Are New Attorneys Competent Legal Researchers – And How Would You Know?

By Gail A. Partin, Director and Law Librarian, Montague Law Library, Penn State’s Dickinson Law

Gail served as Chair of the American Association of Law Libraries’ Legal Research Competency Special Committee from July 2014 to July 2016.  Prior to that, Gail was a member of three separate task forces AALL created to develop and promote principles and standards for legal research competencies.  With fall associates starting and training and orientation underway at many firms, we thought this was the ideal time to highlight the AALL Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency, along with related resources available via the AALL website.

As newly minted lawyers pass the bar exam and begin their legal careers, they will be confronted with research scenarios wholly unlike the problems they encountered in law school. Specialized practice areas require deeper knowledge of information resources that many law students have had little experience using. And even basic research skills are applied differently in the practice environment, leaving new graduates uncertain about their own competence. Consequently, efforts to improve research competency are underway within AALL and among our colleagues.

The AALL Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency (PSLRC) are a good place to start to determine what skills attorneys should master to become competent, effective, and efficient legal researchers. These Principles and Standards offer a compendium of benchmarks to draw upon and a structure for focused training that can dramatically increase the effectiveness of newer lawyers. Typical practice competencies, emanating from the PSLRC, might encompass a scaffolded framework beginning with the new associate level through the one-year mark, similar to the approach described in Hitting the Mark: AALL Legal Research Competencies from Classroom to Practice (AALL login required). The PSLRC or an internal law firm framework can serve as the foundation for a core competency training and skills assessment program for new associates or other researchers that can be applied at any point on the continuum of a legal professional’s career and in any specific field within the legal profession. The AALL Legal Research Competency web center contains high quality resources detailing current practices and approaches to assessing and improving research competency.

Two major components to any competency improvement plan are assessment and instruction. Simply put, skill levels must be assessed before they can be remediated with appropriate training.  Evaluating the research skills of new lawyers, who are most likely adjusting to the time constraints and demands of their emerging careers, can be a challenge. Self-assessment can be a convenient, non-threatening evaluation tool to obtain a detailed audit of an individual’s unique strengths and weaknesses. The research competencies enumerated in the AALL Principles and Standards can be used as a baseline to construct self-assessment exercises similar to those described in this article, Creating a Legal Research Audit: Assessing Competency. More formal assessment tools, such as quizzes, demonstrations, essays, or self-paced tutorials can be considered as well — keeping in mind that the key purpose for assessment is to improve research proficiency and to develop instructional methods to achieve those desired improvements.

Although developing a program of instruction to improve core competencies can be a daunting task, there are excellent resources and tools available. For the past twenty-five years, the RIPS-SIS National Legal Research Teach-In has been compiling materials for use in developing and advertising educational programs and events. All materials have been designed and implemented by individual librarians and then shared in this cooperative venture in an effort to keep instruction relevant in today’s evolving research environment.  The ALL-SIS Sourcebook for Teaching Legal Research (AALL login required) is another compendium of instructional materials to “support legal research training programs in non-academic as well as academic law libraries” and includes assessment tools, syllabi, lesson plans, handouts, slides and assignments. For specialized practice areas, members of the PLLIP-SIS have created research skills audits that serve both an assessment and a learning function for a variety of specialized research topics, such as intellectual property, litigation, securities, tax and more.

Efforts to improve legal research competency are ongoing within the Legal Research Competency Committee of AALL’s Research Instruction and Patron Services SIS (RIPS-SIS). Committee members are engaged in initiatives to discover effective assessment tools, to compile innovative techniques for improving research competency, and to develop a robust online compendium of resources highlighting these endeavors. The Committee welcomes comments or ideas about activities or initiatives to improve legal research competency. For information professionals and librarians, the collective challenge is “to embrace legal research competency as a necessary skill” and strive to improve researcher competencies at all stages of evolution from student to practitioner.

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