Perspectives: Teaching Legal Research and Writing
Hiring, training, managing, and mentoring research assistants can be highly gratifying. When it works well, the relationship between a professor and a research assistant (RA) can be a distillation of all the best parts of teaching legal writing. It benefits professor and student. It results in a bond of friendship and collegiality. It produces useful and thoughtful work.
But it can also go horribly wrong. The relationship can be a waste of student and professor time and energy. The professor can feel burdened, rather than assisted. The student can feel confused and underappreciated. As any professor knows who has had an RA flame out, taking months of time and energy with her, the relationship has to be handled with care.
The professor-RA relationship requires the professor to act not just as a teacher, but as an employer or supervisor. The mutual dependence that arises in a successful RA relationship—the professor relies on the RA and trusts her, while the RA learns skills that will be useful in law school and the workplace—means working as an RA is invaluable preparation for a career as a lawyer. By using principles of smart management, a professor can simultaneously provide an educational opportunity for a law student and make greater progress in her scholarship and teaching materials than she otherwise might. This article discusses best practices for hiring, training, managing, and mentoring RAs.