Students Are Looking Beyond the Boolean Search

Author: Mandy van Waes Guest Blogger

The cohort of students currently in law school and the junior ranks of firms are often described as “digital natives.” Wherever possible, we prefer to access information online instead of going to the library for books or other secondary sources. Our preference for online research is reinforced as we learn to engage with legal information. In our first year of law school, we are directed primarily to online platforms like CanLII, Quicklaw, Westlaw, and SSRN, and are encouraged to develop our skills in operating those services.

My generation of law students not only grew up with technology, but with the mindset that technology will (or should) always evolve in ways that make things more efficient, and easier to use.

In the realm of legal research and technology, that rapid change is happening in the U.S. and Canada, where several companies are advancing what’s possible. Tools exist or are being developed that, for example, analyze briefs or written materials, predict trial outcomes, or help you tailor arguments to a particular judge. Established players, like the American branches of LexisNexis and Westlaw, whether through buying startups or building products themselves are part of this trend and also offer analytics for litigation to gauge the history of your court, judge, and opposing counsel. This will be the new normal.

Some of the most exciting tools aim to disrupt how lawyers find relevant cases. Research conducted by the American start-up, Casetext, found that 83% of judges and their clerks find gaps in submissions that could impact the trial “at least some of the time.” Comparable figures aren’t available in Canada but are likely similar given similar reliance on traditional research tools. As a student or junior associate still learning the law, with pressure from clients, supervising lawyers (and our student loans!) to get it right, it is essential to know that our research hits all of the relevant points. Casetext’s study illustrates that research and advocacy efforts, even of experienced counsel, can frequently fall short.

The keyword and Boolean searches we conduct on established databases can yield a lot of information. If we’re looking for a particular term of art, or category of cases, the intuitive search can give us results instantly. The problem is, the results can be overwhelming, too narrowly defined, or far off point – sometimes all at the same time. A search for common terms, might yield tens of thousands of cases, and lead to hours of scanning irrelevant cases just to avoid potentially missing something important. Likewise, for more less common topics, sifting through irrelevant content found through ever more creative search terms to find the relevant information could be the only option.

However, “intelligent assistants” that search the relationships between cases, like CARA from Casetext, EVA from ROSS, or the soon-to-be-released Vincent from vLex (Disclosure: I worked as a summer law student for vLex Canada), allow the user to discover new and useful cases, in a fraction of the time. These tools analyze the terms, passages, and cases cited in a document, and provide suggested cases and secondary sources based on context, citations, and relationships not easily discoverable through merely reading cases and running searches over and over again. In just a few minutes, users can access cases they likely wouldn’t find through a keyword search and strengthen their arguments.

Legal technology appeals to younger lawyers, as well as to those who aren’t as entrenched in the established ways of doing things and are perhaps more comfortable with receiving suggestions from technology. By building on platforms and processes we already find intuitive, the current cohort of law students will have an easier learning curve for any new technologies that a firm may adopt.

When the current generation of law firm leadership began their careers, they were the ones making the case to employers that a work-provided computer with internet was as essential as a desk and a chair for legal research and drafting. Quicklaw or Westlaw subscriptions were a luxury, and typically only available in the library, or used sparingly because of the cost. CanLII changed the economics because it was free – if you don’t account for the time spent researching to find just the right cases when you can’t fully bill your client for the effort.

These earlier advances made you more efficient and improved your quality of work. The current generation of law students sees what is possible, and how quickly legal research technology is advancing. Yet, we can also see that these tools are unlikely to be uniformly adopted by the time we start our articles in the early 2020s.

It’s true that some of the most advanced legal systems are only available in the U.S., while others, like Blue J Legal, only address certain practice areas. Among those tools that are available, some firms will seize the competitive advantage, while others may be unwilling or unable to make the change. What I can say with some certainty, is that a generation raised on technology is paying attention to if their potential employers are taking advantage of the wave of new legal innovations.

— Mandy van Waes, 2L, University of Ottawa Faculty of Law

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