Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Reinvention of Legal Research: The Future Is Now

The Future Isn't Now. Not quite. Just because we can get "free" and easy access to all the primary law in the world, it doesn't mean that we can safely say that we can do "free" and easy legal research.

There's an interesting post on the Huffington Post that's being circulated in the law library blogosphere by Peter Schwartz that's causing some alarm with the declaration that "The Future is Now." I think that Mr. Schwartz is overstating the importance of access to primary materials and fails to understand the real subtlety of legal research.

First off, I agree that the two big publishers, Lexis and West are in big trouble. They have built their empires publishing primary law, and they're making so much money doing so that they've mistakenly come to believe that that's what they are: commercial publishers of primary legal materials.

While it's true that both companies began by publishing primary materials, this isn't the real value that they bring to lawyers, libraries and legal researchers. When West Publishing first began, it brought something to the field that didn't exist before: quick, easy access to cases. That was it's bread and butter. When Lexis entered the scene in the late 1970's, it brought quick access to primary law, too. But over time, West's greatest contributions to the field was it's Key Number System, CJS, and it's great treatises, such as Wright and Miller.

The real trick of legal research (the lawyering part) isn't necessarily finding the law, it is interpreting and understanding it. This isn't done by merely reading a lot of cases, it is done using tools: treatises, classification systems, restatements, journals, etc. Any researcher worth his salt knows, that having every case on the law of insider trading isn't worth a damn toward understanding the law of insider trading; unless you have time to read ten thousand cases!

Today, in the modern legal information economy the useful parts of what West and Lexis are selling us is not the primary law, it's the secondary materials! Lawyers don't actually learn what the law is by reading cases, they learn what it is by reading treatises, handbooks and articles written by scholars and experts who do read the cases.

What West and Lexis under-appreciate with their ridiculous pricing options is that making people pay through the nose for access to primary legal materials - when nearly all of it is available for free in numerous places - is blind. What they both possess that has real value are their secondary materials: key numbers, treatises, etc. This is what they should be selling and promoting. I'm looking for the day when I can cancel all the reporters and access to the primary materials and focus on collecting the secondary. Hopefully, someone will be archiving the primary materials.... just in case.

Peter Schwartz and others correctly point out that lawyers and their libraries may soon simply have to stop subscribing to Lexis and Westlaw because their services are becoming unaffordable. This may soon be true. But if we do, how will we find the law? Without those treatises and classification services, we're hosed. Right?


Jootaek(Juice) said...

I agree. Great perspective!

Paper on Research said...

Many institutions limit access to their online information. Making this information available will be an asset to all.