Dream a Little Dream …

I’ve been dreaming again about the future of legal publishing. How might we arrange legal information if we were not constrained by the structure and format that we’ve all grown up with? We know what the core pieces are:

Primary law: remember all those bound volumes of statutes? Remember all the print law reports? Many law libraries still carry these, but they have now mostly been replaced by a variety of online resources. Of course, in this country, CanLII is the best example.

Secondary law: we are lucky to have a huge body of secondary law in Canada, published in many forms, and organized in many ways:

  • black letter law, usually found textbooks and legal encyclopedias
  • practice manuals that set out how to perform legal tasks and transactions, such as draft a will or separation agreement; buy and sell land; buy and sell a company; and so on
  • annotated precedents that explain what those clauses really mean; the best annotated precedents give the reader some insight into possible negotiating points
  • annotated statues that explain how statutory provisions been interpreted by the courts

But what would our legal information look like if we didn’t have to cope with the legacy of print? It’s no secret that our content has been informed by the format. (I’ve written about this before.)

I had been dreaming of an online legal information service with a great search engine, excellent taxonomy and metadata, organized by practice area, easily mashed up with relevant statutes , and tightly integrated with relevant case law. Then I started to check out what’s been developed and discussed recently and I found things beyond my wildest dreams. A couple of examples:

The Open Law Lab is a project of Margaret Hagan , currently a fellow at the Stanford Her idea is “to explore how law can be more engaging, more usable, and more useful … to document how students, lawyers, researchers, and professionals can build products and services to redesign law.”

I’m not going to be able to do justice to her site and her work in this short column; I can tell you, though, that she’s thinking about how to present legal information in new, fabulous, and even gorgeous ways. We rarely use design elements in traditional legal publishing, but why not move beyond text based information? For instance, I see lots of promise for legal infographics; I expect they’ll be useful for public legal education materials but why not use them to explain some complicated legal concepts to lawyers, too? Think of all of the “if … then” scenario trees we encounter in legal practice, and how well those could be expressed graphically. But go and take a look for yourself.

Then I reviewed Tim Knight and Sarah Sutherland’s excellent presentation from the recent CALL conference. They introduced and discussed the ideas behind the semantic web and legal information. (Hat tip to Kim Nayyer for her post that alerted me to this session.)

The idea is that you take all the open data on the web and use metadata to create relevant connections between the data that may not have been apparent before, or were too difficult to create or discover. This applies to any sort of information, but we can see that also it applies to legal information.

I see real potential here to develop further secondary sources that take resources already available and connect them either with other secondary sources or related primary law or further connections between related primary law.

What exactly would this look like? It’s certainly not just one thing or service, and will probably start with limited scope projects. The danger is that the vast possibilities will lead to an endless rabbit hole of legal research. Designing resources in which it is clear that research is efficient and complete will be important.

We have moved such a long way from putting print online and being constrained by that format. Of course there are plenty of reasons that the first online legal publishing projects started that way, but our thinking and the technology has advanced so much since then.

What’s next? Communicating the possibilities to our market, leading and following at the same time, and of course the perennial topic of how to fund these projects will keep us occupied for years to come.

I may be dreaming in technicolour, but I’m pretty certain we’re not living in a nightmare … this is more like one of those vivid dreams with lots of interesting characters and exciting scenarios.


  1. Interesting post. Nothing wrong with dreaming a little dream… That said, I like your suggestion of “real potential here to develop further secondary sources that take resources already available and connect them either with other secondary sources or related primary law or further connections between related primary law.” Would be even better if legal researchers weren’t also constrained by having to choose one service over another. Imagine the possibilities of the for-profit legal information services being “boundaryless” — i.e., cooperating to integrate their content, being able to move seamlessly from one database to another. Legal information providers truly meeting the needs of their customers/clients.