects and a broader range of case law.

Taken together, the interviews, the surveys and the observation shed some light on how first year students use electronic resources for reading and research.

One survey question asked students how often they used legal databases to access law reports during term. In 2004, nearly three-quarters of respondents used databases for case law at least weekly; in 2006, almost all respondents did. The 2006 survey also asked students if they used databases for case law ‘at least five days a week’, and 38 per cent of students did so, indicating near daily use of databases for reading law reports.

In the 2004 survey, 62 per cent of students said they used databases for statutes at least fortnightly; in the 2006 survey, this figure rose to 78 per cent. In 2004, 22 per cent didn’t use databases for statutes at all and in 2006 this figure dropped to 9 per cent. There are many more cases than statutes on reading lists, which may be one reason for the lower use of databases for statutes. Another may be the provision of statute books. However, a potential corollary of the lower use of databases for statutes may be that students have low consciousness that statutes are subject to amendment. Some 20 per cent of students accessing statutes electronically use ‘the internet’ rather than legal databases, presumably finding the statute as originally published by the HMSO [Her Majesty’s Stationery Office], or other versions that may or may not include amendments.

Use of online sources of journal articles dramatically increased between the 2004 and 2006 surveys, which may be a result of easier access in the electronic library due to TD Net, a portal for finding most online legal journals. In the 2006 survey, 89 per cent of students accessed online journals at least once a fortnight, compared with only 39 per cent in 2004. Only 2 per cent of students in 2006 never used online journals, compared with 37 per cent in 2004. The increased usage may be because the 2006 survey involved students at the end of their first year, as opposed to students at the end of their first term in the 2004 survey. It may also reflect changes in how students study, with the newer students being even more accustomed to accessing information online than their predecessors.

In the 2004 interviews, all the students preferred to read journal articles in print, and generally from the books.

However, while many students seem to share this aversion to reading articles on screen, this is not the case for law reports, as indicated in the 2004 interviews.

This divergence of attitudes towards reading articles and cases online is interesting. The electronic law report is used differently than a print law report: both may be skim read, but students indicate that the electronic law report is also more easily organised for storage; easier to quote from when writing essays; easier to search for particular sentences and for parts of the report. The differences in attitude and practice with journal articles might be to do with the differences between primary and secondary sources, but it might be to do with volume, and the challenge of ‘getting through’ the large number of cases on the reading list.

First year students not only use legal databases frequently, but they use more than one, suggesting ease with using several databases, all of which work slightly differently to one another. In both the 2004 and 2006 surveys, students indicated that they preferred to use Westlaw, but they also use Lexis and Justis. During Unit 3 of the LRSP in 2006, some students also used Justcite, an online citator that links to case law databases.

Many students equate legal research skills with being able to use databases to access the materials on their reading lists.

Observation and questioning of students during the 2006 Unit 3 classes, which required students to do legal research to solve a problem, indicated that while many students were familiar with using the databases, they used them in very limited ways. Students could find cases, statutes and articles for which they had citations, but most had low-level skills in subject searching and were unaware of the Westlaw or Lexis citator features that provide links to cases that have considered particular sections of statutes; information about amendments; articles about cases and statutes; subsequent judicial consideration of judgments; and other related materials. Students learn to use these features of Lexis and Westlaw in the LRSP Unit 1 and again in Unit 2 at the start of second term, but as their normal course of study rarely requires more than citation searching, students have limited opportunities to develop these more complex skills.

In the 2006 survey, students were asked to list three things they’d learnt from the LRSP. Most said that they had learnt how to use legal databases, without elaborating. At least a third of the respondents said they’d learnt advanced legal searching skills; a third (not necessarily the same students) said they’d learnt to do legal research from scratch; and a third said they’d learnt how to be more efficient in their searching.

While a minority of students look for legal sources not on their reading lists (eg for essays, moots etc) more than once a term, it is of interest to know what resources they use when they do. The interviews and both surveys indicated that students are more likely to use the web (Google or Yahoo) than the legal databases; however, the 2006 students were considerably more likely to use the legal databases than the 2004 students.

Observation of students doing Unit 3 in 2006 also indicated sites and sources beyond the legal databases that students find of value. Many students used Wikipedia in the 2006 Unit 3 exercise, acknowledging that it was not an authoritative source, but defending using it because in their experience it provided a useful introduction to an area of law. In the 2006 survey, 17 out of 65 students said Wikipedia was their favourite website when looking for basic information for essays. The next most popular site was Westlaw, which was mentioned by five students.

Students who have developed habits of harvesting chunks of undifferentiated web-based material to insert in school assignments are likely to continue those habits unless taught otherwise. Distinguishing the useful and reliable from the unreliable is a particularly vital skill in legal research; many experienced legal researchers think it is more difficult with online sources than books, especially for the novice. Students need to learn skills to allow them to do more efficient research on the web, and to be able to evaluate and credit the sources they find.

This case study looks at what legal (and other) resources students use and how they use them. It provides some insight into how students transfer the skills they learn in stand-alone programmes to their main area of study, and suggests some ways in which students’ skills be can further developed. Formative assessment, represented in ‘getting through the reading list’ for weekly tutorials and essays, was the crucial factor in providing opportunities for students to develop skills in using legal databases.

The case study puts a spotlight on the obvious: skills development is related to practice. Students were good at citation searching in several databases because they do it often. They were less skilled at subject searching and at using more complex features of databases because they had fewer opportunities to practice those skills. These students are frequent users of legal databases from the beginning of their first year as law students. Many also use the internet. Skills education must include learning how to research the web effectively and how to avoid plagiarism. And crucially, successive opportunities to do research as part of their everyday study, as their knowledge of law deepens, would enable the students to develop better research skills and practices.

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