Legal Research’s Easy Button Moment

I have been thinking of this blog post by Jean P. O’Grady from last September: “Lex Machina Launches New ‘Easy Button’ Analytics Apps to Compare Judges, Courts and Law Firms”. To my knowledge Lex Machina doesn’t literally call their system improvements an “easy button”, but the site developments and O’Grady’s description are symptomatic of this moment in how we discuss legal research: there is a desire to make legal research easier, and as technology improves this is becoming a reality.

In many cases this will be a great help to people who want to navigate the legal system and understand what the laws that affect them mean. I don’t intend to discuss these cases in this column, here I will write about the development of the deep research skills needed by professional researchers such as lawyers and law librarians to provide the enhanced expertise needed to be paid professionally for this work.

There is a desire to simplify legal research, and requirements for things like researchers being familiar with the contents of all available indices or titles in particular online services is declining. The single search boxes on WestlawNext and Lexis Advance promise not only a successfully completed search that fulfills explicit requirements, but also one that provides results that best suit searchers’ intentions, and by extension, and more elusively, aims to answer their questions.

Tools like checklists and decision trees make processes easier to implement, consider a detailed research checklist like Cathie Best’s. And as systems get better, aided by improvements in computing that often misleadingly go by the name of artificial intelligence, this will improve, but I wonder what is lost when systems create an illusion of ease around things that are actually quite complicated. Nevertheless, some questions, and I suspect many of those being answered by law firms or for which people go to a library for help will remain resistant to these tools.

Being the best at legal research will continue to be a competitive advantage for law firms and law libraries. There continues, and will continue, to be cases where the only way to really answer the question is to go to the basement and find the microfiche original version of the regulation from 100 years ago which included a diagram that isn’t in the online version.

Late last year Franklin Sayre, a medical librarian from the University of Minnesota, posted the following on Twitter explaining why he makes medical research as complicated as he can:

For a year I've been teaching information literacy, evidence based medicine, and critical appraisal by making it as complicated as I can

I have thought about that since and can say that in research instruction I have never found much advantage in trying to make legal research seem easy. Only partly because the effort has always fallen a bit flat once I start enumerating the steps involved.

Making legal research seem as difficult as possible has a certain appeal, especially for those who will have to do that work professionally. Getting research wrong in law and medicine both have high stakes, and the process should not be taken lightly. Perspective matters, and looking everywhere there is information available for multiple points of view can be an advantage.

A single search box* on a single online service promises simplicity and offers profound advantages over the world of expert searching when minutes are counted and a typo can cost hundreds of dollars. I feel no nostalgia for the days of command line searching: single search box services and flat rate subscriptions — and let’s face it better free sources — have greatly improved researchers’ experiences.

Hopefully, the legal community will come to a sensible understanding that we can both get the difficult and rare information we need to illuminate understanding of something as complex as the laws of a modern nation state, while still making the ones people need for their lives accessible to them.

* A note on CanLII’s search interface: CanLII didn’t keep the single search box after we rolled it out in 2013. This is because people using the site were not getting the results they expected to from their searches, and expanding out the fields to be searched helped make the search results better meet searchers’ intentions. In this case we found three search boxes were actually simpler than one.


  1. This is such an articulate expression of why there’s no Easy Button (thanks, Staples) for legal research. In fact, there isn’t one for any complex research executed beyond Google, as conducted by a professional. Thank you, Sarah.