Because of the Google-like interfaces of most major databases, the students I work with often approach the database like they are looking for an answer to a question in Google. They open up Westlaw, search for something like: motion to dismiss Texas, get tons of results, and stumble through them. Yet, because this shotgun-to-mosquito approach yields results, they ultimately overestimate their confidence.
I recently read an article* suggested to me by fellow DALL Member Ed Hart. It discusses an appropriately titled “Shock and Awe” technique to teaching legal research. The idea being that one way to combat pervasive overconfidence in law students is to provide an uber-challenging research problem that will almost surely cause them to fail. In effect, this “shock and awe” approach often happens to law students when they start interning somewhere. They are given a research assignment, and they don’t know where to begin; they are stuck in “find a case” mode. In fact, a summer of struggles is one of the more common precursors to law students taking an elective Advanced Legal Research course.
One of the ways that I create challenging problems is by intentionally using plain English terms in a question, although the subject is discussed in resources using more refined legal terminology. For example, recently I wanted students to locate practice materials that discuss emancipation of a minor, but I asked them to find a secondary source that will help an attorney needing to advise a young teenager that wants the same rights as an adult. Perhaps I am hiding the ball, but this will also help them prepare for encountering members of the public that will not use proper legal terminology when seeking legal advice.
The “shock and awe” approach is a good way to battle overconfidence, but at the same time, I don’t want to go so far as to become discouraging. I am happy to hear from librarians that have suggestions for “shock and awe” questions that they have encountered when working with new associates or any other related experiences that you would like to share.
* Karen Skinner, The “Shock and Awe” Approach to Legal Research: Helping Students to Understand Their Research Deficiencies So That They Are Better Prepared to Learn Legal Research, 23 Persp: Teaching Legal Res. & Writing, Fall 2014, at 47.