Law School Innovators: 5 insights for effectively teaching legal research during the pandemic

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During the pandemic, how can law schools keep classes productive and engaging with the shift to online learning?

A recent webinar, Teaching Legal Research in COVID-19, hosted by Thomson Reuters featured a discussion of this issue with law professors and librarians, who shared their experiences teaching legal writing and research courses online, and offered advice for how to approach teaching in this time of uncertainty.

The top takeaways from the panel’s conversation included:

1. Never waste a crisis

This is how panelist Emily Janoski-Haehlen, associate dean of Academic Affairs, in Library Services and the Law & Technology Program at the University of Akron, described her biggest lesson from teaching during the pandemic.

The panel emphasized the need to continue embracing change and adapting quickly, noting that the pandemic has transformed how law schools prepare students and address their needs around learning legal research. Panelists agreed that law professors should make the most of the new tools they’ve implemented, like tutorials from legal research vendors and librarians, and new methods of teaching, such as flipped classrooms and asynchronous learning, to better ensure students are practice-ready when they graduate.

“We put a band-aid on everything in the spring,” Janoski-Haehlen said. “Now, it’s time to be innovative and show the worth of librarians and the library.”

Indeed, agreed panelist Michael Whiteman, associate dean of Library Services and Director of the Robert S. Marx Law Library at the University of Cincinnati. “This is a golden opportunity not to return to what was once normal.”

2. Focus on the fundamentals

“This has been a reset button,” panelist Joe Regalia, associate professor of Law at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, said, noting how moving everything from a classroom to an online environment forced him to distill down what he teaches. “I’ve enjoyed the flexibility of being able to slow down legal research education and spread out working on the fundamentals, planning phases and learning hypothetical situations.”

Whiteman concurred, adding that “it’s an opportunity to get out of the weeds. We can offload teaching the minimal stuff and get in-depth on the stuff we’re the experts in.”

Whiteman explained how he has leveraged online tutorials from legal research vendors and librarians to help students address the basics. How do you use an index? What’s a reporter? He said this approach frees up class time to work with students on solving more in-depth problems and discussing how to address hypothetical situations based on real-world scenarios.

Panelists also noted that students need to acquire these practical skills during law school because law firms don’t provide interns and new associates with significant research support. “They need students who can hit the ground running and be efficient and effective in their research,” Regalia said. “As educators, we have to listen to employers’ needs and try to fill those knowledge gaps,”

3. Leverage existing resources

For professors intimidated by the idea of creating new content or tools to teach online, panelists highlighting existing resources to tap into, reiterating the value of online tutorials produced by vendors and librarians, noting they have become increasingly sophisticated.

“I encourage people to turn to these to prevent themselves from being overwhelmed and to free up their time to do other things,” Whiteman said.

Panelists also recommended incorporating hypothetical scenarios into legal research classes and working through them with students. Regalia said he has reached out to local practitioners for ideas on hypotheticals that attorneys encounter often. “I’ve had success building simulations based on real-life scenarios to help students put themselves in these positions of making high-level strategy research decisions,” he explained.

Janoski-Haehlen said she has worked with legal research vendors to leverage their expertise. “I’ve reached out to vendors asking them to create class assignments,” she added. “They want that exposure for the students.”

Panelists also shared other tools and resources they’ve found helpful. For example, Janoski-Haehlen highlighted the value of attending virtual conferences now that in-person events are canceled. “LibGuides created since the pandemic are outstanding,” Janoski-Haehlen noted. “I lean on my law librarians for their content and look to our associations and our peers to share ideas.”

There is also Zoom, WebEx, and Google Hangouts for both online class instruction as well as for one-on-one meetings with students, panelists pointed out. Whiteman recommended the Kahoot! platform for creating quizzes to engage students during class.

4. Put students in the driver’s seat

An effective online learning environment requires active student participation and a student-centric format, and requires that professors engage students online, panelists said.

“Move away from strict lecturing online, and try to do more work with students,” Whiteman advised, adding that librarians at the University of Cincinnati posted classroom materials ahead of time, so when the class is live, professors can highlight key concepts and spend time working on assignments. He added that an learning management system (LMS) is a helpful way to provide an interactive online environment, rather than a traditional lecture, because students can upload assignments during class and share their screens if they’re having a problem.

Janoski-Haehlen also encouraged using an LMS both to engage students and to break up content that must be delivered in a lecture format, such as a legal drafting class. “It breaks up the monotony of me being a talking head,” she said.

It all goes back to being aware of the basics, Regalia explained, adding that if you’re using Zoom, for example, engagement can be as simple as creating polls during your talk. “It’s not a big thing, but we know the value of putting students in the driver’s seat to respond.”

Panelists emphasized continually assessing students’ learning and determining whether they’re genuinely understanding the content and then using this assessment data to inform what to teach. “When I work with faculty on teaching students, I ask, ‘What is the student taking away from this?’” Janoski-Haehlen said. “Adapt the class to what they’re paying attention to, and change your strategy if you need to.”

5. Start small and build confidence

Transitioning to online teaching can feel intimidating, but panelists shared ways to reduce the angst. “If people are nervous about embracing new tools or approaches, just take a few things at a time,” Regalia suggested. “It can be two or three basic changes, like splitting up a lecture into smaller chunks or using a quiz. It doesn’t have to be a complete transformation of what you’re doing.”

Janoski-Haehlen agreed, noting that she’s even helped provide technology support to peers and colleagues. “I’ve learned that you can’t force someone to like technology, but you can help them use it effectively,” she said. “If someone is technology-averse, I try to empower them to have trust in me. I won’t let them look bad in front of their students.”

Indeed, that trust in can help professors know that librarians are there for them, she said, adding that many librarians have used technology for years, and sometimes they’re the experts in teaching online.

Whiteman agreed. “It’s an opportunity for librarians to shine.”


Listen to a recording of the webinar, Teaching Legal Research in COVID-19 here.