Dependence on Technology

I DO have a dependence on coffee. I DO NOT have a dependence on technology…or do I? This question requires some serious philosophical introspection on my part, which I will not make you suffer through. I hope that the more interesting aspect is why I write about this today.

It is the anniversary of Abe Lincoln’s birthday, and as the Smithsonian points out, he had an interest in technology. The US News agrees that Lincoln was a technology leader. Lincoln was even a communications technology leader with his use of the telegraph. A reasonable person may theorize that his success was partially due to dependence on technology.

Guest author Holly McCarthy at the Law Librarian Blog while writing on the pros and cons of online research suggests:

Technological Dependence.
While using a sophisticated database system for examining and researching cases will come in handy for practicing attorneys, the fact of the matter is that these advances have caused a technological dependence with law students at universities around the country. No longer are students fully versed in case law, but rather they look to find the answers the easy way. Law school is about creating experts, not just people who can plug in search terms. There are nuances to the written law that don’t translate well in digital format.

Last week Ted Tjaden wrote about Risk and Innovation and one of the comments to his post, about not finding something because one product was used instead of another, is an interesting take on technological dependence. Is it technological dependence to only use one source. Is it technological dependence to only offer some easy access to the panoply of for fee legal information resources to library users?

The Canadian Bar Association Guidelines for Practicing Ethically with New Information Technologies has a section on electronic legal research. It makes no mention of online information literacy, using more than one tool, using free vs. fee based resources. The document also doesn’t address the reality of an observable phenomenon of lawyers turning first to their keyboard for the answer to a legal problem.

Is the Canadian legal community, or some part of it, dependent on their technology tools to practice law?


  1. Yes! I am. In most cases I feel it is justified or even mandated by the notions of proportionality and accessibility.

    Some law firms may afford to maintain a complete paper library and look at it extensively or do the same research on 3 different tools, most don’t. Some people/corporations can afford these firms, most don’t…

    I don’t like the idea of tagging tech-oriented professionals with the notion of “dependency” as it is mainly used in a pejorative fashion. Therefore, I suggest that it can be a bad addiction in some instances, but that in most cases, it is probably a reasonable and pragmatic use of the available resources.

    With respect to Holly McCarthy’s’quote (“There are nuances to the written law that don’t translate well in digital format”), I guess I’ll have to print the post… ;-)

  2. You can be a sloppy researcher in the print universe as easily as you can in the digital one. That’s why librarians are so frequently called upon to construct legislative histories and so on.
    I think that it’s important to remind our clients how the statute gets into the database, and how courts work – it gives them a window into the \hidden\ parts of legal information – debates, white/green papers in the case of legislation and filing documents in the courts. These documents are increasingly also available in electronic form.
    A good researcher will do a thorough job regardless of format – a poor researcher will blame the tools.

  3. Dependence is an interesting concern here. In areas of law with an extensive history, and where developments continue to expand and shape how the law operates, a reliably-encyclopedic knowledge would be (I would think) very difficult to obtain and maintain in such a way that one would no longer depend upon regular and reliable access to the cases and commentary.

    So, someone who becomes a specialist in an area of law might lessen their dependence significantly through repeated exposure to the existing caselaw such that he or she would no longer be required to refer to past information, and might be able to keep up with things by reading printed material published in the conventional ways (although this implies that the field isn’t moving more quickly than these methods can).

    But, many times, things have just happened in an area of practice that might benefit your client **now**, and not six months or a year from now, and so being able to access these developments could actually be a requisite of properly discharging your professional responsibility.

    There might be ways for me to, for example, actively monitor decisions coming out of the Immigration Division by sitting in on the hearings, or calling all the practitioners I know of on a regular basis and asking them about their recent successes and failures, but the new electronic/technological means of receiving information and communicating between practitioners is clearly preferable.

    When these issues are raised in the context of law students and legal education, I have to laugh. It’s only been a few years since I left law school, and the expectation that anyone — even the most glinting gold-medallists — becomes a competent practitioner in an area of law in the context of a law school course, is a rather ridiculous expectation. Of course, Holly McCarthy is referring to the creation of experts in “the law”, which law school could arguably create — if it didn’t also require that students erase their expert knowledge twice-yearly so as to become “experts” in something else. In fact, this instructively highlights what law students **do** end up becoming — experts in becoming instant pseudo-experts.