Less Serious Legal Research

Legal information is boring. As much as you may enjoy reading a court case, a legal article or conducting legal research, the experience cannot realistically be compared to listening to a song or planning a vacation. Browsing a legal resource will never entertain you more than searching YouTube or TripAdvisor. Exceptionally, isolated masterpieces here and there spark a certain degree of buzz and then the tide of uninteresting data takes over again.

Legal information professionals and users should not feel singled out though, because legal information is not the only boring information out there.

But why is it that legal texts turn off many eager readers? Sometimes this is due to their inherent complexity. No one can reasonably expect to obtain a simple overview of the Canadian tax system. It is complex and so are the rules that enforce it. Sometimes, legal information is made unnecessarily complex. One could think that plain language is heresy amongst authors of primary legal information. Even though court cases stand closest to common everyday communication, a trend becomes apparent that court opinions are getting longer and more complex. Public access analysts say that it has become a challenge for judges and justices, public information officers, and members of the bar to make sure that the public understands what is expressed in a court opinion. Evidently, contracts are among the less legible documents. Consider any sample shareholder agreement that you can find on the web and try to locate a clause that can be understood at first glance, unlike this one:

(10) Two of the Shareholders may jointly accept the Offer to Sell under Section 3.04(2) and, in such event, the further provisions of Section 3.04 shall apply except that the number of Shares to be purchased by each of them under Section 3.04 may be set out in the notice given by them under Section 3.04(2) and Section 3.04(9) provided that the aggregate of such numbers equals the number of Shares beneficially owned by the Offeror.

In addition to necessary and unnecessary complexity and jargon, there is one more reason why legal documents are boring: they are exclusively textual which is not as fun and self-explanatory as graphics and images. The power of visual communication has long been exploited by other “boring” disciplines. The field of open data often emerges as a natural playground for visual applications. Visualization experiments are not recent at all as witnesses this article from 2007. Some readers may even remember data visualization efforts dating back to the nineties.

Legal information authors and providers are also starting to tap into the potential of visual communication. The examples are quite frequent. One of those examples is the use of visuals by courts illustrating their judgments. Fastcase visualizes its search results in the form of maps playing with relevance, recency and influence of court opinions. Similar to that, Ravel designed a court opinions search tool mixing influence, relevance and relations between cases. JustCite has been offering a visually mapped citator for several years.

Furthermore, in a field where you would least expect this, such as municipal law, the city of Kirkland designed an interactive map of municipally regulated activities allowing citizens to quickly and easily locate by-law provisions of interest to them. Thom Neale’s CiteFight using CanLII’s data is yet another great example of how citation data can be made visually appealing and pleasant to consult. In the field of legal information, such examples are popping-up more frequently than ever before.

Images are pretty, much prettier than text. But are they useful? Would you rely on floating bubbles or comics-looking tools in your research? The quick answer is: if you are about to fire up a barbecue in your backyard, yes; if you are selling your business, no.

However, these innovative tools deserve more consideration. Some researchers (wrongly) perceive those applications as not sufficiently serious for legal research. The thing is, law rules everything, from embryo to exhumation, and in between there is a lot of trivial stuff with less at stake. As Tom Bruce said, “We tend to think about legal research taking place in multibillion-dollar cases, but often it’s a dry cleaner trying to figure out how to stock chemicals.” Legal research is about risk management and not a single resource can be considered serious enough or sufficiently comprehensive when the stakes are really high.

So, are those applications attempting to make legal information less dull useful? Definitely yes. And we can be surprised by the number of users who are perfectly happy with “less serious” tools that are helping them find the answers they need through a more enjoyable and direct research process.

Ivan Mokanov


  1. Legal information is not boring.

  2. We all agree, I hope, that bullying is a horrible practice, to be exposed, fought and prevented, and yet there are still those (who should know better) who perpetuate the practice. I refer, of course, to the constant references to the Bruni case, a nasty example of bullying by a judge. It is not an amusing story; it is a tragedy, one made worse by the judge. I do not care that the parties (or one of them) did not behave well. I care only about their humiliation by the judge. A judge can easily deal with bad conduct without humiliating a party; judges do that all the time. Those who, like Mr. Mokanov, the author of this post, call the decision a “masterpiece”, should be ashamed of themselves; they should understand that they are simply participants in the bullying and humiliation. It must stop.

  3. It’s all about meaning.

    Visualizing principles of a case or a law, or an agreement, does help us to find more useful contents ?

    It should, but seems only a step.

    We need contents specifically formatted to hilight the principle, and as soon as the open the text.

    And this make us think at all the process, since the early beginning of writing a text.

    It’s teh rights step, but if peolple thinks this at a joke for non lawyerce, it will be hard to make the others steps.

    Thanks for the post, useful

  4. “In addition to necessary and unnecessary complexity and jargon, there is one more reason why legal documents are boring: they are exclusively textual which is not as fun and self-explanatory as graphics and images.”

    Ah … the cant of the graphic novel – reality TV world.

    Yes, sometimes an image is worth a thousand meaningful words.

    Other times?

    It’s Snookie. Anything by Stallone. The TV version of Game of Thrones which makes even less sense than the written version.

    In that case, one word suffices for a host of images, not just one. I’ll use “garbage”. Substitute your own.

    Some subjects require images. Some don’t. Some require both because both are inadequate without the other.

    Still, some people neither need nor want the illustrated versions of Shakespeare.

    Or, for example, a text on tort law.

  5. David,

    I bet tort law is hard to stage at theaters too.

    How do you feel about PowerPoint in court? I quite enjoyed Nils Jensen’s talk at LegalIT a couple of years ago.


    My post was about visuals; it is not a manifesto in support of bullying. Bruni got a different type of traffic and attention beyond what legal research might usually motivate, that’s all.

    Had I seen this debate before I wrote my post, I would have never used the Bruni example. Not because I agree or disagree with you, just why look for trouble on a nice Friday afternoon…

  6. I’ll use any tool that allows me to present evidence in a clearer, more compelling way. PowerPoint and its equivalents provide another method of putting in evidence that’s appropriate for that sort of presentation. Static graphs and other images are merely electronic versions of their paper analogues. Animated images are analogues of transparency overlays. There’s no evidence difference between a paper series of photos showing changes over time and the equivalent electronic presentation.

  7. Ivan,

    “I bet tort law is hard to stage at theaters too.”

    Do you think you’d need to have the bottle, or any portion of the snail, for a stage version of Donoghue v Stevenson?

    Or any parts of the fly or the bottle for Mustapha v Culligan.

    Or any portion of any primate for Inherit the Wind?

  8. Here’s a link to a court brief in graphic novel (comic book) format filed by public interest lawyer Bob Kohn of New York in response to an antitrust case involving Amazon’s e-book pricing. Originally he wanted to file a 25 page amicus brief but was rebuffed by the judge who restricted him to 5 pages. Kohn’s 5 page, 45 panel comic book outlines his argument in story form. While the presiding judge didn’t comment on the form of brief, he remained unconvinced of the argument, dismissing Kohn’s position in the eventual judgment.