There's a Competency for That! Standards for the Successful Researcher

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By Gail Partin and Mary Jenkins
March 4, 2014


Law librarians have long played a key role in the articulation of and standards for legal research. In the past decade alone, several groups within AALL have addressed the need for standards, including the Joint Committee on the Articulation of Law Student Information Literacy Standards, the AALL Law Student Research Competency Standards Task Force, the Law Student Research Competencies Task Force, and the Promoting Legal Research Principles, Competencies and Standards Task Force, recently renamed Promoting the AALL Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency Task Force. Additionally, AALL Special Interest Sections (the Academic Law Libraries SIS; Foreign, Comparative & International Law SIS; Private Law Libraries SIS; and Research Instruction & Patron Services SIS) engage in this perennial issue.  

The matter of legal research standards is not a concern of AALL alone, of course. From the MacCrate Report to the Carnegie Report, in the Boulder Statement on Legal Research Education and in the Report of the Outcome Measures Committee, readers see repeated calls for improvements in legal research abilities and for concrete measures of competency.

At its July 2013 meeting, the AALL Executive Board approved AALL’s Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency, designed with measurement in mind. Report after report on research preparedness and effectiveness in the legal profession point to a disappointing level of practice readiness and research skills acquisition over time, especially as business needs change and information resources become more expansive and sophisticated. With these Principles and Standards, AALL has provided a practical and relevant means of measuring legal research competency. Law librarians play a key role in legal research education, but it is clear that the core of the competency issue is the standards to which the legal profession, writ large, holds itself.

Now AALL is paving the way for outreach to other organizations across the legal profession as it seeks to engage bar examiners, law schools, law firms, CLE providers, and the courts in the adoption of its Principles and Standards. An AALL online information center, devoted to this issue of legal research competency, makes the case for competency, provides material for further reading, and offers opportunities to share examples of legal research competency assessment. Located on AALL’s website, the section on legal research competency is linked under the Advocacy tab (see image below) and is also found at www.aallnet.org/main-menu/Advocacy/legalresearchcompetency


This section serves two main purposes.  

First, it is an information resource for law librarians who want to use the standards and share assessment examples. The Inside Legal Research Competency box offers The Case for Competency, which is a brief look at the need for competency, and a Further Reading section, listing articles on these topics: Competency of Law Students and Lawyers, Research Instruction in Law School and Practice, and Assessment & Evaluation of Legal Research Skills. This section is a good starting point for librarians and other legal professionals not already well steeped in the literature of research and instruction, but it also captures articles and studies originating outside of law librarianship and invites submissions. The Principles and Standards themselves serve as the core of the information center. More than just a listing (though they are available as a pdf document and as a brochure), this is a dynamic resource, sharing and inviting submission of examples of legal research competency assessment. For example, one standard states, “An information-literate legal professional knows that information quality varies.” A successful legal researcher “[c]onsistently applies criteria to evaluate the reliability of information, including but not limited to . . . credibility,” as the competency states. Once law librarians and other legal professionals provide sample assessments of that competency, the example will be linked to the competency. This section should prove to be an effective means of sharing practical, tested measures to evaluate competency.

Second, and representing a major outreach effort, the Legal Research Competency information resource center invites other legal professionals to embrace the Principles and Standards and to measure competency. Charged with establishing the Principles and Standards as the “gold standard of research competency within AALL and for the legal community,” the current AALL Task Force developed this online information resource with the external community in mind. Bar examiners, courts, law firms, and law schools see messages specific to their concerns stemming from research reports in their fields. As AALL representatives connect with other organizations in the legal profession, they can share resources in this information center, pointing out the Principles and Standards, the body of literature, and the means by which competency might be measured by that segment of the legal profession.   

The Connect page invites submissions and ideas. Currently, readers are asked this question:  “How would you envision an organization (law school, law firm, court, corporate entity, etc.) using the Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency?” (Go ahead! Answer it!) Law librarians, bar examiners, court administrators, and development professionals alike are asked to engage in the competency conversation and to provide assessment examples. The Learn page advises readers of learning opportunities that might include conference programs, workshops, webinars, or other means of engagement. It is precisely because of this effort to connect with people passionate about legal research competency that the AALL Legal Research Competency information resource center will play a significant role in the Association’s efforts to influence legal research performance measures and strengthen competency across the profession.

As a recent NALP/ALI Professional Development Institute (PDI) illustrated, the legal profession, concerned with both the quality of work and the bottom line, welcomes the concrete expression of competencies as it develops training and continuing education programs. Program planners for the December 2013 PDI affirmatively expressed their interest in research competencies by offering a program titled Using the AALL Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competencies in Law Schools and Law Firms, presented by members of the AALL Task Force. Since this was the task force’s first face-to-face opportunity to introduce the Principles and Standards to a non-AALL group, the goal was to develop a dialog and establish ongoing relationships with external stakeholders who interact with legal professionals and have an interest in improving their research skills.  

The PDI program focused on raising awareness and understanding of the Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency. In developing these core competencies, AALL hopes to add value to the legal profession in several key ways:
  • To foster best practices in law school curriculum development and design
  • To inform law firm planning, training, and articulation of core competencies
  • To encourage bar admission committee evaluation of applicants’ research skills
  • To inspire continuing education program development
  • To impact law school accreditation standards review.
These goals resonated with the audience of both academic and law firm professionals, who agreed that AALL’s compendium of core research competencies can and should become the principal guideline for measuring and evaluating legal research competency. All in attendance were excited that they now have, within their grasp, something tangible to refer to as they build and improve upon their own institutions’ educational and assessment programs.

Ensuing discussions centered around the task force’s twin goals of promoting and implementing the Principles and Standards within and outside of AALL, which is imperative for fostering legal research competence. Questions posed included: 
  • What are possible ways to raise awareness and understanding of the Principles and Standards
  • How can the Principles and Standards be implemented or integrated within the various legal organizations (law schools, law firms, courts, corporate entities, bar examiners, etc.)? 
As one might expect, these questions sparked a lively, enthusiastic dialog resulting in many creative and practical ideas. Suggestions included using the Principles and Standards to formulate assessment criteria for use in the recruiting process and in law clerk or associate performance evaluations; to integrate the competencies into the law school curriculum, not just in legal research, but also in writing programs, clinics, externships, and other doctrinal subjects; to partner with expert motivational speakers at legal venues to incorporate research competencies into their presentations; and to foster a dialog with organizations, such as NALP, to inform and educate their members on the value and utility of the Principles and Standards. For more information on the NALP/ALI program, including the slideshow presentation and concrete suggestions for applying the Principles and Standards, consult the Learn page at the Legal Research Competency information center.

What was discovered at the NALP/ALI Professional Development Institute? This was the first opportunity outside of AALL to gauge the acceptance of and enthusiasm for a compendium of core legal research competencies. It took little or no persuasion for participants to understand and embrace the exigencies that propelled AALL to develop a system of legal research competencies. There was no doubt or dispute that action must be taken to address the critical deficiencies in research skill that threaten to undermine practice readiness and effectiveness. Every attendee offered thoughtful, practical suggestions for raising awareness of these new principles, standards, and competencies within their own institutions and the larger community of legal professionals. Most importantly, several attendees expressed a serious interest in partnering with AALL to create a groundswell of support for and acclamation of the Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency. They recognize that integrating core research competencies into their respective workplace environments will benefit not only their institutions but also the profession as a whole.  

The NALP/ALI program represents a valuable entry point for AALL into conversations with key external organizations. This is the conversation that AALL must begin to have with external stakeholders in order to encourage them to view these Principles and Standards as their own and incorporate them into their respective work environments. As AALL continues to develop partnerships and build stronger relationships with NALP and its members, other conversations must begin to take place as well. Who are the other critical stakeholders who must be approached and cultivated? There are many potential partners, all with very diverse perspectives and missions—courts, state and federal government, law firms, corporations, state and national bar examiners, CLE providers, and more. Conversations with each constituent group will require different approaches and will yield a plethora of unique ideas for applying the competencies. 

AALL and the Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency stand at the intersection of law librarianship and the legal profession. This is our profession’s opportunity to establish alliances with like-minded external institutions through robust information sharing and spirited conversations surrounding common ideals, such as research competencies and practice readiness. These alliances and collaborations will be most successful and enduring if they are forged at the ground level, where law librarians and legal professionals interact on a daily basis. As the saying goes, “It takes a village . . . ,” in this case, of law librarians committed to sharing their ideas for using the Principles and Standards, to reaching out to colleagues interested in improving practice readiness, to fostering relationships with external groups, and to contributing to the research and study of research competencies. If you have embedded any portion of the Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency into your activities, please share your experiences and suggestions through the Connect page of the Legal Research Competency portal. Likewise, please contact the task force if you are in a position to cultivate partnerships or collaborative relationships with any interested stakeholders. Your ideas and experiences will serve as the springboard for energizing the legal research competency dialog!

Gail Partin (gap6@dsl.psu.edu) is associate director of the Montague Law Library and Professor of Legal Research at Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law. She is chair of the newly created RIPS-SIS Legal Research Competency Committee and has served for many years on the National Legal Research Teach-In Committee. She currently serves on the AALL Task Force for Promoting the AALL Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency.






Mary Jenkins
(mjenkins@cms.hamilton-co.org) is law librarian and director of the Hamilton County Law Library, a public and subscription-based library in Cincinnati. She is president of the Cincinnati Chapter of the Special Libraries Association and chair of ORALL's Government Relations Committee. She serves on the AALL Task Force for Promoting the
AALL Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency and on the Economic Value of Law Libraries Special Committee.