Legal Research News: Legal research competency standards and the value of new associates with good research skills

What is the value of strong legal research skills, the kind that law firm and academic law librarians have?

A recent news article by Patrick Lamb, Does It Pay to Hire a Law Firm Librarian? reminds us that what law firms need, and will be looking for are new hires that know how to identify relevant sources of information, and how to wade through the information universe that they have access to in an efficient manner. This is how you bring value to the law firm, whether you are a law firm librarian or a new associate.

If you are a 3L, and you do not know how to use one of the major databases that law firms use, or worse yet, you do not know how to do research at all without access to one of these major databases, you should be concerned.

Many of you will be hired by small law firms with limited access to resources. The partners will not be impressed if you have never used Lexis before and the first time you use it, you waste firm money by performing inefficient searches in multiple databases. Are you aware that some databases within your firm’s Westlaw or Lexis package may cost much more than others to search in, depending on the pricing structure.

Some of you will be hired by law firms that have no access to Lexis or Westlaw, and you will be expected to use local public law libraries and free online resources. Do you know where you would start?

The article, Who Needs a Librarian Anyway? is Mark Gediman’s  response to Lamb’s article. According to Gediman, the value that Law firm librarians offer is of knowing how to approach legal research. Law firm librarians know that many sources are NOT available online, and that the most efficient way to search for information may not be by beginning online.

  • “Print is not obsolete for four reasons (at least):
  1. Some specialty treatises are only available in print;
  2. It is more efficient to use the print materials in some cases (such as the Rutter Guides);
  3. Attorneys still prefer to use the codes they reference daily in print;
  4. It’s easier to bring book when a visiting a client than going online.
  • Librarians are not only research consultants.
  1. We may not know the answer but we do know how to find the answer, quickly and efficiently.
  2. We can identify opportunities for savings through elimination of redundant resources and contract expertise
  3. We know how the firm works as a whole as well as its parts. We can tell you who knows what or where to find what.”

While the value of law firm librarians, may be, as Gediman describes, “high-speed [information] retrieval and analysis [that leverages] the vast knowledge base of the firm, both internal and external, online and print” (, many law firms do not have law librarians and instead rely on new associates to perform legal research tasks.

As Lamb, and those responding to his article have noted, “associates who do the research at law firms are NOT information professionals and are floundering.”

So let’s get back to the point of Lamb’s article, which as he explains is not particularly about librarians, but about the value that is offered. What is the value then of law librarians at academic law libraries, and how can  students leverage this value to ensure that they are able to bring valuable legal research skills to the law firm?

Academic reference law librarians can see the lay of the land. Where you know what you know about legal research (and studies have shown that law students believe that their legal research skills are stronger than they really are), your reference librarian knows what you don’t know and can help you to learn how to approach legal research so that you do not make avoidable errors. Law librarians can teach you where to start looking when you are faced with a new research task, regardless of what subscription databases are or are not available to you.

Notice my wording, “avoidable errors” this sounds very much like the language of “competency” which is what all lawyers are ethically expected to have. Competency with respect to legal research is expected of lawyers.

Not everything that you need to learn in Law School will be taught in a classroom. Lawyers are professionals, and part of being a professional is being responsible for yourself, including your education. Academic reference law librarians bring value in many ways, one of these ways is by being available to teach law students. Reference librarians teach  one-on-one as students bring questions about classroom assignments, and Law Review. Reference librarians at TJSL also teach courses on how to conduct legal research in an efficient and effective manner. Are you taking full advantage of the assistance that can be provided by your reference librarian?

If you want to know what law firm’s will be expecting of you, check out the following three documents and see if your legal research skills measure up.

Law Firm Legal Research Requirements for New Attorneys*

by Patrick Meyer

Research Skills for Lawyers and Law StudentsWest-Thompson Publication

Great Expectations: New Associates’ Research Skills from Law School to Law Firm by JILL L. K. BROOKS

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