Jess Winn, right, and Lizzy Williams with Belknap's diary and other research materials.
Student Research Highlight: The Life and Times of Chauncey Belknap
What kinds of research assistantships exist?
There are two types of research assistant positions at W&L Law: (1) Andrew W. McThenia Faculty Research Assistantships (McThenia RAs) and (2) research assistantships with individual faculty members (RAs). Students in both positions are paid hourly through the generous funding of the Frances Lewis Law Center.
The Andrew W. McThenia Faculty Research Assistants, a group of second- and third-year law students selected and overseen by the Law Library, provide curated research support for the scholarly activities of the W&L Law faculty and administration. The McThenia RAs assist with projects of varying scope and duration, and may be assigned to work with any full-time faculty member in need of support during the academic year or summer. Projects assigned to the McThenia RAs usually require under 20 hours to complete. Our law librarians strive to pair McThenia RAs with projects and professors that are a good fit for their interests and ambitions, and collaborate with the student and faculty member to ensure timely, high-quality work product.
In comparison, RA positions working for individual faculty members are generated depending on a faculty member's research agenda. Some professors may have several RAs working throughout a semester or summer on multiple projects or on one long project. Others choose not to hire any RAs directly, and instead rely upon the McThenia RA pool that the Law Library manages.
How do students get a research assistantship?
Students interested in serving as McThenia RAs should contact librarian Andrew Christensen at ChristensenA@wlu.edu. Opportunities for McThenia RA positions may also appear on SCORE, maintained by the Office of Career Strategy.
RA positions with individual professors are typically acquired in the following ways: (1) professors reach out to students who have excelled in their class about an opportunity, (2) students contact professors that they respect and have similar scholarly interests, (3) students apply for a McThenia RA position, but the positions are filled and the Law Library helps identify a faculty member in need, or (4) a faculty member posts for an RA position through the Office of Career Strategy.
What kinds of responsibilities do students take on?
For McThenia RAs, the amount of work fluctuates based on faculty need. During the fall and spring semesters, McThenia RAs will not be required to work more than 10 hours per week. In the summer, the weekly total may be higher. The librarian supervising the McThenia RAs tries to limit each project to 20 hours or less and works with the students to coordinate their schedules with project deadlines.
McThenia RAs handle a range of projects and responsibilities, across diverse legal and interdisciplinary subjects. Many assignments include a literature review, which requires the identification, collection, and description of published resources that address a certain topic or question. Examples of McThenia RA projects include: researching historical newspaper accounts about employment discrimination in the 1970s; examining human rights litigation against oil companies operating in Africa; collecting legal sources discussing facial recognition; exploring how particular evidence doctrines were applied in the 1920s; and exploring the use of social media data in administrative decision making.
Requirements of an RA position with a faculty member vary depending on the faculty member and the nature or needs of their research. During the fall and spring semesters, RAs are not expected to work more than 10 hours per week. An RA will typically work on projects that are larger in scope and duration than the McThenia RAs; for instance, many work alongside their professor on a single project for a semester or longer.
What skills do they learn?
Generally, research assistants can expect to improve their skills in the following areas: finding, evaluating, and understanding primary and secondary legal sources; researching social science topics; finding historical data or documents; Bluebook citation; evaluating and preserving online data; understanding how litigation moves through the court system; and writing concisely.
How does a research assistantship benefit the student?
Students who serve as research assistants in law school improve their critical thinking, research, and analysis skills, which is a benefit to the student and the legal community. RA positions also allow students to interact with and learn from their professors in new ways beyond the classroom. Excellent work often leads to a strong recommendation or professional reference from the faculty member, and an RA position on a student's resume appeals to legal employers of all kinds. Finally, RAs are paid for their efforts. Depending on the workflow, it may not be a steady stream of income, but RA work can provide useful funds while living and studying in Lexington.