American Association of Law Libraries – Draft February 28, 2011

Law Student Research Competency Principles


The Law Student Research Competency Standards Task Force of the American Association of Law Libraries (hereinafter Task Force) presents this paradigm of general research competency principles to foster the development of different models and eventually best practices.[1]  See bottom of document.

There is a growing body of literature and a lively discussion among members of the legal academy and the practicing bar about the research competency skills of law school graduates. This dialogue among stakeholders is essential to forge change.

In our discussions, we determined that continuing communication and collaboration between law schools, legal employers, and the law school accrediting body is fundamental to any efforts to address and improve the research skills of law students.

To this end, law school programs should reflect the realities of the legal field.  In particular, an understanding of law firm business models is vital. In today’s environment, law firm success hinges on billable time, effective time management, effective communication, effective peer collaboration, and cost recovery.  Highly competent research skills, effective problem solving skills, and critical thinking skills are also keys to success in both the law firm practice of today and the future.  

The Task Force is confident that this paradigm of general research competency principles will engage more stakeholders in the dialogue about the need to establish benchmarks in this area.  These standards should include the development of a detailed list of required skills to reflect the needs of the legal employers of the 21st century.

We offer our five Law Student Research Competency Principles for consideration, and for use in the following discussions:

  • law school curriculum development and design;
  • law firm planning, training and articulation of core competencies;
  • bar admission committee evaluation of  research skills of applicants;
  • continuing legal education providers;
  • law school accreditation standards.[2]  See bottom of document.

Principle I: A successful researcher should possess fundamental research skills.

  • Law students should have an understanding of the complexities of the legal system. They should know the processes and the hierarchical relationships between the three branches of government and the legislation, regulations, and case law they yield. They should distinguish between official and unofficial sources of law and should place issues in context.
  • Law students should know how to effectively utilize secondary sources. They should distinguish between primary and secondary sources of law. They should identify and utilize secondary sources for background information, to gain familiarity with terms of art, and to put primary sources in context. 
  • Law students should have an awareness of the cost of research. They should understand the costs associated with research utilizing all formats. Further, they should identify where cost and efficiency intersect in the selection of format.

Principle II: A successful researcher should implement effective, efficient research strategies.

  • Law students should select appropriate sources for obtaining required information.  Based on the authority governing the issue, law students should determine which research tools are best suited to analyze the issue, and then they should validate the completeness and appropriateness of the selected sources.
  • Law students should construct and implement efficient, cost-effective search strategies.  They should draft research plans and timelines that include identifying the most cost-efficient sources, appropriately utilizing available resources to perform the research, and using supplemental materials to validate and update results. 
  • Law students should confirm and validate research results, incorporating existing work product and expertise.  If appropriate and available, law students should confirm the validity of their results by consulting prior work product. They should also when necessary seek out knowledgeable individuals in the local legal research community for guidance, as permissible by ethical obligations. 
  • Law students should document research strategies.  They should record all pertinent information, such as resources and methods utilized, for future reference.  They should produce accurate citations and reference lists using appropriate documentation style.

Principle III:  A successful researcher should critically evaluate legal and non-legal information and information sources.

  • Law students should critically evaluate the validity and credibility of information sources. They should know the different purposes and the relative strengths and weaknesses of different types and formats of information sources.
  • Law students should critically evaluate retrieved information. They should distinguish between binding and persuasive authority and distinguish otherwise binding authority from the facts at hand. They should recognize and address contrary authority and incorporate factually dissimilar yet legally relevant authority by drawing parallels to the facts at hand.
  • Law students should synthesize the results of their research to construct new concepts applicable to resolving the problem at hand. They should draw analogies between their situation and other areas of the law, when appropriate.


Principle IV:  A successful researcher should apply information effectively to resolve a specific issue or need.

  • Law students should understand the context for the legal issue under analysis.  They should research background or historical information, such as legislative or administrative histories, where that context can inform the analysis.  They should apply scholarship from other disciplines, consistent with the use made of non-legal materials by courts and decision-makers in the past. 
  • Law students should modify the initial research strategy as suggested by preliminary results.  They should incorporate additional concepts when implicated by preliminary results, and expand or narrow research queries when they retrieve unanticipated results due to the coverage of research tools or the operation of search engines
  • Law students should determine when research has provided sufficient background to explain or support a conclusion.  They should ensure that all questions posed are answered.  They should identify unresolved issues and incorporate as appropriate analogous background where research did not clearly resolve the issue posed
  • Law students should apply the results of research to a legal analysis that communicates effectively.  Law students should apply principles of relevance and priority to the authority cited, taking care to choose a format and style that is appropriate for the audience and that best supports their analysisThey should organize and integrate the results of research into a persuasive document.  They should also cite authority consistent with locally accepted rules, ensuring that cited references can be located by the reader.


