Not to get all existential, but what does it mean when we say “legal research”? One of my favorite questions in the American Bar Association’s annual Legal Technology Survey Report was about how much time they spent conducting legal research. It gave a sense of about how much time (~20%) of a lawyer’s work focused on a function important to law libraries. But I have always felt that legal research doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing to everyone. So I was curious about a slide from an AALS presentation that went by in my Twitter feed over the weekend.

The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) has its annual conference in January. If you don’t already follow @JohnPMayer, he shares a variety of legal ed-related content. This was a post of a conference slide he captured:

I don’t know anything more about the slide than that. You can sort of see a source note on the slide (2020 Law Student Admissions Council maybe?). But there’s no respondent count or any other context. Still, I was struck by the variety of things law school faculty rate as most important. (Here are the least important)

When we talk about legal research – teaching it, assisting others to do it – we’re not talking about one thing. It’s not like spreading icing on a cake (apologies to people for whom icing a cake is more than mere slathering). We’re talking about a whole bunch of small concepts. And a researcher will use a variety of those concepts to be successful, depending on their research goal.

The AALS slide highlighted a couple of topics that seemed to me to be part of the legal research bundle of concepts. Here’s a recreation of the slide for legibility:

A recreation, for clarity, of a slide presented at AALS 2020

and here’s a slightly modified version where I have highlighted the parts that seem to me to be more closely aligned to legal research:

The same slide as above, with highlight bars identifying legal research-related concepts

That’s just my interpretation. Which is my point. You may look at the ones I’ve highlighted and think, “Boy, Whelan doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Tell me about it. Or you may agree but add others in that I left out.

It can be hard to know whether your view of what legal research is really aligned with any standard view. Anyone who graduates from law school will have completed a legal research course. Many library science students have done a legal informatics or legal research course. In theory, we’ve all been exposed to the same things. I could definitely see where we might assume we all had a shared understanding of what legal research means.

The benefit of the survey, whatever it’s context, is to understand a different perspective at a more granular level. If legal research is a bundle of components, what are those components? The survey of important tasks is useful because it asked what components contribute to law school success.

Those aren’t necessarily the same things as law practice success. But they’re useful if you’re trying to align your legal research training to the component skills that your researchers need to be successful.

I’m sure every law library could survey their key population (faculty, seasoned members of the bar, judges, whatever) to identify a similar set of components for success. I liked this broader scope because it places legal research among other competence areas. When we ask about legal research competence, we may be so focused on our own world that we miss competences that are developed outside legal research in law school or practice that can be applied to research.

Alternatively, a survey like this gives us some food for thought. When we’re talking about legal research or teaching it, are we hitting on these components of success? If we aren’t, should we? Do we call them something else and would calling them something different make them more clearly part of the overall approach to success?

When we talk about legal research – and legal information, for that matter – we are talking about broad concepts. The actual activity – especially if you were to ask each lawyer in the ABA survey to describe the components that make up that ~20% – will vary. There’s an opportunity to look at whether we’re as closely aligned to what our researchers or audience considers legal research.