Law research skills for barristers

Law research skills for barristers

December, 17, 2010 • Posted by 1 Comments

What law research skills do barristers require? Mark Haines explains: To succeed at the bar, a barrister will need to be a confident and accomplished independent legal researcher. Whereas solicitors in commercial firms will often have trainees or paralegals to perform basic research tasks for them, the norm at the Bar is for most barristers to do this research themselves. Slight trends might be noticed between different chambers (in that the larger ones might delegate some research tasks to pupils or junior barristers), but on the whole the important case research is almost always directly performed by the barrister involved in the litigation.

How are law research skills taught to Barristers? Haines explains the methods used at BPP College, one of several institutions offering the BVC/BPTC.

“The legal research training currently offered to BVC students at BPP College takes a range of different formats.

The first experience which BVC students receive of formally taught legal research comes in small group sessions (usually numbering around twelve students per group), in which classes of students are brought to the library for a hands-on research session involving hardcopy resources. Legal research materials such as Halsbury’s Laws of England, Halsbury’s Statutes/Statutory Instruments and the Current Law Citators/Yearbooks are shelved in a self-contained area within the library which can be segregated off for classes and students are given practical questions to research and answer, with supervision and assistance on hand, as part of the exercise.

Shortly after these hard-copy sessions, training in the use of online resources follows. Larger group sessions are timetabled in a lecture theatre, when a demonstrator will lecture and perform live searches of online legal research resources which are displayed on screens. Visiting trainers from LexisNexis and/or Sweet & Maxwell will usually host these sessions and on many occasions in the past the trainers have actually themselves been trained barristers. Both the hard-copy and online training sessions are timetabled classes; meaning that the students are expected to attend, a register may be taken and this will be counted towards the minimum attendance requirements which form one of the conditions of passing the BVC.

In contrast to the obvious advantages of having the resource publishers themselves provide the training, there are also some potential negatives to this; most obviously that the partisan demonstrators will only be promoting the virtues of their own products and occasionally students have commented that these sessions can resemble a marketing exercise as much as a training session. A further problem is that there is very little interaction involved in the online demonstrations so, unlike the hard-copy classes, students do not come away with any direct experience of using the resources. To counter this, further legal research sessions are then offered for students who feel that they would benefit from additional training. These sessions are run directly by the library in dedicated IT rooms (one computer for each student), and conducted by the Library Manager or Senior Information Assistant.

Library legal research training sessions are scheduled at staggered times, to make it easier for those students studying on the part-time course to attend in the evening or at the weekend if other commitments get in the way. Attendance is voluntary, and take-up tends to be proportionally higher amongst part-time BVC students; some of whom may have less immediate access to assistance on a day-to-day basis, or may need to build up sufficient confidence with the online sources before going away and completing coursework exercises remotely using solely online sources.

Two formats of library session are offered, each lasting for an hour. The standard session splits into three sections and covers online searching for case law, legislation and legal commentary materials. As well as basic document retrieval from the database resources, sessions also cover search methodology and techniques. On request, a longer ninety minute version of this session is arranged for groups, which begins with an exercise using hard-copy sources in the library.

The second type of training session offered is focused on preparing students for undertaking the legal research exercise itself. This session focuses heavily on the use of practitioner texts and Halsbury’s Laws of England; searching and browsing both genres in hard copy and online formats as the starting point to answering legal research questions. Other legal research materials, such as textbooks and journals online, are also covered and in this session minimal coverage is given to case law and legislation. By this stage it is assumed that most students should be confident with basic online searching.

The legal research exercise itself requires each student to answer a detailed legal scenario question which can often be multi-faceted and will involve the use of cases, legislation and legal commentary materials (usually practitioner texts). Students are expected to use a variety of sources to answer these questions and must present full details of their research trail when submitting their answer.

At the conclusion of the course, a final training session is offered entitled “Preparing for practice”. Comments from the Inns of Court libraries have suggested that some pupils ask relatively basic legal research questions at the beginning of their pupillage, and put this down to it having been so long since their legal research training (which often takes place early in the BVC). These training sessions are intended to sharpen up the legal research skills of BVC students before they enter pupillage, or other fields within the legal profession. They also aim to ensure that students are familiar with using a range of different resources, rather than relying on one single source, which they may discover, to their horror, that a future employer does not subscribe to”.

Since September 2010, BVC (now BPTC) courses no longer have the formal assessment on legal research skills (or negotiation). The legal research skills required are now assumed to be generally integrated into the skills subjects and soaked up within the completion of other modules.

For the full article, see: Haines, M, Legal research training: moving the Bar, L.I.M. 2010, 10(2), 86-89