Lawyers Need Law Society Libraries

I was writing a comment in response to Melanie Bueckert who pointed out that Manitoba is reviewing their law society library services, much like Nova Scotia when I realized the comment was longer than my usual Slaw post. I hope that Slaw readers will indulge me with their attention to issues facing law society libraries, especially in less populated jurisdictions.

Let me preface this post/comment by sharing that I have never worked in a law society library. As a law firm librarian, I rely on law society libraries, locally and in other jurisdictions, their services and collections, to supplement and augment what my team and I provide to our lawyers.

Melanie, Thank you for pointing to the Manitoba situation. I found portions of the linked document disturbing:

The major agenda item was a discussion about the way lawyers do research and the impact of that on how we will provide library resources in the future. We started by talking about why we are in the library business at all. The basic conclusion was that libraries are a tool to enhance lawyer competence which is part of the mandate of the Law Society. We talked about what has changed since Benchers last looked a libraries (2003) and, in particular, at the amazing progress of CanLII, the Law Society-owned virtual library. CanLII is hugely important in this discussion. Not because it is free, or because it holds a huge collection of cases (over one million), or because it has all Canadian statutes with point-in-time searching, or even because it has a powerful search engine.

It is unique and special because we own it. While there are many excellent commercial on-line research products, the most popular ones all have a major flaw. They are owned by American parents and the Canadian product will continue only as long as they feel it is commercially viable. When you buy books you own them. If it is a series like, say the Canadian Criminal Cases, and the publisher stops publishing the books, at least you own the books you already have. If, however, an on-line publisher goes out of business, you have been essentially “renting” the service and the day it shuts down you have absolutely nothing.

Because we own CanLII, we know it is a secure collection and that, Benchers agreed, is very liberating. It enabled us to explore library services in a whole new way.

Benchers noted that in today’s environment, paper libraries are not much utilized. We have already closed the libraries in Brandon, Dauphin and The Pas. We already provide free on-line access for lawyers practising outside of Winnipeg to Carswell’s LawSource in addition to CanLII. Thanks to the hard work of LDRC, the Winnipeg court house is already WiFi equipped. As the discussion continued, a vision for the future of libraries emerged. It looked something like this:

1. Continue to enthusiastically support CanLII and offer training to assist lawyers to take advantage of its amazing potential;
2. Over time, stop maintaining our paper collection;
3. Keep the historic collections and some texts and up-to-date technology in our libraries;
4. Train people on other free on-line research tools that are available;
5. Continue to provide free access for out-of-Winnipeg lawyers to LawSource as long as it is required to ensure access to adequate research materials.

Over the next few months we will be developing a business plan to implement this vision.”

I LOVE CanLII. It should absolutly be fervently supported by the bar and bench in Canada. As this document states, it is OURS.

CanLII + free online research tools do not and cannot make for a competent complete, reasoned, and effective path to answer a legal research. Law society libraries could decide to discontinue purchasing print reports and statutes in favour of CanLII, but that is no more than a potentially useful cost saving collection development measure.

Would anyone suggest that free internet sources could replace their favourite text? Closing law society libraries, or reducing them to ineffectiveness through budget restraints, will put more money into the pockets of legal publishers as individual lawyers are forced to grow their individual collections. This in turn will increase the cost of legal services to the population.

Why would you hire a lawyer if you could answer your own question with CanLII and Google. Richard Susskind, do you have any comments???


  1. I agree with you completely, Shaunna. And I have to say, as a researcher, that I don’t find CanLii overly impressive. There are cases I simply cannot find there and I often find myself alternating back and forth between CanLii and QuickLaw when trying to access a particular case. Sometimes one has it, sometimes the other. And we’re not talking about ancient caselaw either.

    No, neither CanLii nor any other online service is going to be able to replace a library. Which leads me to wonder … where will the law firms be sending their new articled clerks off to in in the future? A computer in the back of the Library (if they are large enough to have their own Library)? Good luck with that … that will totally do the trick. NOT.

  2. I wonder if the title to this post should be “Lawyers need Law Society Librarians”. Having the expertise available seems more important to me than a bricks-and-mortar place. (Of course, I don’t work in a small firm, so physical space may yet be an essential characteristic of good service).

    I’d love to hear from readers in smaller organizations.