Pulled in Both Directions

I thoroughly enjoyed attending this year’s CALL conference in Moncton. It was especially interesting to see and hear about some of the new products and services developed by the English legal publishers.

The Incorporated Council of Law Reporting (“ICLR”) is a non-profit that publishes the official law reports for England. For reported decisions, they include links not only to the cases cited, but also to cases cited in the argument.

Justis is an English publisher of unreported judgments; their product Justcite has a fantastic new feature that shows the treatment of cases: a circular visualization of the interrelationship of case law.

As much as these sophisticated new features impressed me, I couldn’t help but think: who can afford this level of legal research? Clearly, there are some mega-cases where the amounts involved will support deep-dive research. Some firms may do enough of this kind of work to justify the cost. But can parties to a typical action afford the research fees that will surely accompany the use of these tools?

I got the impression that these new features are not for saving time but for doing more, and I wonder about the utility of products that just make life more complicated.

I’m concerned that these products developed will probably only be used in cases where large amounts of money are at stake, while most actions or matters cannot possibly support that depth of research.

Will this level of research become the norm? Will the standard of practice be raised to a level that can’t be supported by the economics of most law firms?

Countervailing forces (for example, the common use of Google as a first stop for all kinds of research) pull us away from deep-dive research. I keep hearing about the legal research habits of law students and newer lawyers: they start with Google and often go no further.

Some librarians also report that the lawyers with whom they work seem to want just one good case; that is, something they can start a discussion or negotiation with; something that sets out the relevant law.

Meanwhile, we constantly hear about our access to justice problem. I wrote about this issue four years ago, and I don’t think the situation has improved.

The complexity of law and legal information is an access to justice issue. Many more citizens would have a better experience with the justice system if the law itself could be more easily understood. If the law itself was more easily understood, it may be easier to identify the true issues at the bottom of disputes (money, broken hearts, etc.).

We know that trials are taking longer, and litigation is getting much more expensive. I worry that deep-dive research tools encourage the no-stone-left-unturned approach to litigation. In other words, they add complexity (more issues, more rabbit holes to follow) that is probably not needed.

What does this mean for the development of legal resources? What is the sweet spot? We need to develop tools that can handle deep research as well as tools that meet the need for just one good case or answer. We need to develop better tools to determine relevance.

One possibility is to develop resources in layers: from a checklist of a process (providing a quick answer), to a secondary source with explanation of the process, to deeper discussion of the primary law (for example, what are the trends in the cases? where is the law heading?).

I see many exciting opportunities ahead to design new information products and services to meet the emerging needs of the profession.


  1. I appreciate your comments about the complexity of law and legal information being an access issue. As a law librarian I regularly encounter self represented litigants way out of their depth. It raises important ethical issues about the nature of laws that exceed the ability of the average citizen to navigate. Placing responsibility on the profession and publishers to make law more accessible puts them in a conflict of interest; they benefit to a measure when the law is complex. What would new non-lawyer research options look like? Who should be tasked to develop them?

  2. Many thanks Susan for this excellent article. I was especially pleased to read it for its relevance and, for me, timing. After hearing the views and concerns of delegates at the CALL conference, there was much to think about, hence but it lead me to ponder more on questions of quality. In consequence I am presently drafting a Slaw column entitled “Quality in Legal and Professional Publishing”. What your article confirms in my mind is that the output of any publisher should be of optimum and appropriate character for intended markets. I believe that both JUSTIS and ICLR do remarkable jobs in their respective ways but it’s a question of “horses for courses”. The more a law publisher understand its markets the more it can deliver the right content and tools in the right way. This should be obvious but sometimes is not.

  3. An excellent and perceptive column, Susan, which nicely makes the connection between access to legal information and access to justice. The dilemma applies not only to the untutored self litigant but equally to the practitioner in a small or solo practice who doesn’t have access to the resources of a large law firm library. And at the law schools, where we have free access to Lexis and Westlaw, I often question whether we are teaching our students how to research the law effectively as part of the legal reasoning process, or are we training them to be better Westlaw consumers?

    Twenty years ago, none of the phenomenal legal research resources now available to those who can afford them even existed. Does this mean that the law practised then was bad law? Was the law badly argued or clients badly served? Is the practice of law more efficient or less costly now that we — or some of us — have access to these products? How much do legal publishers encourage the profession’s native insecurity by developing products built on the presumption that the law is so sophisticated and complex that “one good case” can’t ever be good enough? Is anyone working to develop a product that will make legal research easier or make the law easier to understand?

  4. It seems that the emphasis for legal resources and legal publishing, and perhaps in legal education as well, is on “search” rather than “research”, this may of course be a result of the predominant use of the database as the primary tool for “research”. Does e-research entail the same processes and understanding as would be required for “paper” research? Is there a need to incorporate the processes and steps of paper research into an algorithm to create a better search experience?

    Here is a link to an excellent post differentiating the two: .

  5. Here’s the link: