Legal Education Digest
Who Are Those Guys? The Results of a Survey Studying the Information Literacy of Incoming Law Students
 LegEdDig 22; (2007) 15(2) Legal Education Digest 5
Whitter L Rev, forthcoming
This article reflects the results of a survey designed to generate data about incoming law students and their perceptions of the information literacy skills they bring with them to law school.
The survey was conducted during the summer of 2006. The survey’s questions were designed to generate some general information about the responding students and sought specific information about student reading, writing, and research habits. After the questions were prepared, law schools were invited to participate by means of a posting to the DIRCON and LWI listservs and seven schools ultimately took part in the survey.
The ability to use an internet-based survey format made this project possible. In all, 740 students responded to the survey. Because the survey asked respondents to identify themselves as male or female, the results can also show gender disparity in the answers.
When asked about preparation for classes as undergraduates, 7.6 per cent of responding students indicated that they had not prepared for classes, while 16.5 per cent answered that they had spent less than an hour and 28.3 per cent answered that they spent about an hour preparing for classes, while 22.2 per cent indicated that they had spent about two hours and 21.5 per cent indicated that they had spent more than two hours preparing for classes.
In contrast to these numbers, the responding students appeared to anticipate a greater commitment to class preparation in law school: no students answered that they would not prepare for class and only 1 per cent of students responded that they would prepare for less than one hour.
The survey asked students to identify their preferred way of learning. Of the single options, 10.3 per cent of responding students identified ‘doing’ as their preferred learning style, with ‘discussing the subject with others’ (9.9 per cent), ‘reading’ (7.7 per cent), and ‘listening’ (5.5 per cent) as the other responses. The clear favourite among students, however, was ‘a combination of some or all of these,’ with 61.5 per cent of responding students selecting this option.
One of the more interesting pieces of general information the survey recorded was the preferred practice areas of the responding students. Of those choices selected by more than 5 per cent of the responding students, the clear winner was international law, with 15.8 per cent of the total responses. Surprisingly, perhaps, public interest and criminal litigation were tied with 9 per cent of total responses, and both beat civil litigation, which was selected by only 7.8 per cent of responding students.
The survey sought to identify student reactions to some of the various skills they would learn in law school. Predictably, the incoming students ranked legal analysis, written communication, and oral communication as the three most important skills, although the gap between these three skills and the remaining three is larger than might have been anticipated.
More surprising, perhaps, is the confidence displayed in their information literacy skills by the incoming law students. Nearly 20 per cent of responding students believed that written communication would be the easiest skill they would have to learn in law school with slightly fewer than 10 per cent responding that it would be the most difficult skill they would learn, while more than 21 per cent thought that legal research would be the easiest skill to learn with almost 11 per cent responding that it would be the most difficult skill to learn.
The survey sought to capture some general information about incoming student reading habits as well as specific information about student informational and educational reading.
‘[T]he successful study and practice of law requires all students and all practitioners to read with vigour and accuracy, critically examining words in the context of action taken by the courts and legislatures, challenging assumptions, finding patterns, generating new ideas.’
When asked to characterise their reading habits, 30 per cent of the responding students described themselves as ‘avid readers,’ while 48.9 per cent responded that they ‘enjoy reading.’ Only 8.9 per cent responded that they read when they are bored, 0.7 per cent responded that they ‘don’t enjoy reading,’ and 3.8 per cent responded that they only read when they have to. And when asked to rank reading among their other activities, 25 per cent of responding students identified it as ‘very important,’ 41.8 per cent as ‘important,’ 21.2 per cent as ‘neither important nor unimportant,’ 2.7 per cent as ‘unimportant,’ and 1.5 per cent as ‘very unimportant.’
The survey indicated some significant gender differences in the way responding students described their reading habits, with women appearing to be much more enthusiastic about reading than men.
This gender disparity was also detectible when students were asked to rank reading among their other activities, with women again showing much more interest in reading than men.
The survey also asked students to identify how many books they owned, excluding textbooks. Two students, or 0.3 per cent, responded that they owned no books, 6.3 per cent responded that they owned between one and ten books, 26.3 per cent responded that they owned between eleven and fifty books, 22.3 per cent responded that they owned between fifty one and one hundred books, and 37.1 per cent responded that they owned more than one hundred books. When asked about writing reference books, 75.9 per cent of responding students indicated that they owned a print dictionary with 16.5 per cent indicating that they did not, and 69.3 per cent indicated that they owned a book on grammar and punctuation, while 22.7 per cent indicated that they did not. The survey also asked some questions which allowed the students to estimate the time they spend reading for information and pleasure and contrast that with television watching and computer game playing.
