Mike Whiteman is looking to fill two gaps with his legal research certification program: giving students more in-depth instruction in legal research — with an emphasis on online skills; and making legal research more widely available to students.
Whiteman, the associate dean of Library Services and director of the Law Library at University of Cincinnati College of Law, says he borrowed his ideas from colleagues at other institutions, including Catherine Dunn at the University of Denver, and worked with his team of librarians to create a certification program that’s launching this fall.
“It will give students an opportunity throughout their three years of law school to strengthen their research skills through in-class training, modular online training, and lunch-and-learn sessions,” Whiteman explains.
The voluntary program aims to give broader accessibility to students beyond those who may take an Advanced Legal Research (ALR) course. “We’ll be talking about things that deal with transactional practice, like, ‘What are some of the tools that help you draft a document, so you don’t have to do it from scratch? How do you look for different types of motions and trial briefs?’ — All of these are things that you don’t necessarily need to be successful in law school, but you certainly need to be successful in practice,” says Whiteman. “Our program will expose students to it and give them practice with it, so when they get out, and they’re working, they can say, ‘I know how to use that tool.’”
Students who complete the program will earn a notification on their transcript. Whiteman hopes potential employers will see that as “a badge of value,” indicating that those students have the skills needed to hit the ground running. “Employers say a key essential skill of first- and second-year associates is research and writing,” Whiteman notes. “The more opportunity our students have to understand the various tools they’ll use for research, the better they’ll be able to transition directly from the academics of law school to using research in their practice.”
Whiteman learned the importance of laying the groundwork early in developing his program. “One lesson learned is to very early on engage your faculty — explain to them why it’s important and what the benefit will be to students,” he says. “When I approached the academic dean with this idea, he had me present it to the curriculum committee. They were really helpful and suggested some modifications and things I hadn’t thought about.”
How the pandemic shaped teaching
As he prepares to launch a program with strong online components, teaching during the confines of the COVID-19 pandemic shaped his approach to online learning. “The pandemic has taught me that online learning is 100% not simply recreating in an online synchronous format what we did live,” Whiteman explains, adding that this past semester emphasized how “online learning is meant to foster the independent learning of the student.”
It’s an approach he’ll use this summer in his ALR class online. It will include modular and self-directed learning, such as online tutorials using voiceover PowerPoint, as well as tutorials from legal research vendors. The course also will include discussion threads, enabling students to interact with one another and with Whiteman.
He said feedback from students who have taken his online ALR course is two-fold. First, they appreciated the opportunity to take the class in a way that fits within their schedule — particularly helpful for those juggling other classes, working full time, or taking care of children. Second, they reported the structure of the class itself — self-directed learning, where they figure out exercises on their own, then get feedback — made them comfortable jumping into the high-stress environment of a legal practice, where they’re expected to think on their feet and learn on their own.
Looking ahead to the next steps for innovation in legal education, Whiteman says the move toward a more flexible environment is already underway. He predicts that advances in online education will foster two developments: allowing schools to expand their offerings to students; and expanding legal education through a hybrid model, with the flexibility that will particularly benefit adult learners.
“You’ll see more collaboration between institutions to provide opportunities for their students,” he says, suggesting that perhaps law schools will work together to create a one-credit class giving their respective students access to an e-discovery expert online, for example.
This past year, Whiteman partnered with other faculty from other institutions and the law school division at Thomson Reuters to deliver an online certification course called Foundations of Effective Legal Research. Through this partnership, Whiteman was able to demonstrate the value of collaboration to his students. “It’s really had me hone in on how to take a concept and boil it down so that it can be more easily accessed online by a learner — in a way that’s not so basic its meaningless, but so that an introductory learner can grasp the concept.”
He has also benefited from collaborating with colleagues at other institutions and across Thomson Reuters. “It’s helped me think of how I teach and relay concepts — to have others work through it with me,” Whiteman says. “It’s important that the partnership with Thomson Reuters underscored the idea that nobody can do this alone. The legal academy doesn’t have all the resources to do it alone, and neither does the legal industry.”
“All of us have a part to play in educating the next generation of lawyers, especially in this crazily changing environment,” Whiteman adds. “It’s helpful to talk to people not just in the legal academy but within the legal industry. It’s nice to know I’m not alone, and there are others I can work with.”