critical thinking • Et. Seq: The Harvard Law School Library Blog

Today at HLS: Prepare to Practice Conference – Keynote Speech by Professor Daniel Coquillette

Taking place at Harvard Law School today is the 2019 Inaugural Prepare to Practice Conference, a joint initiative between the HLS Library and four other local law schools (Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern, and Suffolk). This conference is designed to provide Boston-area law students with legal research instruction oriented toward their future roles as practicing attorneys.

The conference featured an excellent keynote speech by Professor Daniel Coquillette, the J. Donald Monan, S.J. University Professor at Boston College and the Charles Warren Visiting Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School. Professor Coquillette began his remarks by recognizing and thanking the law librarians who have helped him throughout his career as an attorney, law professor, and researcher. He characterized law librarians as “your very best friend and the ones who will see you through to the end.”

Professor Coquillette then provided a brief history of legal research, beginning with the observation that, since Gutenberg invented movable print in 1455, it has been possible to print absolutely accurate law books, which has transformed how law is studied and practiced. In particular, this facilitated several important developments in modern legal systems, primary among which is “precedent justice.”

He then noted that, until about 20 years ago, legal research happened exclusively in the law library, where all of the important primary and secondary legal sources lived and from which they could not be borrowed. Historically, law students wrote research notes by hand, and then, when he was a law student, using a portable typewriter. In addition, in order to find materials in the library, researchers had to use the card catalog, which featured an indexing system that many library users were unable to navigate and use without the help of a librarian.

All of this changed with the invention of online legal research. Today, he noted, Westlaw and Lexis provide essentially intuitive access to all of the primary and secondary sources that legal researchers would need, with automated, hyperlink-equipped citators that make the pain of having to use books to Shepardize cases a distant memory.

Professor Coquillete contended that, while on the surface this appears to have made legal research easier, it has also presented a new set of challenges. Today, if you want the legal information equivalent of a glass of water, you go to what is essentially a fire hydrant to fill that glass, and a lot of what is coming out of that fire hydrant lacks quality. Quality, of course, is expensive — ask any law librarian whose responsibilities include managing a library budget. Furthermore, information that has not been screened to determine its quality may, in fact, be as good as useless. This is a major problem of what he calls the modern “disinformation age,” and why the continued work of law libraries is so important to legal practice and scholarship.

According to Professor Coquillette, even if legal researchers have quality information, they also need two important skills to process it. The first is critical judgment, which is a skill that can be learned, both through experience and one-on-one mentorship. Without critical judgment, which allows a person to see the essence of a problem and craft a reasonable response to it, even quality information can be dangerous. The second is wisdom, which can also be characterized as perspective and seeing the big picture. This is stored in the culture of our systems of law and democracy, and is passed on through both people and books.

According to Professor Coquillette, it is easier than ever to lose sight of the big picture in our digital world of instant knowledge and instant gratification. One way in which people can regain it, however, is to read: not only legal materials, but also classic novels. As a conclusion to his remarks, Professor Coquillette recommended three books in particular that provide guidance on how we can critically view some of the largest problems of our time.

The first of these problems is climate. Professor Coquillette suggested reading Moby Dick by Herman Melville. In your reading, imagine that the ship (the Pequot) is human government and at the helm is Captain Ahab, a crazy megalomaniac who, despite all reasonable warnings not to, decides to take on the natural world as symbolized by a great white whale. Spoiler alert: the Pequot is destroyed, and Captain Ahab dies.

Racism is another great problem of our age, and Professor Coquillette recommended reading Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to gain a bigger picture of that problem. The story presents, in code, a true picture of racism’s destructive impact on people and societies.

Problem number three is that of living and working in what he called “coercive environments.” This problem, in particular, comes with the territory in the legal profession. Professor Coquillette proposed reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison for guidance on contemplating this problem in a big-picture way. The theme of this book is that, if you get to the point where people see you for what they assume you should be, they see right through you and you become invisible and disappear, a phenomenon characterized by Professor Coquillette as a “moral sickness” of our age.

Professor Coquillette is a very engaging speaker, and his keynote was a perfect way to kick off this conference. Not only did it remind attendees of the value of law libraries and librarians as partners in the legal research process, but it also encouraged students to incorporate critical judgment as they work toward becoming attorneys who are charged with addressing and solving large- and small-scale societal problems.

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