Does Legal Research Require a Choice Between Bob Berring and Captain Underpants?

The Wall Street Journal had an interesting piece today on how to raise boys that read. It talks about how boys score lower than girls on reading proficiency tests, and how some of the ideas for improving proficiency are awful. It reminded me a bit of the dilemma in teaching legal research: what if law students and lawyers aren’t interested in learning the methods preferred by librarians?

The piece is here.

It discusses how librarians and educators are trying to meet boys “where they are” and encourage them to read by giving them books centering on bodily functions.  The feeling is that books like Captain Underpants and the Perilous Plot of Professor Poopy Pants will draw boys to books like flies to honey.

Those familiar with legal research know that Bob Berring has written a number of books on how to research.  I remember hearing Prof. Berring speak about how his books were getting smaller and smaller, to encourage students to research.  His Legal Research Survival Guide is 93 pages, quite slim compared to many legal research books.  I’m only using Prof. Berring as an example because he is as well-known in the legal research world as Captain Underpants in the primary school library world.

We try to find new ways to get in front of law students and new lawyers – shoot, even more mature lawyers – with our legal research skills paradigm.  We try short online videos, simplified handouts and training experiences, and other methods.  Some might say we’re dumbing down our research methods in order to try to “meet” law students “where they are” and try to get them where we want them to be.

Should we be treating legal research like literature or are attempts to make it accessible actually less effective?  It’s interesting to continue to read, though, almost annually, how law students are unprepared to do legal research, how lawyers even are essentially research incompetents.

Why is it that neither the literature and depth of legal research works, nor the easily accessible, simplified tools, seem to be effective at getting legal professionals to research the way we think they should?  Perhaps what we want them to aspire to no longer represents a valuable skill set for them to have.

There’s no question that lawyers need to research, but perhaps our expectations are no longer aligned with what they need and want.  If we continue to press a research methodology that seems to bear little fruit, we may make ourselves less relevant to the researchers.  We may not want them to research like Professor Poopypants, but it may not be our choice.

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