Principle V: A successful researcher should have an understanding of the ethics of information use and be able to distinguish between ethical uses and unethical uses of information. A successful researcher should understand the legal issues that arise from information discovery, use, and application. 

  • Law students should have a mastery of information ethics and should be able to articulate the factors that determine whether the information use is ethical.  They should understand that the analysis of information ethics includes determining the lawyer’s ethical obligations to the court, the bar, and society.  They should also understand the organization’s (firm, school, court, corporation) rules on access, storage and dissemination of information. 
  • Law students should apply laws, rules, and other legal authority that govern a lawyer’s use of information in the course of practice.  They should understand the principles of intellectual property, copyright, and fair use.  They should also use source citations properly, to accurately indicate where the words and ideas of others have been found, and to understand they should understand and comply with license and subscription agreements, among other items.


[1] The foundation of the Task Force’s principles are the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (2000) approved by the Association of College of Research Libraries (ACRL) and endorsed both by the American Association for Higher Education and the Council of Independent Colleges. Information Literacy as defined by ACRL is the set of skills needed to find, retrieve, analyze, and use information.   A significant body of literature on information literacy has developed over the years.

[2] The Section on Legal Education and Admissions of the American Bar Association administers the law school accreditation process.  The Section is discussing student learning outcomes in proposed Standard 302


13 Responses to

  1. Dave Rogers says:

    I’m not sure if I missed this in the text, but it would be good to include the concept of collaboration with others when over one’s head on a project.

  2. Susan Ryan says:

    Overall, I think this is quite good. I would suggest an addition to Principle III, concerning information evaluation. I think it is critical that students not only be able to evaluate reliable sources of information (to tell binding from persuasive, and primary from secondary authority), but also to evaluate sources of information that may not be so reliable. As the free web becomes an ever more important part of legal research, separating the wheat from the chaff becomes ever more important as well.

    • Dave Rogers says:

      I agree on the suggestion. With the advent of self-publishing and the like, understanding the sources is becoming more important.

  3. Susan Nevelow Mart says:

    I agree wholeheartedly that “Law students should have an awareness of the cost of research. They should understand the costs associated with research utilizing all formats. Further, they should identify where cost and efficiency intersect in the selection of format.”

    Although West has recently made costs for some services available on WestlawNext, accurate pricing information for most online services is impossible to get. Without more vendor transparency, law students simply do not have access to this information. I think the principles have to acknowledge that most of this information is currently unavailable.

  4. Susan Nevelow Mart says:

    These principles in total add up to a refined concept of legal information literacy, but nowhere in the principles is this concept acknowledged except in a tiny footnote. Since there is a large body of research, scholarship and faculty buy-in for this concept at the university level, it seems to me that we should leverage this connection in some way. Either the title of the principles should be changed to “Law Student Information Literacy Principles” or the preamble must integrate the concept of information literacy more directly. One concept of information literacy that is not emphasized is the ability to use general research principles and transfer them to new resources – the meta-cognition needed to train students for an ever-changing future.

  5. Paul Callister says:

    I thank the committee for their fine document. I think that before Principle I that there should be a Principle along the lines of the ACRL Information Literacy standard to “determine the extent of the information needed.” See I think that recognizing the need for research and “working the problem” before commencing any research is an often overlooked part of be coming a competent research. It’s not enough to know the background of the legal system or have a feel for the resources. There has to be a concerted effort to strip the problem to its core essentials and then craft the research from that point. This is the essence of recognizing the information need.
    I also would favor referencing the ACRL Information Literacy standards and using the term “information literacy” at least in the introduction. We will bolster the legitimacy of these proposed standards by linking them to the work already being done on information literacy in other fields. It gives us a hefty theoretical underpinnings akin to those being promulgated in the Carnegie Report.

    • Barbara Bintliff says:

      Paul identifies a piece of the research instruction puzzle that is missing in this document, a piece that really gives us academic credibility—that of “working the problem.” We see over and over in our advanced legal research classes that law students have little idea of how to approach a legal research assignment. They don’t know how to develop a research strategy. They don’t know how to break the problem down into its components, figure out an appropriate approach for each, and then begin researching.

      We need to stress this intellectual, analytical aspect of research more. It’s difficult to produce efficient or cost-effective research results if you don’t know what you are trying to do, and one of the biggest challenges in research is not finding stuff, but in knowing what stuff to find. The mechanical part of research is fairly straightforward to describe, teach and measure; the intellectual and analytical part is hard.

