Bradney (2010) has suggested that (good) empirical legal research ought to be part of the law school curriculum, but that:
Empirical legal studies can only be properly incorporated into the law school curriculum if students not only use and understand such studies but also understand the methods used and the theories on which they are based. (2010, p. 1036)
Fulfilling such a requirement is, as he points out, difficult because of the already full curriculum requirements of the profession. He suggests that it is not enough for students to have an introduction to such methods: 'Regular and frequent practice is necessary before students will become accomplished in the application of the knowledge that they will have acquired on such a course.' (2010, p. 1039)
This seems to me to be the counsel of perfection. Many students in social science courses, such as sociology and social policy, do not undertake methods courses until their second year and do not undertake all but the smallest amount of direct empirical research themselves (probably in some small-scale qualitatively based dissertation). This does not prevent them being introduced to a range of empirical research across their courses.
As Peter Vincent-Jones and Sarah Blandy argue, it is possible for law students to become critical consumers of empirical legal research. To do this, I would argue that socio-legal ideas must permeate the curriculum and there must be some explicit introduction not only to socio-legal theories but also empirical methods. The chapters in this volume illustrate how it can be done.
A number of barriers to opening up the curriculum to expose students to empirical research were revealed through the questionnaire and seminar. First, there is certainly some resistance from faculty members who do not see the relevance of such research to the undergraduate law curriculum. At present, where exposure does occur, it tends to be in modules outside the QLD and in second and third-year modules. Inclusion in QLD modules seems unlikely while the core textbooks, which are relied on for teaching, do not include this material. Even if textbooks do not change, moving away from a reliance on them creates that crucial space to broaden the discussion.
Second, when students do not encounter these ideas in their first year or in QLD modules, it is likely to lead to at least anxiety if not resistance from students when they are asked to encounter novel ways of thinking and, particularly, of assessment. Engagement with the law from a socio-legal viewpoint needs to start in the first year, so that students become critical consumers of socio-legal research (including empirical research) from the beginning of their degree. Given the assessment focus of students, their concerns when encountering new forms of assessment need to be addressed, both through widening the forms of assessment they encounter throughout their degrees and by ensuring that the assessment is embedded within the module, so that the students are supported in producing the assessment.
As Cownie (2004, p. 60) points out, students have a more vocational approach to their studies than legal academics. They often need convincing about why what they are taught is relevant, particularly to their (hoped for) future careers as practising lawyers. Links can readily be made between empirical research and the real practice of law. As Karen Devine notes, the special studies as Kent Law School enable some staff to draw on their past experiences in practice, yet in an area where they can also draw on empirical studies. Further, those who have only encountered tort law as a doctrinal subject will find that practice is far more concerned with issues such as negotiation and bargaining, about which there is a wealth of empirical evidence. Indeed, knowledge of this literature might be a far better preparation for practice.
This volume focuses on opportunities within the existing curriculum; it should also be noted that there may be other extra-curricular activities in which students can be encouraged to engage in empirical research. Leanne Smith from Cardiff University responded to the questionnaire by sending details of a project she ran with five undergraduate students funded by a university research opportunities for undergraduates fund. The small empirical project investigated the attitudes of lawyers to the enforcement of contact between children and non-resident parents. The data were collected over two weeks through an online questionnaire and elicited 91 responses. The students wrote up the results, which have been published (Dyer et al., 2006).
Participants at the seminar noted that many universities have similar schemes that enable undergraduates to be engaged in research, and that this could be a fruitful way to develop an interest in empirical research amongst undergraduates.
While it is unlikely that in the undergraduate law curriculum there will be room for detailed training in empirical methods, there is certainly room for critical exposure. That exposure should start in the first year in order that students see it as the norm to become critical consumers of empirical research about law throughout their degree. Hopefully, the chapters in this volume will provide some inspiration for this. For those who then wish to take this further, the examples provided indicate what can be done to foster and encourage students to engage with and in empirical research.