Hugh Lawford 1933-2009

We learned this morning of the death of Professor Hugh Lawford, a legend in Canadian legal information. He will be mourned by many students who studied with him at Queen’s University Law School, and his passing should be noted by every Canadian lawyer, because Hugh and his colleagues revolutionized how law is practiced.

QUIC/LAW which became QL Systems which became Quicklaw merged its identity into LexisNexis. But anyone who encountered Hugh from the pioneering days of the late Sixties to his retirement in 2004 will have been struck by his vision, his tenacity and his commitment to making legal information more accessible. Dick von Briesen was QL’s king of code, and Keith Latta contributed many ideas in the early stages, but Hugh was the public face.

I first met him in 1977 at a Canadian Law Information Council board meeting – we often sparred on the extent of public / government involvement in electronic publishing. Hugh’s passion was fueled by his experience in seeing the early funders of the Queen’s project withdraw just at the point where he believed it showed real promise. QL stemmed from an experiment to prepare a computerized version of Canada’s treaties. It attracted initial funding from the government of Canada, from Queen’s University and from IBM – the amount was a staggering $2.5 million (almost $14 million current dollars). When the tap ran dry, Hugh and Dick stepped up and put their own hard-earned money behind their dreams. They were convinced that this was the future, when the government, academic and IBM gurus were all convinced that computerized legal research was a pipe-dream.

Our friend Jon Bing in Oslo summarized the origins:

Since 1961, Queen’s University, Kingston, has been engaged in a Treaty Project, collecting and annotating all of the treaties of the British Commonwealth. About 18 000 (1970) detailed treaty records have been prepared. Since 1967 computerized text-editing has been used to add information from these records. The Treaty Project has become a major activity, as treaty registers for a number of developing countries were prepared from these records – cfr. Lawford, HJ (1968) “The use of computing for editing and searching of treaty records”; in Johnston, David (1968) Computers and the Law, Conference Proceedings; Kingston. 98-103., Keith Latta & Richard von Briesen, The QUIC/LAW System of Editing and Retrieving Legal Documents (Kingston, Ont.: Queen’s University, 1970):3, Tapper, Colin (1973) Computers and the Law London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson:279-80.

The enthusiasm of Professor Hugh Lawford was a moving force behind the Treaty Project. In 1968 he initiated another project to become known as QUIC/LAW – acronym for “Queen’s University Institute for Computing and Law”. Following an exchange of letters in late 1968, IBM Canada and Queen’s University launched a study of potential applications of computer-based systems for legal information retrieval.

Hugh was indefatigable in his pursuit of content for his system. He would talk to any group of judges, and more importantly judges’ secretaries who were then gatekeepers to the law. Hugh had nothing to offer them but his enthusiasm and discounted access to his service. Court by court, province by province, sector by sector he built the largest Canadian legal information service.

If he could secure funding for a service that was only marginally connected to the law, no matter, it went in – that’s why Mel Hurtig’s Canadian Encyclopedia went in. If the Feds, or CLIC or a province or a Law Foundation had funding, he would happily take it. Hugh’s charm was winning.

From Professor Lawford came the genius of offering free access to law students thereby ensuring new generations of loyal customers. Law librarians in firms thereafter had to re-educate those students when they became lawyers that the free service now cost clients and firms sums that could easily add up.

In today’s age where all information is produced digitally, it is easy to overlook the problems faced by the pioneers who were literally wading through thousands of pages of print, using primitive conversion and temperamental recognition programmes. The search engines we take for granted build upon the innovations of pioneers like Dick and Hugh.

Since the von Briesen / Lawford retrieval system worked, American businesses beat a path to Kingston where in the student quarter near the campus, where QL had its offices. West Publishing licensed the software and built upon it the Westlaw service. American newspapers also deployed software designed for Canadian law.

His friends were amazed that Hugh kept on going. Lesser souls would have simply given up. Yes, Hugh could be frustrating and his tenacity could be seen as bull-headedness; but when you think of what it took to keep the enterprise afloat and meet the payroll for his dedicated team of employees you could easily forgive him.

