Research projects

5 tips from a law school librarian for assigning research projects to interns

As a reference librarian at a law school, I answer many questions from law students working through internships, externships, and summer jobs. Over the years, I have seen recurring problems with research assignments given to law students, and thought it might be useful to discuss them here.

Tip 1: Provide as many details as possible.

Students sometimes come to the reference desk with very vague research questions. Things like “I’ve been asked to do some research [insert broad topic]or “I have been asked to find cases on [insert broad topic].” We will then ask clarifying questions to try to make the project more manageable, but students will often respond with “I don’t know”. Unfortunately, when this happens, we have to tell students to go back and ask for clarification. If appointing attorneys can provide a higher level of detail in advance, it can save everyone time.

Ideally, when a student comes to us for research assistance, they should be able to provide: 1) a brief summary of the case they are working on; 2) a concise statement of the specific question to be investigated; and 3) a clear understanding of what they are trying to find (for example, if they are looking for cases, from which court(s)? If they are articles, from what date? And and so on…).

Tip 2: Suggest a starting point.

Students sometimes tell me, “I’ve been given a research project and I don’t know where to start. We librarians are happy to help, of course, but the assignment lawyers – as subject matter experts – may be better informed than we are on the best starting points. If you know of a relevant treatise, practice guide, or article, or have a potentially helpful citation from a law or case, let the student know. In my experience, students sometimes struggle to navigate their way through a research project, but once they have a foothold, they have an easier time tackling it.

Tip 3: Consider setting time limits or save points.

Students come to the reference desk exhausted and say, “I’ve been spinning the wheels for eight hours and I’m so confused!” That’s probably not how you want your interns to spend their time. When I assign research projects to my students, I usually say something like, “If you’ve put in two hours of good faith effort and you’re still confused, come talk to me.” I also learned that students put a lot more time into research projects than I realize. For example, if I assign something expecting it to take one or two hours, many students will spend more than three to four hours on it. Setting check-in times can help ensure that students devote a reasonable amount of time to each project.

Tip 4: Cultivate a culture where asking questions is encouraged.

Of course, for tip 3 to work, there needs to be a culture of openness and psychological safety. Students need to feel safe asking questions. In my experience, students seem very reluctant to return to the award lawyer to ask clarifying questions. Even in my classes, I feel that students are sometimes reluctant to ask me questions. It may have something to do with the psychology of law students, where students fear appearing foolish in front of their peers, professors, and employers. Whatever the origin of this tendency, I think we all need to remind students that asking questions is expected – and even desirable – and that we will not judge them for it.

Tip 5: Try to avoid students ‘proving a negative’.

I answer many questions from students like this: “My lawyer asked me to do research [insert extremely specific topic]. They said they doubted there were any cases, but they asked me to double check. It is essentially asking the students to “prove a negative result”, that is, they do not find the law; they prove that there is no law. I think this makes for bad research projects for student interns for at least three reasons. First, from a pedagogical point of view, they do not reinforce good research habits. Because there are no good secondary sources and no cases or laws to start with, students don’t practice using the essential research skills taught to them in law school. And indeed, the research process that students are taught to follow essentially breaks down in these situations, and students end up adopting a “kitchen sink” approach – frantically searching anywhere and everywhere for any piece relevant information.

Secondly, these assignments create a lot of stress and anxiety in students. In my experience, students are afraid to return empty-handed to their lawyer, even though the mission is basically designed so that they find nothing. If this type of assignment is to be given, I encourage supervising attorneys to make sure articling students understand that they may well find nothing, and that’s OK.

Third, this type of research project takes a surprisingly long time to do well. I’ve mentioned before that students take longer than expected to do most research projects, and that’s doubly true with this kind of project. Proving a negative is much more difficult and time consuming than proving a positive. I encourage supervising lawyers to ask themselves if this is really how they want their articling students to spend their time.

In conclusion

I enjoy helping students with their research projects; I think most librarians do. This is a big reason many of us have become librarians! These tips are not meant to suggest that we don’t want to help student interns or to offload the burden of helping students in their research onto someone else. They are intended to make the research process smoother for everyone involved and to ensure that our students have the most meaningful experiences possible.

Matthew Flyntz is the Law Research Librarian for Educational Services at the University of California at the Irvine School of Law, where he designs and teaches first-year and graduate-level legal research courses. He has published articles on legal information, legal librarianship and the teaching of legal research in Quarterly Legal Reference Services, Review of legal information, the second version and ABA student lawyer, among others. welcomes requests for original, thoughtful, non-promotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to be published in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted on “Your Submissions, Your Voice”.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal or the American Bar Association.