Academic Law Librarianship


Dustin Johnston-Green; Rebecca A. Mattson; and Dajiang Nie

Teaching is an essential duty for most academic law librarians. Legal research is the most common topic taught, and it is taught differently at each institution. Recently, there has been an increase in law librarians teaching legal practice technology courses, making this a growing niche in the profession.

Key Concepts
  • It is important to understand your institution’s culture and workflows before you submit a course for approval.
  • Legal research courses are natural experiential environments, but remember to add in a self-assessment requirement.
  • As it becomes more common for law librarians to teach legal technology, they must carefully prepare legal technology courses to effectively teach students concepts and skills of legal technology to achieve the goals of the curriculum.

Course design

Law librarians are often asked to teach legal research or legal technology courses.  Sometimes the idea for the course comes from someone else, and the librarian needs to fill in the details; other times, the idea for the course may be the librarian’s, and they will have to create it from scratch. In many law schools, a course proposal must be brought before the law school’s curriculum committee for approval before it can be offered.  The curriculum committee is composed of law faculty members who either vote on the proposal themselves or submit a recommendation to the full faculty before voting on offering the course. To bring a course before the curriculum committee, some preliminary details need to be addressed, such as course learning outcomes and whether the course qualifies for experiential learning under the American Bar Association (ABA) standards. This section covers drafting course learning outcomes, developing a syllabus, creating assessments, and experiential course requirements.

Course Learning Outcomes

A learning outcome is a statement of what students will be expected to achieve or understand by the end of a lesson or the end of the course. ABA Standard 302 requires that law schools publish learning outcomes that “include competency in . . . (b) Legal analysis and reasoning, legal research, problem-solving, and written and oral communication in the legal context.”i  When developing a course, think about what the students should achieve by the end of the course, and write your outcomes to match.  It is best to phrase a learning outcome by starting with “students will be able to” to demonstrate specific, measurable, and observable student outcomes. For example, if students should be able to create detailed research logs at the end of the semester, one learning outcome for the course may be:

“Students will be able to create logs synthesizing research steps, sources consulted, and next steps in research.”

The above example uses Bloom’s Taxonomyii to frame a learning outcome. The word “create” shows that the student will be making something new using existing knowledge. Bloom’s Taxonomy has several levels of knowledge understanding, and there are words to choose from for each level. Using the taxonomy, another example would be:

“Students will be able to explain the difference between statutes and regulations.”

After determining the high-level concepts students will learn, use Bloom’s Taxonomy to frame them as learning outcomes.  These high-level outcomes will serve as course-level learning outcomes.

If you are proposing a course, remember to include your course learning outcomes in the information you provide to the curriculum committee or course-approving body.

Developing a Syllabus

A syllabus serves several purposes.  First, the syllabus alerts the student to the requirements of the course and the schedule of assignments and topics. Second, it introduces the instructor and sets expectations and the tone of the course.  A syllabus should include office hours, the format of assessments and grading policies, an outline of topics or a schedule, course learning outcomes, and university-required information regarding academic integrity, accessibility, and accommodations.  Don’t forget to include basic information like the title of the course and the classroom information.

Often, a syllabus consists of several pages of text and rules for the course.  However, a rules-based syllabus can be off-putting and create the impression that the professor is inflexible or does not care to work with the students. Instead, try to create a syllabus that engages the students by showing them how the rules and expectations will help them develop in the legal profession.iii  For example, instead of stating, “Tardiness is unacceptable and will result in a reduction of your participation grade,” change the focus to professionalism.  Instead, say, “In law school, you are learning all of the skills of being a lawyer.  One of these skills is timeliness and meeting deadlines. It is important to be on time to class, just as it is important to be on time for a court appearance.  Consistent absences or tardiness will impact your participation score in this course.”  The second example sets the tone of how punctuality is a lawyering skill, not just an arbitrary rule imposed by the professor.

Students are most interested in how they are going to be graded and the expectations for each class.  It is important to include a section explaining how much each assignment is worth in the final grade.  It may also be helpful to include a graphic, such as a pie chart, to help students visualize the course assignments as a whole.

The course schedule is another crucial component of the syllabus.  Creating the schedule for the syllabus can help inform the outcomes and design of the course.  Once the class-level topics are created, create the class-level learning outcomes that feed into the course-level learning outcomes.  Both sets of learning outcomes will inform your assessment drafting, which is discussed in the next section.