Only when the Domtar pension plan made a substantial equity investment was QL really on a sound financial footing. By that time QL was well established and judges no longer tut-tutted when faced with a CJ printout.

QL’s content made it a prize to be sought. I recall entertaining friends from Eagan and other US publishers who wondered whether an offer might be made for the company. While Westlaw came courting, LexisNexis won the prize. Hugh’s small company built on a dream and sweat made him finally a wealthy man. But he scarcely had time to enjoy it.

Hugh Lawford received many honours. A Rhodes Scholarship. Professorships and in time an Emeritus Professorship from the Law School where he worked all his life. The Law Society Medal from the Law Society of Upper Canada. Alumni awards from both Alberta and Queen’s. But I think the award that meant most to him was the Canadian Association of Law Librarians award for excellence in legal publishing, which he won in 2000. In 2005 the award was renamed the Hugh Lawford Award for Excellence in Legal Publishing to honour Hugh for his contributions to the Canadian law library community. Slaw was the last winner of the award to receive it in Hugh’s lifetime.


We last met at a wine tasting in a garden near Niagara on the Lake after the CALL Conference in 2003. Hugh was in fine form intellectually, though he had aged significantly and we discussed his new role at LexisNexis following the sale. He was as proud as any grandfather of his legacy. He had helped to democratize legal information and had fun along the way.

A memorial service will be held in Kingston in September.

Feel free to tell us your memories of Hugh and QL. Slaw will be passing on tributes to Hugh’s widow Lillian and the family. They’ve asked that friends make donations to charities benefiting Parkinson’s Disease in lieu of flowers.


  1. Hugh Lawford was an adventurous professor and a generous businessman. He was the ultimate professor-entrepreneur: not content with the comfort of the academia, but not greedy enough to become really rich.

    Over the years, I end up visiting many of the places where QL was built: courthouses, law libraries, government people involved in legal publishing, research lawyers. Everywhere, Quicklaw was enjoying a very good reputation and Hugh Lawford was frequently personally known. His commitment to the development of the legal information resources in Canada was recognized everywhere and he and his company were respected for that.

    Hugh and Lilian Lawford were people enjoying good food and good wine. I still remember vividly their first visit here to meet with me in the mid-nineties. It was agreed that we were to dine together. They choose the venue, and I manage to get there on time. The room was a bit too noisy to really hear each other. Especially with professor Lawford’s low voice and my poor English. So we end up enjoying the foie gras, veal cutlets and some extraordinary wines if not in respectful silence at least in avoiding easily any hot topics. For sure, we skirmished a bit around Quicklaw and LexUM, but for the main we pleasantly enjoyed what was then and still is one of the best Montreal restaurants. Around coffee, Professor Lawford told me in his mischievous manner that LexUM will end up as a business. I disagreed without much nuance. Later on, he took the check and we split.

    It happened that I never returned to Toqué! But I think that I will have to soon. When I will do, I will have a thought for Hugh.

  2. Thanks for this Simon. There are many, many people in the legal community and beyond who have memories of Hugh (fond or otherwise). With Slaw’s indulgence I would like to share a couple of stories.

    When I arrived at Queen’s as a politics student in the late 60s Hugh was already a bit of a legend having worked first on the Glassco commission and subsequently as an advisor to George McIlraith and Mike Pearson. He once told me that upon his return to Queen’s he was regularly invited out for drinks by Flora Macdonald and Dalton Camp with the intention that he would get drunk and spill secrets from the PMO. Hugh said that they nearly always achieved the first of these goals.

    In 1998, when Irwin Law was less than two years old and still affiliated with Stoddart/General Publishing, I received a phone call from Hugh. “I understand you have an evidence text,” he barked. “Why haven’t I seen it?” (he was teaching evidence at Queen’s and was referring to the Paciocco and Stuesser text, then in its first edition).

    I explained that we were a very small company, short on resources, and I assumed that anyone teaching evidence at Queen’s would use Ron Delisle’s book. I was therefore not inclined to send a free book off to someone who had no intention of using it in his course.

    “Never assume anything,” he harumphed. “Send me the book.”

