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).
The McThenia RAs are a pool of second- or third-year law students that work under the supervision of a reference librarian to assist with faculty projects of varying scope and duration. Only 2Ls and 3Ls may apply to be McThenia RAs. This group of RAs stands ready to assist any law faculty member that contacts the Law Library for research assistance during the school year or over the summer. Each project assigned to a McThenia RA tends to be limited to twenty hours or less of research time. If possible, the reference librarian will align the research task with a McThenia RA's interest area.
The RAs positions are generated depending on a faculty member's research agenda. Some faculty members might have a few RAs working throughout a semester (or summer) on various projects or one long project. Other faculty members will not have any RAs; instead, they will rely upon the McThenia RA pool.
How do students get a research assistantship?
Students interested in serving as McThenia RAs can contact the Head of User Services in the Law Library (Franklin Runge, firstname.lastname@example.org). Occasionally, there will be job postings for McThenia RA positions sent to the student body through the Office of Career Strategy.
RA positions are acquired in various manners, but generally follow one of these paths: (1) professors contact students that have excelled in class about an opportunity, (2) students contact professors that they respect and have similar scholarly interests, (3) students apply for a McThenia position but the positions are filled and the Law Library tries to determine if a faculty member is in need, or (4) a faculty member will post for a RA position using 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 cannot work for more than ten (10) hours per week. Students need to be students before they are McThenia RAs. The reference librarian supervising the McThenia RAs tries to limit each project to no more than a total of twenty (20) hours and works with students to match their schedules with project deadlines. There are some weeks where there might be three projects going at once, and there are some weeks where there is just one.
McThenia RAs have a range of projects and responsibilities. Many assignments take the form of a literature review, in which the students are collecting and describing resources that address a topic or answer a problem. Examples of McThenia RA projects include: collecting 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.
An RA position with a faculty member varies depending on the faculty member and the research required. During the fall and spring semesters, RAs cannot work for more than ten (10) hours per week. Generally speaking, a RA will work on projects that are larger in scope than the McThenia RAs, and they could be on the same project for an entire semester.
What skills do they learn?
Generally speaking, McThenia RAs and RAs should 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 United States court system; and writing concisely.
How does a research assistantship benefit the student?
Students that serve as a McThenia RA or RA improve their critical thinking skills, which is a benefit to the student and the legal community. Additionally, any RA position is a great resume builder. Finally, students receive renumeration for their research efforts. Depending on the workflow, it may not be a steady stream of income, but it can provide some "walking around" spending money while living and studying in Lexington, Virginia.