While you may need to include a draft schedule of topics to a curriculum committee before the course is approved, you likely will not need to submit a finalized syllabus.  However, it is important to have the syllabus finalized before the course begins so that students can prepare.

Creating Assessments

ABA Standard 314 requires that law school classes utilize both formative and summative assessments.iv  A formative assessment is a low-stakes assessment during the course.  A summative assessment is a larger assessment at the end of the unit or course to grade students.

In a legal research course, formative assessments are critical.  Formative assessments often have low or no points attached; they can also be included as part of a participation grade but not individually graded. Formative assessments help students attempt the research skill they just learned and show professors if they have understanding or competency in the skills.

In-class exercises are excellent formative assessment tools.  These exercises can be graded and put toward a class participation grade. Still, the students feel comfortable making mistakes because they are not going toward the final grade in the course.  In-class exercises also help the professor; you can walk around while students are working and see what students may be struggling with.  Additionally, classroom technologies such as Nearpod, Poll Everywhere, and Kahoot are quick and easy to assess student learning.

Summative assessments are much more complex and take a longer time to create and grade than summative assessments.  In a research class, a summative assessment might test the student’s ability to research a kind of law or a certain topic as well as skill in planning research and logging research steps.  A summative assessment may be a test or a research essay.

When drafting assessments for your course, think back to your course learning outcomes and class-level outcomes.  If you have a course learning outcome that states, “Students will be able to analyze and apply case law to a client fact pattern,” you might want to draft a longer research fact pattern that requires students to research case law and apply it to the facts in the problem.  This will probably be a summative assessment since it is tied to a course-level outcome. You can use this same technique to create formative assessments. If your lesson-level learning outcome is “Students will be able to use a citator to determine if a case is still good law,” you can create an in-class exercise for students to use a citator on certain cases and analyze the treatment.

Additionally, lesson-level outcomes do not need to feed only into formative assessments; they can be part of summative assessments as well.  In the above two examples, including a question in a summative assessment on citators creates an opportunity to assess the more granular lesson level outcomes in a high stakes assessment, such as a final project.

Experiential Courses

A legal research course may qualify to be included in the law school’s experiential curriculum.  ABA Standard 303 governs experiential credit and states that an experiential course “must be primarily experiential in nature and must . . . (i) integrate doctrine, theory, skills, and legal ethics and engage students in the performance of one or more of the professional skills in Standard 302; (ii) develop the concepts underlying the skills being taught; (iii) provide multiple performance opportunities; and (iv) provide opportunities for self-evaluation.”[v]

An upper-level legal research course is an excellent opportunity to engage in experiential education.  New lawyers spend most of their time conducting legal research, so a firm simulation is a good fit. A law firm simulation course allows students to conduct research and writing exercises that mimic projects they would see in practice.  Students will also practice conducting ethical legal research for a client in this scenario.  An experiential research course will need to include the development, practice, and self-assessment of skills.

Students in any legal research course develop their skills in research as that is the specific skill being taught, and often legal research courses involve several writing assignments or practice assignments that satisfy the performance requirement.  For example, students can be tasked alone or in groups to research an evolving area of law or practice and draft a client alert, a brief news alert that a law firm might send to a client that describes a new or impactful area of law.

Self-assessment can be implemented in several different ways and is easy to place into a course.  Have students write a short reflection essay on their most recent project – what went well and what was difficult.  Another place to add in self-reflection is in the research log; students can reflect either at the end of the log or within the log on what research strategies worked well (or didn’t) and why.  Self-assessment is important because it allows the student to understand their own process and develop it to be more efficient over time.


Creating a legal course from scratch may seem like a daunting task, but it can be done. If you are proposing a course before the curriculum committee, give them enough documentation so that they understand what you are proposing and do not forget course learning outcomes. After a course has been approved, move into developing a syllabus that welcomes students to your class and lays out your expectations for their behavior and work.  Remember to include both formative and summative assessments throughout the semester so that you can gauge student learning in a low-stakes way before assessing for a grade.  Finally, if you are creating a legal research course for upper-level students, consider making it experiential.  Legal research courses are natural experiential environments, but remember to add in a self-assessment requirement.