    I sent him the book and he called back several days later to say that he wanted to use it in his course. He then abruptly removed his professorial cap and donned his Quicklaw hat. “Why don’t we put this book on line?” he asked.

    “Over my dead body,” I responded.

    I thought that was the end of it. Two days later he rang back and proposed that we undertake an experiment whereby Quicklaw would create a database from the book and he would offer his students the choice of buying either the book or the electronic equivalent and either way we would get the revenue.

    Reluctantly I agreed and he proceeded to make the offer to his students. Ninety percent of them bought the printed book. Ten months later Hugh bought Irwin Law and most of our publications became available in both print and electronic formats. I should add that Stoddart had commissioned a study by a group of MBAs from the business school at York which said (among other things) that Irwin Law’s prospects were dim and recommended that the company should be shut down. Thanks to Hugh Lawford, Irwin Law is still here. The Law of Evidence by Paciocco and Stuesser in now in its fifth edition. Unfortunately nothing is left of Stoddart/General Publishing.

    Hugh Lawford was a mentor and friend. I shall miss him greatly.

  3. Alisa Posesorski

    I was at that dinner at Toque with Daniel and the Lawfords, and shared many other happy meals with them, usually being urged to eat more food and drink more wine than was good for me. Thank you, Simon, for capturing the essence of Hugh Lawford. I had the honour of working with him at Quicklaw for many years. He was a brilliant strategic thinker and an inspiring leader. He built a talented team committed to success and devoted to customer service and the goal of providing equitable access to excellent-quality legal information for a reasonable cost. Working with Hugh Lawford could be equal parts exasperation and exhilaration, but it was a great ride and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. He will be sorely missed.

  4. Courtesy of Gary Rodrigues, here is the text of the LexisNexis announcement about the passing of Hugh Lawford

    The following announcement was issued by Pat Collins, the President and Chief Executive Officer of LexisNexis Canada:

    Dear Colleagues,

    With great sadness, I am writing to inform you that Hugh Lawford has passed away.

    Hugh Lawford co-founded the Quicklaw service in the 1960s and retired from LexisNexis Canada in 2004 as president and CEO. He died in hospital in Kingston yesterday afternoon after a lengthy illness.

    A pioneer in the legal research industry, Hugh Lawford was a law professor and an entrepreneur who, together with colleague Dick von Briesen, established Quicklaw as a Queen’s University research project in the 1960s. In 1973, Professor Lawford (as he was known to LexisNexis Canada employees) and Dick incorporated QL Systems Limited to offer commercially one of the world’s first online legal research services.

    Over the years, Professor Lawford worked tirelessly to serve Canadian legal professionals, leading the growth of Quicklaw into Canada’s most comprehensive and most widely used online legal research service. In July 2002, he sold Quicklaw to LexisNexis Butterworths Canada and continued to serve as CEO of the newly formed company of LexisNexis Canada until his retirement from the company in 2004.

    In 1999, Professor Lawford was named Professor Emeritus upon his retirement from Queen’s University in Kingston, where he joined the Law Faculty as Assistant Professor of Law in 1958. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1962, and to Professor in 1965.

    During his career, Professor Lawford was a member of the Canadian Government’s Advisory Board on Scientific and Technical Information, of a Statistics Canada advisory board, and of a task force that studied the creation of the Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Industry and Education (CANARIE). During 1965 and 1966, he was Special Adviser to prime minister Lester B. Pearson. From 1964 to 1965, he was Special Assistant to the Government House Leader and President of the Privy Council, the Hon. George J. McIlraith, Q.C.

    At Queen’s, Professor Lawford worked with the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association to organize Canada’s first seminar on Trial Techniques. For many years, he chaired the Queen’s University Grievance Board.

    Professor Lawford held a B.A. and an LL.B. from the University of Alberta. He was selected as Rhodes Scholar for Alberta in 1955 and attended Oxford University, where he received the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law in 1957. He was admitted to the Alberta Bar in 1958 and the Ontario Bar in 1962.

    In 2002, The Law Society of Upper Canada awarded Professor Lawford with the Law Society Medal in recognition of his significant contributions to the legal profession. Three years later, the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL) renamed its annual award for superior legal publishing the “Hugh Lawford Award of Excellence in Legal Publishing.”

