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Legal Reasoning, Research and Analysis

For many years, I have been examining the research and thinking patterns displayed by self-represented litigants, law students, and attorneys and judges as they prepare for court.

Attorneys and judges learn logical skills in law school based on the IRAC formula (Issues, Rules, Application (or Analysis) and Conclusion), which is a shorthand expression for teachers of legal research and writing. IRAC simply means that the lawyer first determines the relevant legal issues in the fact situation of the instant case, then she discovers the relevant rules through research, creating an induction of statutory and case law, then she applies the relevant rules to the fact situation and determines a probable conclusion to the matter as a matter of law. All legal writings, office memoranda, trial and appellate briefs, opinion letters, etc., use this format. Even pleadings and discovery documents use the formula in an elliptical fashion.

Self-represented litigants not trained in law, however, employ more basic reasoning patterns, those by which basic human reasoning is developed in the first place. While philosophers have debated how this occurs for over two thousand years, recent findings in neuroscience, cognitive science, and cognitive linguistics have clarified the matter considerably. The developments are occurring right now, and not much of them have been digested or incorporated into the teaching process at law schools or information schools. Some law professors versed in the field now argue that these basic reasoning patterns actually operate in law itself, and the IRAC formula, or deductive and inductive logic generally, is just a gloss put onto the work after the fact.

In my ongoing investigation, I seek both to understand how the new findings affect the theory of legal reasoning and to understand how members of the legal community can learn to communicate better with self-represented litigants. From 2006 until 2010, my primary emphasis had been the place where self-represented litigants have the most problems and must do their own thinking, the public law library, but I see the matter as much more far-reaching than that. As a necessary beginning, I developed the background information needed by lawyers and information scientists to begin to come to grips with the issues. The first part of the project is a study of the literature, for which I developed a comprehensive essay that can be used as a road map into the topic for those currently untrained in these disciplines or interdisciplinary studies:

A Bibliographic Essay on Cognitive Linguistics for Law Librarians and Legal Researchers (2008, updated 2010). A Lexis-Nexis Research Grant Project from the American Association of Law Libraries. Click here.

The second part of the project will be to develop a a theory of legal discourse that melds the findings of cognitive linguistics and pedagogical studies, based on the new theories. My consulting work with the Washington State Access to Justice Board as Program Manager for its Pro Se Project (November 2010 to date) has provided me insight into many of the semantic problems of self represented litigants as the Pro Se Project develops plain language court forms for family law. I plan to publish several works as a result of my observations. []

Work for the Self-Represented Litigation Network Research and Evaluation Group

The Self-Represented Litigation Network was created in March 2006 after several years of study and preparation. Under the auspices of the National Center for State Courts, it is funded by the State Justice Institute, several state court systems, and other agencies. The Network has several groups within it that share best practices and other notable developments. One group within the Network has been created to aid in the funding of research projects among the various state court systems and to distribute their findings.

The Network recognizes that public law libraries are a significant component of the justice system with regard to service to self-represented litigants. Included within their concern (and mine) are those general public libraries and academic law libraries who also serve self-represented litigants, especially where public law libraries do not exist or are too distant. The Network plans to invite several librarians to serve on its Information, Marketing and Outreach Group and to have a few serve on other groups. I presently serve on both the Information, Marketing and Outreach Group and the Research and Evaluation Group.

Currently, I do not have a direct role in research projects for the Network. As a member of the Research and Evaluation Group, I offer input into the creation of research objectives and into the planning and evaluation of the research. As distinct from the judges, court administrators, and other consultants in the group, my present role is to bring the perspective of the practicing law librarian into the planning and to advise the group with regard to recent findings in cognitive science and linguistics as they may affect the research.

The Self-Represented Litigation Network does not maintain a public website. However, documents from the Network are displayed after completion at, which is the website maintained by the National Center for State Courts to aid those in the legal community who work with self-represented litigants. This site is not meant for self-represented litigants themselves. For them, please turn to the relevant state or local website. []

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