While it may not be glamorous, being a research assistant for a professor during law school comes with plenty of benefits. Without leaving campus, you can improve your research skills, build a valuable professional relationship, and start monetizing your newfound legal knowledge. But developing a great working relationship with your professor is not a given. Here are some tips to make the most of your research assistant experience:
1. Respect your Professor
Before you even accept a position as a research assistant for a professor, realize that in many ways you are going to be the professor’s personal assistant—with some legal skills. It is best if you already have a personal relationship with the professor or you have a good sense of the professor’s disposition. Like any job, if personalities or points of view are likely to clash from day one, maybe it is not the best fit. Also, be sure to check into the interests and perspectives of your professor. If you are intellectually or ideologically opposed to the professor’s work, it would be wise to pass on the opportunity. Without genuinely respecting your professor, you will miss out on most of the position’s benefits and have a generally miserable experience.
2. Be Professional
Professors expect you to be professional. Law School Toolbox contributor Amanda Gernentz Hanson lists eight great professionalism tips: 1) know that others are watching you, 2) save the drama for your mama, 3) use tact, 4) check your entitlement, 5) be mindful of your appearance, 6) the internet (including email) is forever, and 7) be your own authentic self. Read Amanda’s breakdown of these tips in her post Professionalism in the Legal Workplace. (For even more on professionalism, listen to the Law School Toolbox podcast How to Behave Like a Professional in the Legal Workplace.) Remember that beyond appreciating your professor’s legal experience and knowledge, they are also your boss. The employee-employer relationship is different than the student-teacher relationship. Keep in mind your role and act professionally.
3. Have a Spine (but be right)
One of the toughest lines to walk as a research assistant is knowing when to push back. You certainly should respect your professor and be professional in your interactions, but once you have proved yourself to be generally competent, your professor will soon begin to rely on your judgment. Take ownership of your assignments and master the material. When you present your work, be ready to defend your position. If you are being thorough in your work, remember that you could know more about that very specific case or statute you are researching than your professor, so it is important to not be too deferential when your work is questioned. Listen carefully in case you did miss something, but if you know you are right, have a spine and professionally defend your work. Law professors can be bristly at times, but they will respect you and have more trust in you down the line if you are able to tell them when they are off-base on something.
4. Show Genuine Interest
For the most part, law professors are passionate about their research and scholarship. Realize that their scholarship is extremely important to them both personally and professionally and that they have asked you to play a role in their life’s work. Be shrewd about timing, but show genuine interest in the professor’s work and most will be very happy to spend time talking with you about field. Take advantage of working with a genuine expert—ask good questions and make the most of it. You will find this is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job and the professor will appreciate someone to talk to about their work.
5. Make a Law Librarian Friend
If the research assignment you are given were easy or straightforward, the professor likely wouldn’t be asking (or paying) you to do it. Whether you are trying to support an obscure proposition or hunt down a case from the King’s Bench in the 1800s, find yourself a law librarian. Especially for new law students, recognize that law librarians are highly trained individuals that are often underappreciated and underutilized. Most all have both a J.D. and a masters in library sciences. So, first, treat them with the respect they deserve, and, second, don’t be afraid to take your research questions to them for direction. They may not immediately be able to solve your problem, but they can lead you in the correct direction which can be worth its weight in gold.
6. Don’t be a Hassle
Law professors are busy, busy individuals. The quickest way to prematurely end your time as a research assistant is to be more trouble than you are worth. Again, this is a matter of professionalism. Undoubtedly you will be busy as well, but try not to make your problems your professor’s problems. If you have a class paper or exam coming up, it is okay to try to schedule your work around that obligation, but your obligation to your professor will have to be a priority at times. Don’t be late to scheduled appointments. Do your best to resolve HR-type issues with someone other than your professor. Turn in well-organized, thorough work. Someday you may well be a great lawyer or professor yourself, but if you accept the position, you are being paid to make your professor’s day more efficient and productive, not less.
Whether you are approached by a professor you know or you see an opening posted by your career services department, consider taking on a research assistant role. Even if only for a semester, serving as a research assistant is a unique law school experience that can definitely be worth the effort!
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