    I wish to acknowledge Professor Lawford’s importance in LexisNexis Canada’s history and extend my deepest sympathies to those employees who knew him and who have fond memories of him. We are told that there will be a private service on Friday for Professor Lawford’s immediate family, and that a memorial service will be held in Kingston in September. In lieu of flowers, the family prefers donations to charities benefiting Parkinson’s Disease. If you wish to send a card, you can send it to:

    Lillian Lawford

    1286 Channelview Road

    Kingston, Ontario

    K7L 4V1

    Yours sincerely,

    Pat Collins

    Chief Executive Officer

  5. A friend in Eagan MN writes from Westlaw:

    It is significant that we should remember him. Quicklaw was the early basis of Westlaw, and we were fortunate to have that foundation from which to develop Westlaw today. There are people still at West that worked with Professor Lawford, and remember him very fondly.

  6. I worked for Professor Lawford for many years and I have very fond memories of him. Too many to mention them all. He was a good man and a wonderful boss. One memory in particular will always stand out to me. I was working late one night, in my countless hours of overtime to get a project done, when Professor Lawford was leaving that night he stopped and looked at me and said thank you for all your hard work I appreciate it. I really appreciated the comment. Not many employers actually take the time to thank their employees and truly mean it. Professor Lawford made Quicklaw feel like a work family and he truly valued his employees. He will be dearly missed and fondly remembered by all who had the opportunity to know him.

  7. I was a student in Professor Lawford’s Torts class in the fall of 1977. He told our class about QuickLaw. He was truly a visionary and his contribution to legal research has been second to none.

    That said, I want to focus my comment on his contribution as a teacher and human being. Hugh Lawford was a fantastic and engaging teacher. I can still remember his words:

    “Would a reasonable person, “foresee” (he complained that many misspelled that word on our Christmas exam) an unreasonable risk of harm to ….” (and I have not thought about torts since 1977!)

    As a human being, he was a “class act”. During our final exam in April (in Jock Harty Arena), one student had a bit of a “meltdown” (couldn’t seem to remember anything). I so well remember, Professor Lawford talking a walk with this student around the the corridors of the arena – resurrecting this student’s memory and giving him hope. (That student is now a partner in a large Toronto firm).

    Anyway, Quicklaw aside, Professor Lawford made a positive difference in my life. His memory lives on.

  8. Thanks to Simon Chester for a wonderful job of providing information about Hugh.

    On Tuesday morning, August 18th, I was in my office above Cadboro Bay on Vancouver Island and decided to check my email. The first message read,”An old friend of yours, Hugh Lawford, died yesterday.” I pushed myself back from the computer, took a deep breath, bent forward, and covered my face with my hands. A young friend standing nearby was alarmed, and asked if I was ok — and what was the matter.

    I pulled myself together and started to tell him about Hugh Lawford and myself. How we had first met in law school at the U of A in Edmonton in 1950 and became best friends. We were a couple of hay-seed prairie boys who had never attended a high school prom. At graduation we went off in different directions. But we were reunited in the late 1960’s, almost by accident, when we discovered that, independently, we each had an all-consuming obsession with the development of a computer-based system for searching massive databases of court cases and statutes.

    I explained to him that from 1968 to 1971 we worked together at Queen’s University to fulfill a dream and a vision of the creation of a national system whereby a person at a remote computer terminal in any part of Canada could instantly search central databases of full text legal materials. Many persons viewed us at the time as academic nut-cases. The dream later became a complete reality and was marketed as QL Systems Ltd.

    My young friend, who is a computer expert, said, “Keith, I don’t understand one thing. The application that you have described is such an obvious computer use, why would the concept have been considered new and original at that time?” I replied, “Young fellow, what you also fail to understand is that the PC had not even been invented in the late 1960’s.”

    I sat at my computer in silence for a few minutes, staring at the email message, and the words from Hamlet kept running through my mind.

    “Good night Sweet Prince. And flights of Angels sing Thee to thy rest.”

  9. I am a retiree from West (Westlaw) When West had a relationship with Quicklaw, I took many trips to the Quicklaw offices around Canada. I only met Professor Lawford a few times. But his influence was obvious to me in the Quicklaw employees that I met everywhere. From Alisa, Margaret, Patrick and others in Toronto to others across Canada they were always most concerned with serving their customers. A group of very classy individuals. They are a major part of his legacy.

    Best to Professor Lawford’s family and friends.


    Flags at Queen’s University have been at half staff this week in memory of Hugh Lawford, professor emeritus in the school of law. Lawford died Monday in hospital. He was 75.

    From the Online Tribute Book:

    I was a postgraduate student at the Queehn’s Law School from 1972 to 1974 and well remember Professor Lawford. I have been totally blind since my birth. Hugh’s Quick-Law project has led to case law and other legal materials being available on computers and using synthetic speech, it can be read by we blind and vision impaired lawyers. We are all truly grateful to him for his vision, humility and enterprise.

    Professor Ron McCallum AO Professor of Labour Law and former Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia.

    Note posted on a listserve for judges around the world:

    “I learned about the QUIC/LAW project soon after I began teaching at the University of British Columbia in 1969, and Hugh took me under his wing. I spent a summer at Queens working with his team, and when I returned to UBC in the Fall we established the first online link in Canada so my students and I could explore the possibilities of legal databases. That was around 1970, or 1971. Since then, much of my teaching career centered around teaching students, lawyers, and judges how to use QUICKLAW and other online resources. My relationship with QUICKLAW, and with Hugh Lawford, formed a base for all I have done in computing through the years, and that led to the creation of this list. Hugh was a real pioneer, and for me, a great mentor.” -Bob Franson

  11. A memorial service for Hugh Lawford will be held on Sunday, October 4 at 1 p.m. in Memorial Hall, City Hall, Ontario Street, Kingston, Ontario.

  12. I had the pleasure of working with Professor Lawford on a business deal prior to the LexisNexis sale. Other than a stern scowl from Hugh now and then when we got down to business, Hugh was an extremely witty and jovial gentleman. However, my favorite memory of Hugh is not one of business, but of him singing “Goodnight Irene” to us in his home. This was after a fine meal and some good wine. I had brought my guitar along, and Hugh sang the song he sang to his children. I’ll never forget the gleam in his eye as he sang that song. It is quite the happy memory of a most accomplished genius. Thank you Simon for a great tribute. God bless Hugh Lawford.

  13. Sandra Martin’s obituary in this morning’s Globe and Mail has details of Hugh’s life that I had never heard of before.

  14. Gary P. Rodrigues

    In previous comments, Hugh’s career and personality were eloquently described by those who knew him best. I have only a few memories to add to what has already been said.

    I first knew of Hugh Lawford as the man who persuaded my employer and many others to license their content to build his online service even though everyone knew that he represented a future threat to their dominant positions in legal publishing. I was amazed. He charmed, cajoled and outfoxed everyone, initially persuading them that letting him use their content was non threatening and in the public interest, and later holding out the prospect that he would sell his company to them. Either way, he prevailed.

    Hugh was a man of brilliant insights and a natural marketer. He knew the exact moment to shift from hourly to subscription pricing. The “professionals” in the field were left at the starting gate and Carswell’s CD ROMs never recovered.

    In face of the endless speculation that he would sell to one company or another, Hugh seem more than a little bit amused on one occasion when I predicted that he would be the one to buy out his competitors, and not the reverse. If he had had access to more capital earlier in his career, I have no doubt that he would have succeeded in acquiring a major position in the U.S. market.

    I never knew Hugh Lawford without Lillian Simkins. Whether it was a business meeting or a social call, Lillian was always at his side, supporting him on both a personal and professional level. I have many pleasant memories of time spent in their company, including trips on Lillian’s boat to Wolfe Island for lunch and evenings at Chez Piggy. Her loyalty and commitment to him, and his to her, was evident for all to see.

    I worked with him in his later years when his health was failing. I missed seeing him at his best but even then I observed his toughness and determination to fight for the things in which he believed. He was a transformative figure in the legal profession. His greatest legacy is generations of lawyers trained in the use of online legal research.