We learned this morning of the death of Professor Hugh Lawford, a legend in Canadian legal information. He will be mourned by many students who studied with him at Queen’s University Law School, and his passing should be noted by every Canadian lawyer, because Hugh and his colleagues revolutionized how law is practiced.
QUIC/LAW which became QL Systems which became Quicklaw merged its identity into LexisNexis. But anyone who encountered Hugh from the pioneering days of the late Sixties to his retirement in 2004 will have been struck by his vision, his tenacity and his commitment to making legal information more accessible. Dick von Briesen was QL’s king of code, and Keith Latta contributed many ideas in the early stages, but Hugh was the public face.
I first met him in 1977 at a Canadian Law Information Council board meeting – we often sparred on the extent of public / government involvement in electronic publishing. Hugh’s passion was fueled by his experience in seeing the early funders of the Queen’s project withdraw just at the point where he believed it showed real promise. QL stemmed from an experiment to prepare a computerized version of Canada’s treaties. It attracted initial funding from the government of Canada, from Queen’s University and from IBM – the amount was a staggering $2.5 million (almost $14 million current dollars). When the tap ran dry, Hugh and Dick stepped up and put their own hard-earned money behind their dreams. They were convinced that this was the future, when the government, academic and IBM gurus were all convinced that computerized legal research was a pipe-dream.
Our friend Jon Bing in Oslo summarized the origins:
Since 1961, Queen’s University, Kingston, has been engaged in a Treaty Project, collecting and annotating all of the treaties of the British Commonwealth. About 18 000 (1970) detailed treaty records have been prepared. Since 1967 computerized text-editing has been used to add information from these records. The Treaty Project has become a major activity, as treaty registers for a number of developing countries were prepared from these records – cfr. Lawford, HJ (1968) “The use of computing for editing and searching of treaty records”; in Johnston, David (1968) Computers and the Law, Conference Proceedings; Kingston. 98-103., Keith Latta & Richard von Briesen, The QUIC/LAW System of Editing and Retrieving Legal Documents (Kingston, Ont.: Queen’s University, 1970):3, Tapper, Colin (1973) Computers and the Law London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson:279-80.
The enthusiasm of Professor Hugh Lawford was a moving force behind the Treaty Project. In 1968 he initiated another project to become known as QUIC/LAW – acronym for “Queen’s University Institute for Computing and Law”. Following an exchange of letters in late 1968, IBM Canada and Queen’s University launched a study of potential applications of computer-based systems for legal information retrieval.
Hugh was indefatigable in his pursuit of content for his system. He would talk to any group of judges, and more importantly judges’ secretaries who were then gatekeepers to the law. Hugh had nothing to offer them but his enthusiasm and discounted access to his service. Court by court, province by province, sector by sector he built the largest Canadian legal information service.
If he could secure funding for a service that was only marginally connected to the law, no matter, it went in – that’s why Mel Hurtig’s Canadian Encyclopedia went in. If the Feds, or CLIC or a province or a Law Foundation had funding, he would happily take it. Hugh’s charm was winning.
From Professor Lawford came the genius of offering free access to law students thereby ensuring new generations of loyal customers. Law librarians in firms thereafter had to re-educate those students when they became lawyers that the free service now cost clients and firms sums that could easily add up.
In today’s age where all information is produced digitally, it is easy to overlook the problems faced by the pioneers who were literally wading through thousands of pages of print, using primitive conversion and temperamental recognition programmes. The search engines we take for granted build upon the innovations of pioneers like Dick and Hugh.
Since the von Briesen / Lawford retrieval system worked, American businesses beat a path to Kingston where in the student quarter near the campus, where QL had its offices. West Publishing licensed the software and built upon it the Westlaw service. American newspapers also deployed software designed for Canadian law.
His friends were amazed that Hugh kept on going. Lesser souls would have simply given up. Yes, Hugh could be frustrating and his tenacity could be seen as bull-headedness; but when you think of what it took to keep the enterprise afloat and meet the payroll for his dedicated team of employees you could easily forgive him.
Only when the Domtar pension plan made a substantial equity investment was QL really on a sound financial footing. By that time QL was well established and judges no longer tut-tutted when faced with a CJ printout.
QL’s content made it a prize to be sought. I recall entertaining friends from Eagan and other US publishers who wondered whether an offer might be made for the company. While Westlaw came courting, LexisNexis won the prize. Hugh’s small company built on a dream and sweat made him finally a wealthy man. But he scarcely had time to enjoy it.
Hugh Lawford received many honours. A Rhodes Scholarship. Professorships and in time an Emeritus Professorship from the Law School where he worked all his life. The Law Society Medal from the Law Society of Upper Canada. Alumni awards from both Alberta and Queen’s. But I think the award that meant most to him was the Canadian Association of Law Librarians award for excellence in legal publishing, which he won in 2000. In 2005 the award was renamed the Hugh Lawford Award for Excellence in Legal Publishing to honour Hugh for his contributions to the Canadian law library community. Slaw was the last winner of the award to receive it in Hugh’s lifetime.
We last met at a wine tasting in a garden near Niagara on the Lake after the CALL Conference in 2003. Hugh was in fine form intellectually, though he had aged significantly and we discussed his new role at LexisNexis following the sale. He was as proud as any grandfather of his legacy. He had helped to democratize legal information and had fun along the way.
A memorial service will be held in Kingston in September.
Feel free to tell us your memories of Hugh and QL. Slaw will be passing on tributes to Hugh’s widow Lillian and the family. They’ve asked that friends make donations to charities benefiting Parkinson’s Disease in lieu of flowers.