Teaching Legal Research

There are a variety of situations in which librarians can teach legal research. This section will discuss opportunities and best practices for teaching in three different scenarios: teaching legal research in the classroom, teaching legal research workshops, and teaching during one-on-one student interactions. While the material conveyed to the student in each of these situations may be similar, how that material is presented will change based on the requirements of each scenario.

Teaching in Legal Research in the Classroom

All law colleges include legal research as part of their curriculum, whether part of a larger research and writing course or taught as a separate course. Many schools turn to their librarians to teach these courses as subject-matter experts. For more information about course design, see the Course Design section of this chapter. Once in the classroom, educators should avoid relying solely on a lecture to teach course materials to keep students actively involved and engaged. Mixing lectures with in-class exercises, group work, and reflections has been shown to increase student  When teaching research skills in class, it is best to tie in the exercises and group work to larger assignments that the students work on throughout the semester. This will create opportunities for formative feedback on the student’s research abilities and keep them invested in the exercises and lessons. Several repositories of in-class exercises are maintained by various organizations, including the American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) Academic Law Library Special Interest Section’s Sourcebook for Teaching Legal Research, the AALL Research Instruction & Patron Services Special Interest Section’s Annual Legal Research Teach-In Kit, and the LexisNexis First Year Legal Research & Writing Exercises Workbook.

There are also opportunities to teach legal research outside of a dedicated research class. Librarians will often be asked to serve as a guest lecturer or present to a seminar class to provide subject-specific research instruction. Because these sessions are often a smaller portion of the class, the presentation will be limited in time and scope. When planning for these guest lectures, it is a good idea to focus exercises and demonstrations on the assignments for that class to maximize the impact for students. For example, when presenting to a seminar class, ask the professor teaching the course for a list of the paper topics being researched by the students. When demonstrating the tools for the class, try to incorporate a variety of topics to keep students invested.

Students are increasingly used to accessing research and educational materials online, and so technology should be incorporated into class sessions and other coursework. Using guided, online research exercises in class will give students experience with internet legal research in a structured setting before they must do so independently for their assignments. These exercises can be completed individually or in small groups. Allow students an appropriate amount of time during class to complete the exercise, then review each question with the class discussing why answers are correct or incorrect. Additionally, librarians can utilize online research instruction modules from vendors such as the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), Lexis, and Westlaw for additional exercises outside of class.

Teaching Legal Research Workshops

Many law libraries provide legal research workshops as part of their instructional offerings. These occur outside of law courses and are typically narrower in scope. Oftentimes, libraries will tailor their workshops to focus on how students utilize their legal research skills as part of their summer employment or full-time attorney work after graduation. This reinforces that research skills are important for students even after they graduate and gives the library a chance to reconnect with second-and third-year students who may not otherwise receive additional research instruction. As an additional incentive, some libraries have created digital badges for their workshop series that are awarded to students who attend a certain number in the series.vii

Generally, workshops are taught in 30-60-minute sessions, which means it is difficult to complete a research course’s full range of exercises. To compensate for this, librarians can provide handouts and review exercises for students to reference after completing the workshops.

One-on-One Teaching Opportunities

Some of the most effective legal research instruction occurs in one-on-one interactions like a reference interview or research consultation. These situations allow the librarian to provide individualized feedback and advice, which is difficult to do in a classroom or time-limited workshop. These meetings between a librarian and student present an opportunity for both participants to discuss the legal research process in a way that directly relates to the student’s needs, which will make the experience much more meaningful for both parties.

Some research and seminar courses require periodic research conferences scheduled with librarians to ensure students are on the right track. Students should come to these conferences ready to discuss their steps and what issues they have encountered. If the conferences are part of a course exercise, the librarian may send out a self-reflection questionnaire to the student before the meeting. This questionnaire allows the student to engage in a self-critique beforehand and provides an agenda for the conference.ix

When participating in one of these conferences, it is important to have the student reflect on what they did correctly and where they struggled. Focusing on what the student has done establishes a positive tone to the meeting and builds their confidence in the future. When addressing challenges, always keep a constructive attitude and show the students how they can improve and the impact that will have on their work.

Impromptu reference requests also present an opportunity for librarians to teach legal research skills. As with the research conferences, a reference interaction with a student creates an opportunity for self-reflection and finding the path to the correct answer.


