By Alexa T. Edited by Lemon Law School
As a law student, you have the opportunity to work as a research assistant for a law school professor during your summer or even throughout the school year. For many, this is a rewarding experience that may translate to job opportunities. In this article, I’ll discuss what a research assistant generally does, the benefits of working as a research assistant, and a few ways you can approach professors to become one.
- Details About the Job
- Benefits of Working as a Research Assistant
- How to Become a Research Assistant for a Law School Professor
Details About the Job
What do Law School Research Assistants Do?
Do you enjoy working under the mentorship of a law professor and learning more about specific areas of law? Do you love legal research and writing memos summarizing and synthesizing your findings about those niche fields of law? Did you excel in your legal research and writing course during 1L or generally enjoy learning and applying these skills? If so, becoming a research assistant may be right for you.
The duties of a research assistant varies from professor to professor, but their responsibilities can include researching legal topics, editing a casebook, and Bluebooking. Sometimes, you may be working primarily under a teaching fellow that is working with the professor.
Firstly, professors will ask you to do some research on their behalf to save time (similar to how law firm partners may ask summer associates or associates to do legal research and write memos). When researching legal topics, you’ll use the usual tools such as WestLaw, LexisNexis, Heinonline, your law school’s library, and even Google.
The assigned legal topics will most likely pertain to the professor’s main area of study, so keep that in mind when deciding which professor you’d like to work for. The tough part of this responsibility may be distinguishing between information that is important to your professor or irrelevant to their interests. But with all things legal, this task will become easier with experience. If you have any questions early-on, ask your professor for guidance.
Your professor may have you write quick summaries about relevant cases and other sources instead of having you write a long, formal memo. Be prepared to also discuss your findings and how they tie together with your professor in person. As an academic, your professor is likely to ask you more details about your findings and even ask for your opinions and suggestions to help them with their research on the topic.
Secondly, your professor may ask you to assist with editing their casebook, research papers, or any other written materials to be published. I would basically fix up Bluebook citations and typos. Many times, the teaching fellow I was working with would ask me to provide suggestions regarding her publications during editing. She would also ask me to help her flesh out some ideas in her work.
Some professors may not even require complete accuracy because staff editors at a law journal where the paper is being submitted will review the citations again.
For students serving as a research assistant during their 1L summer and who are interested in applying for Law Review (or any other law journal), this is a great way to practice your Bluebooking skills.
In addition, you may be given some miscellaneous tasks. For instance, my professor asked me at one point to listen to her interview recordings with law firm partners and accurately record time stamps.
Sometimes research assistants are just there to make the lives of the professor easier. Whatever you may be assigned, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty completing your tasks.
Average Time Commitment
As a law school professor’s research assistant, the required number of hours you must work per week will depend on your professor. Whether you are serving as a research assistant during the school year or during the summer, your time commitment will generally range from 10-20 hours per week. However, some professors do require a full-time commitment during the summer.
Regardless of what the professor requires here, I would recommend waiting until your 1L summer or afterwards before serving as a research assistant. If you are a 1L, your focus should be on your studies to obtain good grades. In fact, first-year law students should not be working at all.
Benefits of Working as a Research Assistant
Strong Recommendation Letters
Law school professors can help open career opportunities for you. For instance, if you want to pursue a clerkship after graduating law school, you’ll need a strong recommendation letter from your professors. Many law professors also have strong connections with judges. If you do good work for your professor as a research assistant, they’ll be more than happy to help you get that prestigious federal clerkship.
Your professor can also help you secure a firm job if they have those connections. A few of my professors had previously served as associates at Big Law firms. This is especially helpful if you happen to strike out during law firm recruitment season. At my law school, I’ve heard stories of past 3L research assistants securing Big Law jobs because their professor put in a good word for them.
You may end up with specialized knowledge in a particular field of law. This may or may not be relevant to your career after law school. I had a friend who served as a research assistant mention that they ended up using their specialized knowledge to their advantage in a firm job after graduation.
The pay rate isn’t amazing – it’s usually around $18 per hour for cities like New York and around $12.50 per hour for smaller cities. Nevertheless, it’s better than working for free at a government internship/externship.
However, keep in mind that some schools do provide a summer grant of a few thousand dollars for students pursuing public interest internships or other unpaid internships at a government agency. Double check with your law school.
Another thing to note is that some law schools may require their students to apply for Federal Work Study before getting paid for this job. If this is the case, law professors may offer academic credit if you are ineligible for work study.
How to Become a Research Assistant for a Law School Professor
Law School Job Bulletins
Many law school professors will post research assistant openings on your law school’s Symplicity system or other job bulletin. This is the most straight-forward way of getting this job. But many professors will keep their 1L summer research assistants onboard throughout the school year. So, what if there aren’t any openings?
Visiting the Professor During Office Hours
If you can’t find any openings for a research assistant, you could directly ask a professor during their office hours. Some professors may only take research assistants with top grades from their classes, but others may welcome any help they can get. If you haven’t taken their course, be prepared to discuss why you want to become a research assistant for them.
Cold-emailing Law School Professors
Another thing you can do to secure a research assistant job is to cold-email the professor. You could ask if they have considered hiring a research assistant for the summer or school year. If you haven’t taken any of the professor’s classes, attach your resume and transcript and briefly articulate why you want to work for them. Most of the time, the professor will ask you to come in to discuss the position so they can assess whether you would be a good fit.
Serving as a research assistant for a law school professor is a very rewarding experience that can open doors in your career path down the road. Law school professors are unbelievably well-connected in the legal industry, and their recommendation can make the difference. This is definitely a great option for your 1L summer internship.