In the section on reading to learn information, the survey first asked students to describe their newspaper reading habits. The total responses indicated that 41.8 per cent of responding students read newspapers daily, 32 per cent read them a few times each week, 6.9 per cent read them once a week, 8.1 per cent read them a few times each month, and 3.3 per cent never read newspapers.
The survey results suggest that men are more regular readers of newspapers than women, but that women were more likely to read newspapers occasionally.
As might be expected, the internet is now by far the most important source of news information for responding students.
Students seem generally satisfied with their technical writing skills.
Students also indicated that writing is an important skill for them.
The survey sought to discover how students use writing to communicate. It gathered data on the number and types of letters students write, and the numbers and types of electronic communications the students send and receive each day.
The data indicate that the letter, while not the robust medium of communication as it was before the advent of the internet, is nowhere near extinction yet.
By contrast, but predictably, electronic communication is thriving among incoming law students. Although email appears to be the most popular communication medium, the survey also recorded substantial instant message and non-computer text message usage.
The survey sought information about the type of writing students had undertaken during their previous academic careers. The responses seemed to indicate that a substantial minority of responding students were asked to write a number of lengthy documents, while a substantial majority were asked to write shorter documents each semester, that a substantial number of students submitted the first drafts of these documents for a grade, that outlining was by no means a standard practice for writing such documents, and that while many students had collaborated on at least one writing project, the reaction was mixed as to how beneficial the experience had been.
The survey attempted to generate data that would indicate how incoming law students conduct research and would capture their self-evaluation of their research skills.
The survey data indicates that incoming law students have a sense that the physical library retains some role in performing legal research but that they believe the internet is a more important source of legal information.
The students displayed some doubt as to the accuracy and timeliness of the information obtainable on the internet.
The data collected by this survey are preliminary and suggestive, rather than final and definitive. The relatively small number of schools involved and the relatively small number of responding students, compared to the total number of incoming law students at American law schools each year, mean that we cannot draw anything more than tentative conclusions from the responses.
But these data, especially when considered in combination with some of the other research data compiled recently about general literacy and information literacy among law students in particular, do suggest some broad conclusions that are relevant to law students and teachers alike.
(1) Incoming law students read substantially more than the national average: Slightly more than one quarter of responding students indicated that they read at least one book each week, while more than half of the responding students read at least one book each month and fully 86.9 per cent of incoming students responded that they read at least one book a year.
But while the benefits of information transmission and knowledge generation through reading are clear and relatively well-understood, literary reading carries with it at least two additional benefits for law students that might be less immediately apparent.
Storytelling and narrative construction are being studied closely in the legal writing community and students with a deep immersion in literary reading will likely be better able to respond to the lessons being taught to them about narrative techniques that translate from literature to legal writing.
Less studied among lawyers, but no less significant, is the role literature in all its forms plays in transmitting common cultural memes, and the importance to lawyers of being attuned to the role and details of contemporary cultural mythology.
(2) Incoming law students will experience some reading problems in their first year of law school: The study’s reading data are heartening, but one can also draw some less cheering information from them. If 25 per cent of responding students indicated that reading was ‘very important’ to them, then approximately three-quarters of the students who responded to the survey indicated that reading was something less than very important to them, and 70 per cent of the responding students are less than ‘avid’ readers.
Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the discovery that students spend as much or more time reading for information as they do reading for pleasure, and the fact that the preferred mode of reading newspapers is online as opposed to in print.
The ability to read and comprehend complex texts is such a fundamental skill for law students and lawyers that students’ reading skills are tested on the Law School Aptitude Test. Yet there can be little doubt that incoming law students can be located somewhere on a continuum of reading skill, and that law school student populations contain many students who employ reading strategies that do not serve them well.
Whether the students who perform less well in law school reading tasks are also the students who are less than enthusiastic readers before they come to law school is unclear. The data from this survey and the research conducted into law student reading suggest only that skill with ‘expert’ reading strategies is crucial for success in law school, that not all incoming law students possess that skill, and that those students who lack ‘expert’ reading skills will have difficulty performing well in law school.
(3) Incoming law students overestimate their writing skills: The survey data reveal that more than 70 per cent of the responding students evaluated their own writing skills as ‘very strong’ or ‘strong,’ and therefore above average, the next selectable option. And while the responding students recognised the importance of legal writing, with 25 per cent ranking it the most important skill for a practicing lawyer (second only to legal analysis, ranked first by 31.5 per cent of responding students), they also believed that it would be a relatively easy skill to learn, with nearly 20 per cent responding that it would be the easiest skill to learn in law school (second only to legal research, at 21 per cent) and 9.7 per cent responding that it would the most difficult (the lowest response).
Some of the survey data point to possible causes of writing problems among incoming law students. Almost one quarter of responding students indicated that they only prepared one draft of papers, meaning that they had little or no experience in the editing, proofreading, and rewriting skills most legal writing teachers identify as crucial to generating polished and technically correct writing, and even when drafts were prepared, 20 per cent of responding students indicated that they ‘never’ submitted drafts to their teachers and almost 15 per cent indicating that they ‘never’ discussed drafts with teachers or teaching assistants.
(1) Incoming law students overestimate their research skill: The survey suggests that incoming law students are, if anything, even more confident in their research skills than they are in their writing abilities. When asked to rank their level of confidence in their research skills, 37 per cent indicated that they were ‘very’ confident and 44 per cent indicated that they were ‘somewhat’ confident, with only 1.8 per cent indicating that they had ‘little or no confidence’ in their research skills. The students also indicated that research would be the easiest skill for them to learn in law school (21 per cent) and research skills received the second lowest score (10.9 per cent, second only to legal writing at 9.7 per cent) when asked what the most difficult skill to learn in law school would be.
As with legal writing, data from other sources suggest that the incoming law students are not as capable a group of researchers as they might believe. That certainly was the conclusion of the 2004 ‘Assessing Information Literacy Among First Year Law Students: A Survey to Measure Research Experiences and Expectations, Final Technical Report’ (AALL Survey) of research skills among incoming law students, which found that many such students lacked basic research skills.
As with legal writing, it is possible that incoming student overconfidence in research skill leads to a closing of minds during the research portion of a first year writing and research course. Students feel themselves to be capable, even skilled, researchers and therefore are likely disinclined to believe that legal research will pose any substantial difficulties for them.
It is no great insight to observe that the advent of the internet has changed research practices, but the effects of this change can be seen in the survey’s data. More than 50 per cent of the responding students indicated that they ‘always’ or ‘usually’ use the internet for research and will only use the library ‘sometimes.’ And of the 78 per cent of students who use search engines once a day or more, Google is the search engine of choice, with 70.9 per cent of responding students indicating that it was the search engine they use most often.
The problem with the Google approach for nascent legal researchers is in its oversimplification of the research process. And it is Google’s ability to take thought out of the research process that might cause law students to fail as legal researchers: they might be able to find information, but they might not really understand what they have found.
(2) Law schools must take student writing and research deficits into account when developing skills criteria: The survey data tend to support evidence from previous studies of law student and new lawyer skills. Taken together, the studies present a potentially discouraging picture. While incoming law students are clearly intelligent and capable, and have excelled academically at every previous stage of their education, the available data suggest that many incoming students have information literacy deficits that will affect them through their career in law school and on into the practice of law, and that they are unaware that such deficits exist. And while their reading, writing, and research strategies have succeeded for them up to the point of entry into law school, those strategies will likely serve them less well as law students.
The data also suggest that law schools are not fixing the students’ problems. Although it seems unlikely that law schools are making things worse for law students, it appears that they could be doing more to help them improve their information literacy.
One obvious answer would be to substantially increase the amount of time spent in teaching information skills to law students.
Another possible change law schools could make would be to reorganise their curricula to include a recognition that reading is a core lawyering skill and that most law students do not read as effectively as they could or should.
A more ambitious approach would be to attack the problems in student information literacy at an earlier stage than law school.
Such a proposal presents substantial hurdles to overcome. The only way a law school could be sure it was educating its own students, for example, would be to conduct such a program after students had accepted an offer to attend the law school and this is likely too late for any meaningful progress to take place.
The alternative is for law schools to help students who might not become their law students to improve their information literacy skills. And while such a proposal might at first appear controversial or even radical, there are at least two ways in which this could be accomplished without a substantial disruption in the way law schools now operate: law schools could partner with their home undergraduate and graduate institution to offer writing, reading, and research courses that better prepare students in those institutions to learn lawyering skills in law school; and law schools could offer summer programs devoted to introducing students considering law school to legal reading, writing, and research skills.
Such programs could be economically self-sustaining, through tuition charges, and could be beneficial to both incoming law students — regardless of the law school they decide to attend — and law teachers, who would reap the advantages of having students with stronger information literacy skills in their classrooms.
Whether or not the proposals in this article are implemented, however, law schools need to engage the issue of incoming law student information literacy more directly and effectively than they are at present.