After hitting a wall, a stressed 3L student reached out to the reference librarian despite finding their initial few sources for their seminar paper. First, the librarian asks the student to describe what steps they have already taken in their research, listening attentively and noting any good habits. After discussing what the student has already done, the librarian discusses new approaches to further their research. While reviewing the research, the librarian notices a source that is frequently cited in multiple of the student’s sources that the student did not provide.

Rather than simply point out the missing source and stating that the student should have recognized its importance, the librarian takes this opportunity to teach the student about reviewing footnotes in scholarly work and how this will help them to expand their research. The librarian demonstrates how to effectively find this document using the library databases, providing a concrete example of how the student can utilize the sources they have already found to discover additional scholarship. After the meeting, the librarian offers future assistance to the student and sends a follow-up message recapping the meeting and providing links to the resources discussed.


Law librarians are given the opportunity to teach legal research skills in many different settings, including classrooms, workshops, and one-on-one meetings. Though the skills being taught in each of these circumstances are similar, the methods used to teach them will vary. Classroom teaching allows librarians to utilize in-class exercises that build upon each other and tie into larger class projects. Librarians can utilize workshops to teach legal research to students that are not currently taking a research-focused course. Finally, one-on-one meetings and reference consultations allow the librarian to work directly with a student and provide individualized feedback on research they have already performed. By recognizing the opportunities and limitations of each of these teaching situations, librarians can increase the effectiveness of their instruction and improve student outcomes.

Teaching Legal Technology

Design a Legal Technology Course

It is becoming more common for law librarians to teach legal technology. Librarians must carefully prepare legal technology courses to effectively teach students concepts and skills of legal technology to achieve the goals of the curriculum.

Getting a legal technology course approved by law school is a prerequisite for course design. The course proposal will also set the basic framework for a legal technology course since this proposal normally includes a course outline and justifications. In the course outline section, a law librarian needs to describe the central course content and the major topics covered. A law librarian may have to make more efforts to justify the legal technology course as a new course. The justification section will be closely related to the course design because a law librarian must clearly state course learning outcomes, evaluation methods, the relationship of course to student legal education, which eventually convince the law school to approve this course. Some other common arguments include the ABA technology competence requirement and benefiting student legal career.

Learning outcomes lay the foundation for the whole course design, which decides course format, evaluation method, and topics to be covered. Some classic learning outcomes for a legal technology course include recognizing and identifying legal technology relevant to legal work in law practice; demonstrating a basic understanding of existing legal technological tools and willingness to try new legal technology; appreciating the ethical duty as a legal profession; evaluating legal technology and apply that technology to law practice.

Teaching topics of legal technology broadly covers six categories: cloud computing, data confidentiality and security, document automation, practice management tool, marketing technology, virtual/remote law practice. Although teaching topics may change as the legal industry changes, the legal technology covered in the course should be directly related to the law practice as much as possible. Some good resources may help law librarians gain insight into emerging legal technology, including ABA TechReport and law technology newsletters (i.e., ABA or Law360). AALL community is also a good place for law librarians to exchange their wisdom of topics in legal technology courses.

Legal technology courses typically fall into the “experiential learning” category defined in ABA Standards 303 and 304, so its teaching methodology is similar to legal research courses. After law librarians give students lectures and live demonstrations of technology, students will perform and practice legal technology in-class hands-on simulated legal exercises. Then law librarians will give students a demo for the exercise and give feedback on students’ simulated use of technology. Students will also receive similar simulated assignments to enhance their learning experiences on a legal technology topic after each session. They will usually receive a final project or a research paper which requires students to apply multiple legal technologies. In addition to law librarians’ feedback, students’ self-assessment is often part of assignments and final projects.

Why Law Librarians Teach Legal Technology

Teaching law students legal technology is a real need for law schools. Law schools gradually find they used to assume that graduates would be trained in legal technology by law firms after they join the firms, but it turns out firms also assume that new associates should have received basic legal technology training from law school. On the other side, law students must understand the ethical obligation of technological competence because the lawyers have an ethical duty of technology competence required by ABA. Students should be able to practically use, develop, and evaluate legal technology to enhance their legal careers. If a law school wants students to be more competitive in the workplace, this law school needs to ensure that students have received the necessary training in legal technology in law school.

Even though current law students are savvier with technology than they were twenty years ago, it does not mean they will spontaneously explore legal technology. Someone in the law school must step out to provide the training to students. Law librarians are the most suitable group in a law school to play the role of legal technology training provider.

