CanLII has a new friend. Its name is Lexbox.
It’s a product from Lexum — the Montreal-based company responsible for the undergirding technology of CanLII — which first emailed me and a clutch of other legal research types back in late March with an invite to help test the experimental tool when it was still in a closed beta phase.
We were told then that the aim of Lexbox (and you can read a lot more about it here) is to simplify how lawyers store, monitor and share online legal information. Having kicked the tires over the past few months, I’ll get into its features in just a moment. If you want to skip my overview and see it for yourself, Lexum announced last week that it is now in an open beta mode, meaning you can try it out for yourself by signing up here (www.myLexbox.com).
Not surprisingly, ground zero for Lexbox is CanLII itself—a natural choice given Lexum’s obvious familiarity with CanLII’s technical wiring, and also given CanLII is now the anointed favourite among Canadian lawyers. As a profession we not only paid for the site’s development through practice fees but, with sober thrift-mindedness, also tightly embraced its use. Statistical support for this was demonstrated in the 2012 survey which showed CanLII ranks above all other sources in frequency of use, and at the time with usage dramatically on the rise since 2011. While only God or Colin Lachance knows how much more popular CanLII has become three years hence, our own organization’s research into CanLII and other tools (I work for Courthouse Libraries BC) shows that lawyers are both familiar and enduringly curious when it comes to CanLII:
- 80% identified as “quite familiar” or “experts” at using CanLII — compared to less than 50% and less than 30% for Quicklaw and WestlawNext respectively.
- Notwithstanding their confidence with CanLII, over 40% of BC lawyers remained “very interested” in receiving further training on CanLII’s — compared to less than 30% and less than 25% for Quicklaw and WestlawNext respectively.
CanLII has always impressed me with its speed, friendly design, efficiency and simplicity. It’s lack of doodads and in-your-face options makes it wonderfully simple for research newbies to dive into, yet it still sports more advanced features (like point-in-time statute comparison views or RSS alert support for queries, amendments and citing reference). The fancy stuff is just close enough at hand to help expert users, but not so obtrusive as to scare off the uninitiated.
Members of the public, whom we at Courthouse Libraries BC direct to CanLII on a daily basis, often show relief that CanLII is both user-friendly and no strings attached. There are no requirements to set up an account, use social login or single sign-on, accept cookies from the site, or really betray one’s identity in any overt way (unlike nearly every other “free” search engine). This always seemed to me to be a feature, not a lack.
But it’s also easy to see how a stripped-down research tool like CanLII is, for some, a drawback. Quicklaw and WestlawNext users enjoy features like saved searches, research history and the ability to select and save cases to an online profile. While CanLII offers a robust and customizable RSS feed, which in conjunction with other desktop or cloud based tools (my favourite being the free web and mobile app IFTTT I published a recipe for) can make CanLII very customizable, it’s hard to say that customizing CanLII is really that straight forward.
So what is Lexbox?
Lexbox turns CanLII into a more full-featured product, although with the exception of one particularly handy feature, I’m not sure most features cannot be achieved with tools like Evernote coupled with IFTTT and a bit of patience setting up RSS feeds from queries.
But then again, just because you can make beer with a carboy, airlock and bag of prairie malt, doesn’t mean most of us wouldn’t just save the trouble and pay a bit more to have it the easy way. And for now at least, Lexbox is freely available as an extension on Google’s Chrome browser (with more support planned).
The tool intends to address the needs of lawyers who love CanLII, but want more bells and whistles—perhaps those less willing than me to hack RSS feeds and third party tools. If you’re not used to Chrome extensions, you will see how useful they can be, but also a bit unnerving since they can cause features, controls, buttons, etc. to appear seamlessly in a website’s interface. When Lexbox is installed and you’re visiting CanLII, it very much feels like it’s a part of the website.
How Lexbox adds to CanLII
Once you’ve installed the Chrome plugin and created a Lexbox account to connect it with, you go to CanLII and do what you’d normally do—pull up cases, look up statutes, note up references to laws or other cases, and generally goof around with various queries hoping to find some silver bullet case that will vindicate your client’s cause.
While you interact with the site, you’ll notice the Lexbox controls hover beside your list when you’re looking at query results, up near the style of cause if you’re viewing a case, and below the version history information for legislation.
Instead of saving links or bookmarks, or downloading PDFs of cases or mucking about with RSS feeds manually, Lexbox lets you do most common tasks in one or two clicks. The controls that appear in the CanLII user interface offer the following:
When you save a document (case or legislation), you set a folder to save to and may add a note. This operation basically just saves a bookmark in Lexbox. Outside of Beta it may benefit Lexum to support full page capture (much as Evernote’s Web Clipper tool offers), or since cases on CanLII are usually extractable as a PDF a quick save-to-folder of that file might be another option for the developers to explore. In any event, you can quickly examine what you’ve stored by clicking “Browse Lexbox”.
Setting up an alert similarly asks you to select a folder to associate the citation or query alert with. Lexbox uses some math to guess how many alerts you might expect, and while this can lead to some amusing guesswork, it’s also probably a good idea that you know in advance if your alert to get all references to Ontario’s Rules of Procedure might produce an unrealistic amount of reading.
You receive alerts within Lexbox itself (at mylexbox.com or as an orange alert badge in the screen shots above) or you may select to get alerts by email. Obviously, RSS alerts for queries have always served a similar purpose, but RSS requires more steps and tools. It’s clear that LexBox is offering convenience with this feature rather than an entirely new function.
A note about folders and client info in the cloud
The Lexbox tool also uses DoubleClick cookies for remarketing purposes, which is something CanLII certainly does not do. To say what this all could mean would be speculation, but in the event some keywords used in your research on a client matter turns up as a part of the data associated with your LexBox cookie to target ads to you while browsing, it is hard to see the downside in disabling these cookies.
A unique feature: “Recent History”
I mentioned above that there was one feature I found unique—and not readily available from another tool. This feature is the “Recent History” option under “Browse Lexbox”.
Once you’ve used Lexbox for a few days, this recent history tab will pile up to look something like this:
If you’ve ever wanted a history of your research trail, or if you’ve ever tried to recall the exact language of a search query you can’t seem to replicate, then this is definitely a promising feature. It brings to mind two things, however:
- If you are at all concerned about keeping your CanLII search history private, think about the fact that everything you search for on CanLII while logged in to Lexbox is automatically remembered and placed in a timeline. If this bothers you, you can go to the account administration page https://app.mylexbox.com/#/profile and de-select “Record my history on supported websites”. You would also want to delete your recent history, which you can do from the https://app.mylexbox.com You may delete a whole day’s history (not individual searches), or the entire history. You might also consider disabling cookies set by Lexbox too.
- This suggestion might be something for the Lexum folks to consider for the next round. It would be great, in my opinion, to be able to log usage history under folders just as cases and alerts can be saved under folders. If I have a folder called #300943 representing a client matter, and if I’m already storing cases and queries to it, it would make sense to store the history of my CanLII usage (for a specific period of time) also to that folder.
Lexbox was released into open beta just last week, and now anyone can try it. If you want, install it and tell me what you think. My own initial thoughts are that it could be a promising add-on to what is already a killer research tool. It would be nice to see an option to extract all the data one has stored as an archive of some kind (in case one ever wants to take their data with them and leave Lexbox), but for a beta launch the features are pretty well rounded. Few should find it difficult to get alerts and save research, and no one will need to master RSS feeds to do so. That alone might be worth the price of admission for some lawyers.
But this does raise the question, “What is the price?” I’m not sure anyone knows yet.
We all pay a modest amount annually to support CanLII as a website, and Colin Lachance once observed (in an article he wrote for the Advocate last year in January) that “we have shown you what we can do with $35. Are you not curious what we could do with $50?”
Depending on the price that Lexum sets for LexBox, I can see that topic becoming an issue. It may beg the question as to whether Canadian lawyers will welcome Lexbox’s entrepreneurial foray to add value to CanLII, which is widely seen as a public good, or whether some observers may criticize the move and wish the law societies had continued to pay for and manage these improvements themselves.
Whatever the case, Lexum has already invested its time, and I can only imagine it will want to charge for use of the Lexbox service at some stage. A knowledge management app that costs around $5 per month would be fairly standard, and that translates to $60 per year. What do you think the profession’s reaction would be to a price like that given in BC the CanLII fee for 2015 was about $37?