Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-55597f9d44-rn2sj Total loading time: 0.333 Render date: 2022-08-09T09:07:46.875Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "useNewApi": true } hasContentIssue true

Information Literacy in Law: Starting Points for Improving Legal Research Competencies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 February 2019


Improving information literacy in law translates into developing methods for improving legal research competencies among lawyers, law students and the general public. This paper summarizes four approaches for improving legal research skills of prospective lawyers in U.S. law schools and discusses their successes and shortcomings to help assess their potential application in an international environment. These approaches include: (1) offering mandatory law school courses in legal research; (2) adding elective (or optional) credit based courses in legal research; (3) offering non-credit legal research support to law students at their point of need; and (4) testing prospective lawyers on their legal research competencies as a requirement to being licensed to practice law.

Copyright © 2010 by the International Association of Law Libraries. 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 See for a full description of IFLA's Information Literacy Section.Google Scholar

2 Dennis Kim-Prieto, a law librarian at Rutgers University, passionately argues that U.S. law librarians should make better use of the framework of information literacy to develop standards for testing for legal research skills. Dennis Kim-Prieto, How Law School Information Literacy (LSIL) Assess Deficits Identified by the MacCrate Report and the Carnegie Report, and What they Mean for Legal Education and Training, paper presented at the annual conference of the Association of American Law Schools, San Francisco, CA (January 2011). Google tools provide some insight into the recent attention given to information literacy: this term only began to appear with some frequency beginning in the mid-1990's, but its usage skyrocketed within the past decade. On the other hand, usage of the term “research skills” began dropping off within the past six years, when it was surpassed by information literacy. These results can be replicated by using the Google nGram tool available at: // and comparing the use of these terms.Google Scholar

3 For example, China is experimenting with the U.S. model of legal education at some of its flagship universities. Matthew S. Erie, Legal Education Reform in China Through U.S.-Inspired Transplants, 59 J. Legal Educ. 60 (2009).Google Scholar

4 The late University of Washington Law School Professor Margorie Rombauer traced the appearance of legal research courses in U.S. law schools to the early 20th Century. Marjorie Rombauer, First-Year Legal Research and Writing: Then and Now, 25 J. Legal Educ. 538 (1973). Professor Rombauer noted the case for formal legal research instruction began at the outset of the century, citing Edward Keasbey, Instruction in Finding Cases, 1 Am.Law School Rev. 69 (1902). According to Frederick Hicks, the long-time law librarian at first at Columbia and then Yale Law School in the mid-20th Century, the earliest legal research lectures were provided by publishing company representatives. Frederick Hicks, Materials and Methods of Legal Research (1923). This is something Professor Hicks hoped to overcome with the publication of his book, which was highly regarded as the most substantial legal research text published to date in the U.S. and remained a mainstay for research instruction for decades. By the late 1930's, at least one survey confirmed that these courses in legal bibliography, typically taught by librarians, had become common in most law schools, were taught in either the first or second year of the required three-year law school curriculum, and granted one or two course credits. Leflar, Survey of Curricula in Smaller Law Schools, 9 Am.Law School Rev. 255, 258–59 (1939).Google Scholar

5 The 51 U.S. jurisdictions include the 50 separate states, plus the U.S. federal government. Uniquely, the state of Louisiana has a legal system based on civil law. The other 49 states have legal systems based on common law.Google Scholar

6 The mean average number of full-time professional librarians employed at each of the 200 American Bar Association accredited law schools surveyed in 2009 was nine. Additionally, the average number of library support staff was sixteen, making the average total number of full-time library employees at school libraries twenty-five. American Bar Association, Comprehensive Law Library Statistical Table (April, 2010). This number does not include part-time student assistants working in law libraries.Google Scholar

7 Specialized instructors in legal writing began playing a larger role in teaching a combined “Legal Research and Writing” course in American law schools during the later part of the 20th Century. The trend was tracked in a 1980's survey published by Helene Shapo, director of the legal writing program at Northwestern University School of Law. Shapo, Frontiers of Legal Writing, Challenges to Teaching Research, 78 Law Libr. J. 719 (1986). At the same time, Professor Richard Danner argued that librarians were uniquely qualified to teach research skills and held up the model of research instruction offered at Duke University's law school as an example of how this might be done in conjunction with specialists in legal writing. See Danner, From the Editor: Teaching Legal Research, 78 LAW Libr. J. 599 (1986).Google Scholar

8 For example, Chicago-Kent has long required its students to take a combined legal research and writing course during all but one semester of its three year program. See Google Scholar

9 This is the case at Yale Law School, where legal research is taught as an incidental component of a required substantive course offered in a small group setting, with fewer than twenty students in the course.Google Scholar

10 For example, a study by law librarians Joan Howland and Nancy Johnson found a consensus among many law faculty, attorneys and law librarians that summer associates and recent law school graduates lacked the knowledge to perform adequate legal research. Joan Howland and Nancy Johnson, The Effectiveness of Law School Legal Research Training Programs, 40 J. LEGAL EDUC. 381, 383 (1990).Google Scholar

11 An article reporting the results of a law firm librarian survey provides suggestions for basic legal research skills required by new law school graduates. Patrick Meyer, Law Firm Legal Research requirements for New Attorneys, 101 Law Libr. J. 297 (2009).Google Scholar