Law professors, who normally offer doctrinal courses, do not specialize in skill-focus courses. Law professors and other clinic professors who need students to use legal technology in coursework may not teach them systematically, or they will ask students to seek help from a librarian. Also, some professors are not good at using basic technology (even Word or PowerPoint slides). Law school IT may have a specialty in IT (operation system and data security), but they are not experts of law-related technology, especially law firm management tools and document automation tools. Law school IT does not have an instructional duty; it is unreasonable to expect an IT staff to develop a legal technology course.

Law librarians, by evaluating and trying out new products offered by vendors and acting as legal technology resources for law schools, have always been at the forefront of legal technology in law schools. The common format of legal technology courses is similar to legal research courses taught by law librarians. Both highlight students’ ability to apply practical skills to problems that lawyers will encounter in the real world. Therefore, law librarians, who already have instruction responsibilities, can apply a similar teaching methodology from legal research courses to legal technology courses.

Approaches to Teaching Legal Technology

Since legal technology is so important, how exactly do law librarians teach law students? There are five main approaches: CLE class, for-credit class, workshop, clinic, co-teaching law & technology course. Of course, the methods and content are different in each case.

CLE is continuing legal education for attorneys. As part of the state ABA requirements, mostly practicing attorneys are required for annual CLE credits, which effectively ensures their professional development. Legal technology is a major component of CLE. Many law school libraries offer CLE to practicing attorneys, and some libraries allow students to participate in such a course. Generally, a law school or a law school library that sponsors this CLE program will apply for accreditation to the state board or commission. The brochure mailed by the law school or the law library details program CLE hours, contents, instructors, location, and time of the program. The course is usually particular to the best practice of particular software or concept, where law librarians present the course, and the attorney keeps a class attendance record to satisfy the CLE credit requirement. The teaching format is similar to the legal technology course to students in terms of components of lectures and demos. However, the topics in a legal technology CLE are more focused on practical matters, which attorneys can apply directly to benefit their practice.

For-credit class is usually a one-credit course that covers the best practice of basic computer skills (e.g., automatically creating a table of contents, setting page numbers from the second page of a document, automatically creating a table of authority). Such a course is very much like learning integrated training software (e.g., Procertas). The course may include Adobe, Microsoft Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, Word, Windows 10, Clio, Live Note, Nuance Power PDF, Worlddox. The basic method of instruction is the extensive demonstration, along with in-class student exercises and assignments, culminating in a final project in which the student uses multiple technologies to reformat a poorly formatted document to meet the legal profession standards.

Workshops are mainly in the form of brown bags where librarians provide a technology demonstration for the students. Law librarians also provide the students with handouts for future reference. Some librarians will also invite local lawyers to provide first-hand experiences to help illustrate legal technology applications to students, in addition to sending out promotional emails and creating posters. Some librarians also invite vendors to do presentations. Of course, many librarians will offer lunch or donuts to attract students. Some schools offer legal technology certification to students. When students meet a certain standard by attending several workshops and working through assignments, they are awarded a legal technology certification endorsed by the law library. Workshops are highly flexible, so students can choose what fits into their schedule or what topics interest them.

Some schools offer legal clinic programs where a clinic professor instructs students to use legal technology to deal with a real case. Most of the time, the technology used in such clinics includes an electronic discovery system, litigation analysis system, or a firm management system. Librarians are not involved in the entire clinic education but rather provide training to the students in the use of legal technology.


Law librarians can provide legal technology training to students when law firms increasingly apply legal technology for practice assistance. Although there are different teaching methods and content coverage, teaching legal technology aims to ensure students practice more effectively in this digital age.

  • James M. Lang, “How to Tech a Good First Day of Class,” Chronicle of Higher Education,
  • Vernellia R. Randall, “Increasing Retention and Improving Performance: Practical Advice on Using Cooperative Learning in Law Schools,” Thomas M. Cooley Law Review 16, no. 2 (1999): 201-278.
  • Alyson M. Drake, “On Embracing the Research Conference,” Law Library Journal 111, no. 1 (Winter 2019): 7-30.


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Introduction to Law Librarianship Copyright © 2021 by Dustin Johnston-Green; Rebecca A. Mattson; and Dajiang Nie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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