Working as a Research Assistant

A Research Assistant performs legal research, analysis and writing for a professor related to the professor’s scholarly or pedagogical work. Professors are almost always in the process of writing a scholarly paper and often need various types of help, such as research on legal issues, written summaries of areas of law, and other types of help with substantive legal questions. Occasionally, professors also need help improving their courses, and thus may desire assistance researching and summarizing law, writing practice questions, or other related tasks.

In sum, a Research Assistant performs ordinary legal work, but does so for a professor in an academic context rather than for a client in a practice context. For more information, please review the questions and answers below. 

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  • What do Research Assistants receive for their work?

    Either academic credit or money. It’s up to you. If you’d like academic credit, you can choose either 1 or 2 credits of work in a given semester. You can earn as many research credits as you like during your law school career, but you may use no more than 3 credits towards your J.D. degree. Each credit requires 42.5 hours of work. If you’d rather have the money, the pay is standard student employee rate.

  • Why should I be a Research Assistant?

    There are several benefits to being a Research Assistant. First, it provides you the opportunity to further develop your research and writing skills. Unlike research and writing in your first year, the work of a Research Assistant is usually more open-ended and requires more judgment and creativity.

    Second, it allows you to develop your knowledge of an area of law that you find interesting. If you are interested in corporate law, for example, performing specialized research on various corporate law topics could be just as meaningful as taking a corporate law seminar.

    Third, being a Research Assistant allows you get to know a professor and their scholarly agenda. This often ignites within students their own ideas for further study—whether as part of law school or beyond. Moreover, professors for whom you have worked will often offer you guidance as you pursue this work.

    Fourth and finally, research assistant work is often a good way to make

    a bit of extra money or pick up a credit or two. Many students find the credit option particularly attractive if they need 1 or 2 credits to graduate and do not see a class that interests them.

  • If I am a Research Assistant for credit, how will I be graded?

    Research Assistants are graded on a pass/fail basis. There is no limit to the number of courses you can take on a pass/fail basis, but don’t forget that there is a limit to the number of Research Assistant credits (i.e., 3) you can use towards your degree.

  • How do I become a Research Assistant?

    There are 3 steps:

    1. First, find a professor who needs research assistance. You can do this by looking on LawQuest or by contacting professors directly. It is often useful to contact professors directly because not every professor posts a position on Symplicity. To figure out who to contact, think about who you want to work with—whether because you enjoyed taking a course with that professor or because you are interested in the professor’s area of scholarship. Ask the professor if they have any research needs in the coming semester or year. You might also take the liberty of emailing the professor your resume and telling them a bit about why you are interested in being a research assistant. Not all professors use research assistants, and those that do sometimes don’t need assistance at a given time, so don’t be surprised if several professors decline your offer. Don’t take this personally.
    1. Second, apply for the position. If the position is posted on LawQuest, just follow the application requirements indicated on the site. If you have contacted a professor directly, supply whatever the professor asks for. Regardless of whether the professor asks for it, it’s often wise to send the professor a resume and writing sample. Also, you should let the professor know whether you wish to work for credit or for pay, and if for credit, how many credits. Keep in mind that just because you want to earn two credits does not mean that the professor has 90 hours of work for you to do.
    1. Third, if you are offered a position, register for the course (if you are working for credit) or register as a student worker (if you are working for pay).
      • To register for the course, you should submit a “Research Assistant Registration Form” to Sharon Krol in the Dean’s Office. You can obtain the form by either emailing Sharon Krol or by picking one up in the Dean’s Office. Please make sure to submit this form during the time in which registration is open for the semester in which you want to serve as a research assistant. For example, if you want to become a Research Assistant in the spring semester, you can register for that in the preceding fall semester or at the outset of the spring semester, but you cannot register any later than the add/drop deadline for the spring semester (which is 5pm on the second Friday of the semester).
      • To register for pay, contact Tracy Cauthorn. It is important that you register through Tracy before starting your research, as you cannot be paid for any work you completed prior to registering. Nonetheless, you need not worry about registration or add/drop deadlines. You can begin working as a research assistant for pay at any time of the year, provided you have not yet graduated.
  • Can I serve as a Research Assistant over the summer?

    Yes, but there are important economic factors to consider. Full-time students are entitled to take up to 17 credits during each fall and spring semester. Thus, if you are registered for 15 credits in your spring semester, you can add 2 credits of research work at no extra cost to you. In contrast, summer courses are not covered by your fall and spring tuition and thus would require an additional tuition payment. Normally, the cost per credit is one-ninth of the full tuition price for a single semester. For this reason, most students who work serve as a research assistant during the summer do so for pay rather than credit.