Legal research in the digital age

By Gloria Song October - November 2012

Why there is still a role for the law library.

Legal research in the digital age Zack Blanton / istockphoto

Gone are the days of browsing the card catalogue in the law library, pulling down books and flipping through court reports and textbooks to write down or photocopy pertinent information. Nowadays lawyers search online for the information they need, copying and pasting relevant cases and provisions with a mere click of the mouse.

Still, the rise of the internet and the availability of electronic resources have not made the traditional law library obsolete, say law librarians. “Law libraries have always been user-focused,” says Karen Sawatzky, librarian for the Winnipeg firm Tapper Cuddy LLP, “so whether the services requested are in print format or electronic, that hasn’t changed - we help the user find what he/she’s looking for.”

"The main change that seems to have occurred is a shift in how law libraries provide services to their users."

Instead, the main change that seems to have occurred is a shift in how law libraries provide services to their users. One of those services includes training lawyers in the use of electronic sources and familiarizing them with all their options. “They often have developed a fondness for one specific platform to which they return for all their research, even though another site or platform may be better suited,” says Michel-Adrien Sheppard, a court librarian based in Ottawa. “So part of our job is to draw attention to the full range of sources available for research and to try to guide users through this jungle of sources and formats.” Susannah Tredwell, the Vancouver-based library manager for Lawson Lundell LLP, notes that such training has now become an important part of her job. In particular, she says, law students and young lawyers need to be trained to research efficiently now that they no longer have the free access to the databases they had while in law school.

So what is the future direction of legal research? Toronto-based research lawyer Matthew Oleynik wants the business model for legal resources to continue to change toward a trend that unlocks more information and works more creatively with it. “The old business model seemed to be to gather a large pile of content inside a wall and then charge an entry fee at the gate. Now that more jurisdictions are putting their legislation and regulations online, and the LII projects are doing the same for case law, you can’t expect lawyers to pay just for access.”

Already the legal world is starting to witness a new approach to searching. Oleynik runs a project called Rangefindr.ca, a research tool to help criminal lawyers find sentencing precedents. While other already popular research databases employ a traditional text-based search, with a user typing in keywords, on Rangefindr a user will search for cases by checking off “tags” that describe his or her case, such as “assault” or “remorse.” The database will then retrieve all the cases that match the search criteria.  The difference between the two approaches is that typing in keywords such as “guilty plea at the last minute” could cause the user to miss relevant cases that may use other phrases, such as “eleventh hour” or “on the eve of trial.” This new form of searching overcomes some of the shortcomings that currently challenge users engaging in digital research.

“I think the future of legal research tools is going to be tools like Range­finder.ca that saves lawyers’ time by sifting through the legal information and automatically organizing it into a more useful form,” predicts Oleynik. “Thin, narrow-purpose tools that do one thing quickly and accurately are going to replace the large, general-purpose tools that try to do everything but end up excelling at nothing.”

Other research lawyers echo Oleynik’s sentiment. “I dream of one day soon seeing future websites that further help defence counsel,” says Yossi Schochet, a Toronto criminal lawyer. “For example, a website that addresses the granting of bail on particular offences, while considering particular circumstances of offenders.”

But no matter how legal research continues to evolve in the digital age, Sawatzky is firmly convinced that the same basic underlying principles of research will continue to apply. “The more things change, the more they stay the same. Resources are migrating to electronic platforms, but the method is the same — determine the question, find the authority, and note it up.”

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