Legal Researchers in the Year 2020 . . .

A number of discussions arose at a meeting with colleagues today on the future of law firm legal researchers given changes in technology. It was hard enough twenty years ago (when I was still typing my law school papers) to imagine the impact of the Internet, the scope of online law-related information and other technologies that support legal research (e-mail, laser printing, scanning, etc.) [although twenty years ago I did have a Commodore computer that used a cassette tape deck as its memory – you had to fast forward the tape to get to different spots on the memory!.] Could it be that twenty years from now there will be automated bots that will retrieve relevant information, analyze the information for relevancy and prepare a draft research memo? Will will be able to simply speak to our computer saying “I need info on the grounds by which Ontario courts will order security for costs against a non-resident plaintiff” and the computer will provide the info? This technology does not seem that far off . . . .

In addition, we are increasingly seeing the digitization of law-related materials that were traditionally print-based, including law journals (HeinOnline), some textbooks (on Quicklaw, on WestlaweCARSWELL, on Canada Law Book, etc.), encyclopedias (the CED’s on WestlaweCARSWELL and Halsbury’s Online) and case law. Services like LLMC Digital are also digitzing older, historical Canadian material – see their list of Canadian titles being digitized.

Most colleagues felt, though, that the value that legal researchers provide through their insights, experience and analysis cannot be replaced by technology and that there still is a role for legal researchers to play in the future.

A few themes of our discussion were focused on the following issues:

  • Role of the researcher lawyer: Will large law firms replace their existing research lawyers when they retire? Should firm research lawyers market their services outside of the law firm (e.g., to other lawyers)? On a different point, research lawyers provide valuable services to their firm and reduce the risk of the firm being negligent or mistaken in their advice – how can firms better “value bill” their research lawyers (instead of billing them by the hour which sometimes results in those hours being reduced on the client’s bill)?
  • Contracting out: An earlier post on SLAW referred to the impact of offshore legal research services being provided in India at a fraction of the cost of legal research services in North America. Is this a real threat? Is there a market in Canada for freelance researchers (based in Canada or elsewhere)?
  • Relationship between KM and LRW: In Toronto, many if not most of the larger firms that have legal research lawyers also have separate departments that are responsible for knowledge management (KM) (in other words, the functions are separated). Will there be a movement for knowledge management and legal research to better coordinate or align their efforts? For many firms, KM is largely seen as document management and the organization of firm precedents and standard form agreements and checklists where delving into the KM repository results in documents but not necessarily the analysis required through legal research for a particular issue. Shouldn’t KM people be talking more closely with the legal researchers?

    For additional materials, see:

    Mark Gannage, “The Roles of Research Lawyers in Private Practice in Canada” (2001) 24 Advocates’ Q. 202.

    Stephen A. Thiele, “The Costs of Legal Research: Changing Attitudes in the Profession” (2004) 29 Advocates’ Q. 324.

  • Comments

    1. Related to Ted’s “contracting out” topic and, tangentially, to the “role of the research lawyer” topic, you may be interested to read an article in the current Canadian Lawyer mag, which I received today. The article is called “Associates On-Call” and it appears on p. 16 of the November/December issue. Some of the contract/freelance firms mentioned at yesterday’s meeting are represented in the article – Bottom Line, On Point, Taran Virtual Associates. There is also discussion about using offshore services, whether for research or otherwise, the ease with which this can be done given current technology,and some of the drawbacks that firms perceive when retaining or contemplating retaining offshore research services.

      Also timely in the context of Ted’s summary of points raised in yesterday’s meeting is the concern expressed by some in the article about quality control if offshore research services are used. Without intending to equate Indian-trained lawyers with bots in respect of Canadian legal research, I found the article to offer something of a parallel to the discussion about the experience and insight to be offered by research lawyers, e.g. in this quote:

      “Others feel that while there may be advantages to having basic back-office tasks done by properly trained workers overseas, it’s another matter entirely to outsource sensitive or complex work to people they will never meet, even if those people are fully trained lawyers.”

    2. Thank you for the summary, Ted. A very interesting discussion indeed. I was surprised when I recently asked around some of the firms as to what the KM Managers are doing in their day to day work that it is mostly working with precedents and other documents. I was interested since we do not have a KM Manager, and wanted to know how this type of position has developed. I would have thought there would be more tie-in with the research aspect, and would think it appropriate that the two aspects move closer together.


    3. Ted, I had no idea that KM and LRW were such separate streams in practice. This makes no sense at all, of course. It’d be interesting if Slaw could look into this — the relation between knowledge management and legal research within Canadian law firms. If we didn’t make the project too large, it might be do-able and raise some interesting issues. We might pick three cities, two law firms in each, and do a brief analysis of what each does for KM and LR, and how the two relate or are integrated within the firm. It might lead to a couple of tentative models of “typical” behaviour, which we could then discuss in a “symposium” place within Slaw.