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

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Matthew Flyntz

Matthew Flyntz.

As a law school reference librarian, I field a lot of questions from law students working at internships, externships and summer jobs. Over the years, I’ve seen some recurring issues with the research assignments given to law students, and I thought it might be helpful to discuss some of them here.

Tip 1: Provide as much detail as possible.

Students sometimes come to the reference desk with very vague research questions. Things like, “I’ve been asked to research [insert broad topic],” or “I’ve 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 assigning attorneys can provide a higher level of detail up front, this can save time for everyone.

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 issue to be researched; and 3) a clear understanding of what they are trying to find (e.g., If they are searching for cases, from which court(s)? If articles, how recent? And so on …).

Tip 2: Suggest a starting point.

Students sometimes say to me, “I’ve been given a research project, and I have no idea where to start.” We librarians are happy to help, of course, but assigning attorneys—as subject-matter experts—may know better than we do about the best starting places. If you know of a relevant treatise, practice guide or article, or you have a citation to a potentially useful statute or case, let the student know. In my experience, students sometimes struggle to find a way into a research project, but once they get a foothold, they have an easier time with it.

Tip 3: Consider setting time limits or check-in points.

Students visit the reference desk frazzled and say, “I’ve been spinning my wheels on this for eight hours, and I am so confused!” This is presumably not how you want your interns spending their time. When I assign research projects to my students, I generally say something like, “If you’ve put in two hours of good faith effort and are still confused, come talk to me.” I’ve also learned that students take significantly longer on research projects than I think they will. For example, if I assign something expecting it to take one or two hours, many students will spend more like three to four hours on it. Setting check-in times can help ensure students are spending a reasonable amount of time on each project.

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

Of course, in order for Tip 3 to work, there needs to be a culture of openness and psychological safety. Students need to feel safe in asking questions. In my experience, students seem very reluctant to go back to the assigning attorney to ask clarifying questions. Even in my classes, I can sense that students are sometimes reluctant to ask me questions. This may have something to do with law student psychology, where students are wary of seeming foolish in front of their peers, professors and employers. Regardless of where this tendency comes from, I think we all need to remind students that asking questions is expected—and even desirable—and that we will not judge them for doing so.

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

I field a lot of questions from students like this: “My assigning attorney asked me to research [insert extremely specific topic]. They said they doubt there are any cases out there but have asked me to double-check.” This is essentially asking students to “prove a negative”—that is, they are not finding the law; they are proving that there is no law. I think these make poor research projects for student interns for at least three reasons. First, from a pedagogical standpoint, they don’t reinforce good research habits. Because there are no good secondary sources, and no cases or statutes to start with, students do not get practice using the essential research skills they are taught in law school. And indeed, the research process students are taught to follow essentially breaks down in these situations, and students end up taking a “kitchen sink” approach—frantically searching anywhere and everywhere for any morsel of relevant information.

Second, these assignments put a lot of stress and anxiety on students. In my experience, students are fearful of returning to their assigning attorney empty-handed, even though the assignment is essentially designed for them not to find anything. If this type of assignment must be given, I’d encourage supervising attorneys to make sure interns understand that they may very well find nothing, and that is OK.

Third, this type of research project takes a surprisingly long time to do well. I’ve already mentioned that students take longer than we expect to do most research projects, and this is doubly true with this sort of project. Proving a negative is much more difficult and time-consuming than proving a positive. I’d encourage supervising attorneys to consider if this is really how they want their interns to spend their time.

In conclusion

I love helping students with their research projects; I think most librarians do. It’s a big reason many of us became librarians! These tips are not meant to suggest that we do not want to help student interns or to off-load the burden of helping students with research onto someone else. They are meant to make the research process go more smoothly for everyone involved and to help make sure our students get the most meaningful experiences they can.

Matthew Flyntz is the research law librarian for instructional services at the University of California at Irvine School of Law, where he designs and teaches first-year and upper-level legal research courses. He has published articles on legal information, law librarianship and legal research instruction in Legal Reference Services Quarterly, Legal Information Review, The Second Draft and ABA Student Lawyer, among others. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “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.

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