ANALYSIS: Gauging the Research Gap Between Law Students, Lawyers

Thanks to what we’ve all learned in our first-year legal research and writing course, it’s no surprise that law students and practicing attorneys both gravitate toward traditional research sources such as case law and statutes. But results from a recent Bloomberg Law survey suggest that usage of other research methods is far from universally consistent, with law students preferring more academically-focused research tools and practicing attorneys favoring a more practical research approach.

This lack of alignment raises an important question: What can law schools do to better familiarize law students and prepare them to practice with the more pragmatic research methods and resources used by practicing attorneys?

Practicing Lawyers Use More Pragmatic Research Sources

Although more than half of practicing attorneys (59%) and law students (57%) in the Law School Preparedness Survey reported using dockets, briefs, and legal filings as research resources, practicing attorneys were almost twice as likely—if not more—than law students to use more pragmatic (and less academic) legal research resources—including practice guides, forms and checklists; news reports; company, industry and/or market data; and 50-state surveys and state law comparison charts.

And although both law students and practicing attorneys reported similar usage of statutes and annotated codes, practicing attorneys were more than 20 percentage points more likely to use regulations and agency documents, which address the more detailed and specific aspects and ambiguities of a law or statute.

There is a similar but opposite misalignment among the more academically-oriented research sources, with fewer practicing attorneys than law students reporting usage of law reviews and journals; academic casebooks and study aides; and legal encyclopedias.

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Practicing Attorneys Also Use More General Research Platforms

Further differences in research methods were evident in the practicing attorneys’ and law students’ use of legal research platforms. When asked where their research sources were typically gathered, only 56% of practicing attorneys reported using a legal research platform.

It is possible, however, that practicing attorneys may not have made the connection that a number of the research sources—such as news, company, industry, and/or market data and analytics—are sourced from legal research platforms. It should also be noted that the survey’s practicing attorney respondents included more senior associates and partners who routinely assign in-depth research assignments that would require use of a legal research platform to junior associates.

Nonetheless, by comparison, an overwhelming 91% of law student respondents reported using a legal research platform. Nearly one-third of practicing attorneys (30%) reported that they typically use a general Google search to gather resources, compared to only 6% of law students.

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Rethinking Legal Research in Law School

First-year legal research and writing courses primarily rely on legal memoranda and briefs to teach the basics of legal research to law students. These programs do not, however, generally include more pragmatic, comprehensive, and in-depth legal research methods that are specific to topical areas of law or legal practice. Yet both types of resources are important for preparing law students for the legal research that will be assigned as new attorneys.

With this in mind, moving forward, law schools should examine ways to introduce students to more pragmatic research techniques, strategies, and skills and teach them to fully utilize primary and secondary sources, online databases, and specialized resources. As a starting point, here are a few potential steps that law schools should consider:

  • Assign research projects that more closely resemble or replicate the research projects assigned to new attorneys. (Consider asking practicing attorneys to provide topical research projects that they have assigned to new attorneys in their legal practice.)
  • Offer or require an advanced-level legal research course as part of the second- and/or third-year law school curriculum. (Although a number of law schools already offer these advanced courses, seats are often limited and only a small number of students are able to benefit.)
  • Incorporate more strategic and topical legal research opportunities into the law school clinic and law review experience.
  • Emphasize legal research that focuses on data analytics, topical practice areas, legal technology, and the business of law.
  • Include more pragmatic research methods and resources (versus only academic research resources) into the curriculum for doctrinal courses.

Bloomberg Law subscribers can find related content on our Surveys, Reports & Data Analysis, In Focus: Lawyer Development and In Focus: Legal Operations resources.

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