      I hope we can include this piece in our document. MacCrate gives us a lot of guidance in their descriptions of the first and second Fundamental Lawyering Skills (Problem Solving and Legal Analysis and Reasoning, respectively), that precede the third skill (Legal Research). We need to help our students learn how to be good legal researchers, which includes knowing why they are doing what they are doing.

  6. Molly Brownfield says:

    Thanks to the Task Force for their hard work in such an important area. I agree wholeheartedly with Susan and Paul about emphasizing the term “information literacy” and connecting these proposed standards to prior relevant work. This seems especially important when thinking down the road to the point of having an assessment test keyed to our standards to help us measure legal information literacy, as Project SAILS is keyed to the ACRL IL standards. Project SAILS is geared towards undergraduates, but I’m sure there’s much to be learned from the methodology behind its creation that could save us from recreating the wheel when we get to that stage. Plus, given that there is now a National Information Literacy Awareness month, I think this phrase garners wide-spread recognition.

  7. Barbara Bintliff says:

    I thank the Committee for its thoughtful and careful work. The document they have produced is a great start in defining legal research competencies. It will be important in emphasizing the profession’s leadership role in legal research education.

    I agree with Susan Nevelow Mart’s and Paul Callister’s comments, however, that question why we are creating a separation between “legal research competencies” and “information literacy.” Doesn’t this document basically describe legal information literacy?

    Information literacy is a recognized and respected concept that is growing in its acceptance as a guiding principle for research instruction. There is a large body of literature on the topic, from which we can learn and on which we can build. Universities recognize information literacy as a legitimate goal. Accrediting agencies are exploring its ramifications. Why would we not capitalize on this existing movement and use it to our advantage? It almost seems as if we are avoiding mentioning this now-standard concept.

    I urge the Committee to explicitly incorporate both the terminology and the underlying principles of information literacy in this document.

  8. Steve Anderson says:

    On the whole, very well done, and I am grateful for everyone’s time in articulating these concepts. From the court librarians’ perspectives, I think it would be very worthwhile for this document to be drafted in either more neutral or all-encompassing phrasing. Judges and court librarians typically face the same issues with as law firms do with regard to the training of new lawyers. I think it is vital to include in the introduction either a direct mention of courts’ and government needs or otherwise make the terminology more generally applicable to all legal employers. (Interestingly, while the introduction does not have neutral wording, the principles themselves do seem to be applicable to all.) For example, the introduction might be changed to say something like this:

    “In particular, an understanding of the many varied legal practice business models is vital. In today’s environment, law firm success hinges on billable time, effective time management, effective communication, effective peer collaboration, and cost recovery. Similarly, efficient research habits in governmental and nonprofit settings ultimately benefit those individuals whom the employer serves. Highly competent research skills, effective problem solving skills, and critical thinking skills are also keys to success in all areas of legal practice of today and the future.

  9. Duane Strojny says:

    I agree with comments requesting that these reference the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. It would make them more in line with what regular academic libraries are using for guidelines. Thanks for the work on this since I believe this is right where the ABA is headed with assessment and evaluation in general for law schools.

  10. Meg Butler says:

    Thank you for calling for comments–this is really great work. I have a few thoughts after reading both the draft document and the comments.
    1. I am more familiar with principles such as these being described as “standards.” Within the education community at least, that language is more commonly used.
    2. Having just read an email summarizing the “Creating, Disseminating, Using, and Preserving Legal Information in Challenging Times” meeting, I was struck that vendors were not included in the preamble as a group that students (at least those not practicing in big law) will likely be interacting with. Perhaps vendor-relations, for lack of a better phrase, relates as well to Susan Nevelow Mart’s comment 3.
    3. As I read the principles, I saw the issue of context for problems raised in both Principle 1 and Principle 4. I agree with Paul Callister and Barbara Bintliff that “working the problem,” is critical. That analytical pre-searching work involves the isolation of the legal issue not merely placing issues in context. My experience with law students in legal research courses suggests that students don’t have the analytical skills to separate the legally significant from the factually significant (or maybe merely factually interesting). I’d like to see a greater emphasis on legally significant context in the principles.
    3. I agree with Susan Nevelow Mart about the importance of researchers being able to transfer their skills from one type of resource to a new resource–the development of meta-cognition is critical.
    4. Thank you for including the principle regarding student mastery of information ethics.

  11. Penny Hazelton says:

    I am struck by the use of ‘Should’ rather than ‘must’ throughout the statement.

    I think a successful researcher MUST – then the subparts also need to be MUST – in order to be successful. We know these guidelines are not mandatory, but the wording they have been given suggests to me that if a researcher wants to be successful, we have identified the things they MUST do.

    I also agree with the Callister/Bintliff point about inclusion of a research strategy or design.

    Thanks for your good work!

%d bloggers like this: