It’s the End of the World as We Know It …

Mobile devices! Google everywhere! Is this the end of the world as we know it? Is it the end of legal research as we know it?

Of course, it isn’t any such thing. Even so, the rise of mobile devices does seem to be related to changes in how legal research is conducted and what results are expected.

A recent post from Raymond Blijd of Wolters Kluwer predicts the death of legal research on desktop. As mobile devices become even more easy to use, and as information is organized and formatted to make it more accessible on those devices, the tablet and smartphone become the go-to tools for … just about everything.

But it is a challenge for legal publishers to make all our complicated, lengthy, detailed information easily understandable in a small space. Providing more focused information in smaller pieces is one way (maybe the only way) to accomplish this, but let’s not underestimate the amount of effort it’s going to take.

What does the rise of the Google search box mean for secondary source publishers? We hear everywhere about Google-first research. But what does this do to the quality of legal research, or for that matter, the quality of legal thinking?

A comment in Mark Lewis’ recent post caught my eye. In his work as a law school librarian, he has noticed a tendency in his users to shun legitimate secondary sources in favour of the results of keyword searching. One comment on the post makes me think, though, that this may be a law school phenomenon; one lawyer reports that once he experienced the time pressures of practice, he soon learned that consulting a secondary source first is often a much more efficient way to answer a question.

It may take some time for newer lawyers to learn that there is so much more to legal research and the practice of law than databases of cases and legislation. Practice information can be fully explored in a secondary source. We can cut to the chase; explore trends; explain the approach of the courts and developments in the law; set out the leading cases and why; and so on. Good secondary sources can also set out step-by-step procedures and explain forms and precedents (including recommending bargaining points for the parties). CLEBC’s secondary sources include information such as:

  • concordances to assist in the transition to new legislation
  • glossaries to explain commonly used terms or slang (what is “all PAAP” anyway?)
  • explanations of search results (corporate registry, land title office, ship’s registry, and so on)
  • checklists of all essential steps in a transaction
  • lists of important addresses and other contact information
  • warnings about pitfalls and danger areas everywhere!

Reliance on Google search can also lead to missed information. For now, Google doesn’t search most CLEBC content; our site has its own search engine. (In other words, searchers need to know that they should go to the CLEBC website to find an answer to their legal research question.)

Meanwhile, in another corner of the interweb, we have this post from Jason Wilson, in which he describes his new product Prcttner. Now, this is a fantasy product; but … wouldn’t it be fabulous to have an algorithm that could take complicated legal material, scrub it up, and apply metadata?

Our friends in public legal education are working mightily to achieve this (although I believe they are working the old-fashioned way with knowledgeable editors). The future may see closer collaboration between traditional legal publishers and public legal educators to create these resources. And I don’t think that’s the end of the world as we know it.


  1. Susan

    Another excellent and well analysed column. Thanks.

    On the point of the death of legal research on desktops, I would repeat my remarks elsewhere to Raymond Blijd.

    “It would not be for the first time that the point is made that the vehicle for delivering content is much less important than the content itself and the relevance and application of it.
    Smartphone, tablet, PC? Why care? What’s more important – a machine or an original thought? As I a client I want to know that my lawyer is smart and takes the trouble, by one means or another, to attach the best research to his/her own expertise.
    If I have a worry, it’s that, as is suggested, some lawyers might not understand the importance of research. See”

    I’ve been doing some work of late with a very significant publishing client, trying to understand the reasons behind the painful slow death of a product. What comes through loud and clear is that commoditised content is no longer thought to carry significant financial value. It reinforces my belief, shared, I believe, by you, that just putting out the basic primary materials isn’t good enough. Customers increasingly expect online services to deliver a mix of content, analysis, documentation, workflow tools, software, guidance and more.

    Death will certainly be accelerated for those legal publishers who think they can continue to take large amounts of money from customers while providing them with that which has lost its value.