12 The case for Advanced Legal Research courses in U.S. law schools is first noted in the literature in the 1970's, by Professor Christine Anderson Brock and Gayle Smith Edelman. Christine Anderson Brock and Gayle Smith Edelman, Teaching Practices of Academic Law Librarians, 71 Law Libr. J. 96, 107 (1978). The development of such courses takes a firm root by the mid-1980's, as noted in several survey articles. See Robin Mills, Legal Research Instruction After the First Year, 76 Law Libr. J. 603 (1983), and S. Blair Kauffman, Advanced Legal Research Courses: A New Trend in American Legal Education, Legal Reference Services Q. Fall 1986/Winter 1986–87, at 80.Google Scholar

13 A survey conducted in 2002 indicated that nearly 70% of 111 responding law schools offered credit-based Advanced Legal Research courses as a part of their curriculum. Ann Hemmens, Advanced Legal Research Courses: A Survey of ABA Accredited Law Schools, 94 Law Libr. J. 209 (2002). Hemmens reported that these courses are typically offered as electives in limited enrolment classes offered to upper class students and taught by law librarians. Earlier surveys cited by Hemmens showed a steady increase in the number of U.S. law schools offering such courses.Google Scholar

14 A very few American law schools, such as Yale, allow first year students to take elective courses after completing their first semester of law school.Google Scholar

15 The course evaluations and other feedback we receive from students who take the Advanced Legal Research course offered at Yale is consistently high, and students often write back to us attributing their success as legal researchers, in positions including U.S. Supreme Court clerks, was helped by what they learned in the advanced course.Google Scholar

16 The course book we use at Yale Law School for this purpose is the simple and elegant Morris Cohen and Kent Olson, Legal Research in a Nutshell (10th Ed., 2010). However, there now is at least one course book targeted specifically for Advanced Legal Research courses: J.D.S. Armstrong and Christopher Knott, WHERE THE LAW IS: AN INTRODUCTION TO ADVANCED LEGAL RESEARCH (3d Ed., 2008).Google Scholar

17 For example, at Yale students taking the Advanced Legal Research must complete a major paper, called a pathfinder, in which students research a topic and compare the results using major research sources, both in print and online.Google Scholar

18 In Hemmens 2002 survey article, she noted that nearly 75% of the respondents reported enrolment caps of 20 or fewer students for the advanced research course. See Hemmens, at 223.Google Scholar

19 The Yale Law Library is fortunate to have nearly twenty professional law librarians on its staff and has created a unit called Reference & Instructional Services to assist students, faculty and others with their research needs. Most of the librarians in this department hold advanced degrees in both law and librarianship.Google Scholar

20 Additionally, the Yale librarians offer a two unit, specialized, legal research course covering Research in American Legal History.Google Scholar

21 Most U.S. law schools have fewer than one thousand students and many have fewer than five hundred. American Bar Association, Comprehensive Law Library Statistical Table (April, 2010).Google Scholar

22 Only nine of the 111 responding law schools in Hemmens survey indicated an enrollment greater than 40 students in their Advanced Legal Research courses. See Hemmens at 223.Google Scholar

23 Google Scholar

24 Harvard Law School Librarian, John Palfrey, helps shed some light on the approach “digital natives” take to learning and research in his recent book that traces a generation born into a digital world. See John Palfrey And Urs Gasser, Born Digital: Understanding The First Generation Of Digital Natives (2008), at 237253.Google Scholar

25 Vicenç Feliú and Helen Frazer, Embedded Librarians: Teaching Legal Research as a Lawyering Skill, paper presented at the annual conference of the Association of American Law Schools, San Francisco, CA (January 2011).Google Scholar

26 David Shumaker and Mary Talley, Models of Embedded Librarianship: Final Report, Special Libraries Assn., June 30, 2009, at 4, available at Scholar

27 Feliú and Frazer, at p. 41.Google Scholar

28 Yale Law Library's clinical research guides are linked from its research guide page at under the heading “Clinical Resources.”Google Scholar

29 In her inaugural lecture as the Sol Goldman Clinical Professor of Law, Jean Koh Peters, said the law librarians were known as “rock stars” in her clinic. Jean Koh Peters, Dignity, Voice, Story, Lecture presented at Yale Law School (January 24, 2011).Google Scholar

30 CALI is a non-profit consortium of law schools founded in 1982 with a stated mission to advance global legal education through computer technology. Most U.S. law schools are CALI members. Non-U.S. law schools can become members at a discounted rate (currently $250 annually). See website at: Scholar

31 Bar admission requirements for each of the 50 states are compiled and published annually in the following publication: National Conference of State Bar Examiners and the American Bar Association Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements (2010). This guide is available online at Scholar

33 Professor Steven Barkan, law library director at the University of Wisconsin, thoughtfully analyzes the challenges of testing for research skills on the bar exam and concludes that inclusion of a legal research component on the bar would lead to better legal research skills. See Steven M. Barkan, Should Legal Research Be Included on the Bar Exam? An Exploration of the Question, 49 Law Libr. J. 403 (2006).Google Scholar

34 A small group of law librarians initially met with leaders of the National Conference of State Bar Examiners over a two-day period to address this issue in 2006. See Report of the AALL Special Committee on Fostering Legal Research as a Subject Specialty (October 2006), available online at Google Scholar

35 See Blair Kauffman, Testing for Legal Research Skills on the Bar Exam: Are the Bar Examiners Ready? AALL Spectrum (June 2009), available online at Google Scholar

36 Google Scholar

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Information Literacy in Law: Starting Points for Improving Legal Research Competencies
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Information Literacy in Law: Starting Points for Improving Legal Research Competencies
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Information Literacy in Law: Starting Points for Improving Legal Research Competencies
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *