Legal Information Literacy

Legal Information Literacy in the United States

By Joseph D. Lawson

Catherine Lemmer defined legal information literacy as “the ability to find, retrieve, analyze, and use legal information” (Catherine A. Lemmer, A View from the Flip Side: Using the “Inverted Classroom” to Enhance the Legal Information Literacy of the International LL.M. Student, 105 Law Libr. J. 461, 462–63, 2013 Law Libr. J. 25, ¶ 2) Yasmin Sokkar Harker argues that such skills are necessary for modern legal researchers because of the “huge amount and variety of information on the Internet.” (Yasmin Sokkar Harker, “Information Is Cheap, but Meaning Is Expensive”: Building Analytical Skill into Legal Research Instruction, 105 Law Lib. J. 79, 85 (2013))

Many authors discuss information literacy in the context of law school. See, e.g., Harker, above, at 85. Phebe Poydras refers to this as “legal information literacy,” which is how it will be referred to here. (Phebe E. Poydras, Developing Legal Information Literate Law Students: “That Dog Will Hunt,” 32 Legal Reference Services Q. 183, 184 (2013)

Following the general expansion of the Internet, the amount of legal information available online has grown and is presented through a diverse collection of websites and databases that are maintained by government entities, commercial vendors, and other organizations. (Richard A. Danner, Contemporary and Future Directions in American Legal Research: Responding to the Threat of the Available, 31 Int’l J. Legal Info. 179, 181 (2003). See also Ross-Blakely Law Library, Cost-Effective and No-Cost Legal Research) Margolis and Murray argue that changing the focus of instruction to legal information literacy would allow students to critically evaluate available resources and develop a “deeper understanding of electronic research so that skills can be transferred as the research technology continues to evolve and change.” (Ellie Margolis & Kristen E. Murray, Say Goodbye to the Books: Information Literacy as the New Legal Research Paradigm, 38 U. Dayton L. Rev. 117, 129–31 (2012)) Given the decentralized nature of available resources, the ability to develop strategies for finding and evaluating resources wherever they are found is clearly a beneficial one for researchers.

AALL Research Competencies

In July 2013, the AALL Executive Board approved Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency, a statement of five principles meant to promote improvement of legal research practices in law schools and throughout the legal community. Am. Ass’n of L. Libr., Principles and Standards for Legal Research Competency 1–3 (2013), (hereinafter AALL Research Competencies) (results of existing surveys used to support call for reform in legal education and adoption of legal research competency principles by “law schools, CLE providers, bar examiners, paralegal and law office administration associations, law firms, and others”).

The principles advanced by the American Association of Law Libraries are:

  • Principle I: A successful legal researcher possesses foundational knowledge of the legal system and legal information sources.
  • Principle II: A successful legal researcher gathers information through effective and efficient research strategies.
  • Principle III: A successful legal researcher critically evaluates information.
  • Principle IV: A successful legal researcher applies information effectively to resolve a specific issue or need.
  • Principle V: A successful legal researcher distinguishes between ethical and unethical uses of information, and understands the legal issues associated with the discovery, use, or application of information.

Margolis and Murray reviewed the Law Student Research Competency and Information Literacy Principles adopted by AALL in 2011 and noted that through its work on the principles, AALL has devoted more attention to concerns about information literacy than many other groups. The AALL Research Competencies contain many of the same statements as the previously adopted competencies, which shows further commitment to the issue.

The goal stated in the AALL document is for the legal community to implement the “Principles and Standards in meaningful ways that will result in more competent, effective, and efficient legal research, thus impacting the bottom line and service positively.” While the high-level principles are certainly positive and applicable in any practice setting, many of the specifically enumerated competencies may be implemented differently depending on whether solo and small firm practitioners are taken into account. For example, about Principle III, very few would hesitate to agree. However, Competency III.B.1., which reads, “Understands that there are costs associated with legal research, regardless of type, publisher, or format” (AALL Research Competencies document, above, at 8), is open to interpretation when implemented.






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