In the ring

By Gloria Song October - November 2012

Does digital research beat the traditional approach? It depends.

In the ring

When digital and traditional research go head to head there is no clear winner. — a combination of the two is what works best. A comparison of the pitfalls, pros, and cons of each research method shows us why.


One of the most popular features about digital research is the speed with which research can be done. Every lawyer knows how much easier it is to hit Ctrl F than to read and flip physical pages. “When you have a unique concept or keyword, then searching electronically can cut through everything to get the answer in seconds,” notes Karen Sawatzky, a librarian for the Winnipeg firm Tapper Cuddy LLP.

One can’t forget about the Ctrl C and Ctrl V function either. “Lawyers can also save time by not having to retype things; they can just copy the relevant wording,” comments Susannah Tredwell, library manager at Lawson Lundell LLP.

However, digital research only wins over print research if you are using the right search words. If search terms are not precise, one may run the risk of getting swamped with too many irrelevant results. While electronic searches usually use keywords, browsing is easier for print. “Browsing is a surreptious way to actually find what you’re looking for, especially if you’re not sure what you’re doing,” says Sawatzky. “If you’re not sure of the keywords to use, then using electronic sources no longer become faster.”


Generally, traditional print research must be conducted at a law library. Electronic searches, however, can be conducted from virtually any location offering a Wi-Fi connection, as criminal lawyer Yossi Schochet notes, and at any time, even while wearing pajamas and nursing a brew in the middle of the night. “I have had lawyers email me from the ferry saying, ‘I’m just looking at X, but I need Y,’ and I can send it to them immediately,” says Tredwell. “Even something as simple as having a scanner means we can email a copy of the three key pages of a book that the lawyer needs to consult.”


Even if digital research beats print in terms of location, print still can have an advantage for certain types of content. Mark Pioro, a health law researcher at Osgoode Hall Law School, notes that analyzing legislative history generally requires consulting hard copies of statutes. Court librarian Michel-Adrien Sheppard agrees. “Not all legal material has been digitized,” he observes. “Really recent materials exist in digital format. And projects such as Early Canadiana Online have created digital collections of older parliamentary or official publications. The stuff in the middle period, let’s say between 1920 and 1985, is print-only.”

Access and cost

With more and more case law becoming available on the internet, digital research is often perceived as being superior, allowing legal research to be universally accessible by anyone. In reality, of course, there still often is a cost, especially for commercial publishers, which require licences to use their products. “Authorized users, in other words, employees of the law firm or students at the law faculty, may have access to the databases,” comments Sheppard, “but the licences may now forbid access to walk-in or external customers or forbid inter-library loans, unless the library negotiates walk-in access, for an extra fee of course.”

Sheppard points out that the problem with the free services offering raw decisions and legislation online is that many of these sites do not provide value-added information required by legal researchers, such as whether a particular case has been supported or overturned by subsequent case law.

Despite this, Tredwell notes that many publishers and universities allow users to search the full text of their databases for free, in order to identify possibly relevant materials, even if they will still charge for access to the full article. Still, the cost of electronic resources is certainly a factor that cannot be ignored. “They can be really expensive, and once you start subscribing to them, it can be difficult to stop subscribing,” she explains. “The majority of electronic resources are ‘rented’ rather than owned, so if you stop subscribing, you are left with nothing. In contrast, even though print materials may not be up-to-date, you still have something to refer to.”

Tredwell concludes that the best approach to legal research is to use both. “There are very few areas in which legal research can be done purely using just electronic resources; if a researcher assumes that they don’t need to use print resources, they are going to miss a lot of valuable information.”

...Useful Resources

Slaw (collaborative blog):

Best Guide to Legal Research, by Catherine Best (website):

Law Society libraries: “They often have incredible resources tailored to local needs in their jurisdiction,” notes court librarian Michel-Adrien Sheppard. “For example, I know of some sites that contain databases of legal questions and answers based on real-life inquiries from practising lawyers. I always say: why reinvent the wheel? Maybe someone out there has already researched your question.”

“Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live”
by Jeff Jarvis (book)

“Legal Information Specialists: A Guide to Launching and Building Your Career”
by Annette L. Demers (book)

Gloria Song is an Ottawa-based research lawyer and freelance journalist.
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