Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Future of Primary Law

West's (OK, Thomson Reuters, technically, but it will always be West to me) announcement that they are shifting focus on becoming a legal software/services company rather than a being primarily a content "creator," should send a chill throughout the law community.

 +Jason Wilson's excellent blog post summarizing the goings on the TR blogger's summit got me thinking about the consequences if West's commitment to creating content actually does become a lower priority. While it's true that more and more primary law is becoming available via "free" websites and services, the quality of these materials is actually poor compared to the quality of the materials produced by West (or Lexis, Fastcase, etc.). Careful editing and indexing of judicial opinions that premium vendors provide is incomparable in the "free law" world.

While I applaud the efforts of the Free Law movement, in my opinion, there is too little attention being paid to be sure that the free law is of useful quality. After all, even the Durham Statement-movement fails to provide digital content that's useful beyond simply finding an particular article and then printing it or reading it. Virtually all digital commons and digital sources of primary law function in the same way: if you know the opinion (or article) that you want to read, they work great. But if you try to find a case (or article) on a specific topic, you need to use a resource behind a pay wall, because none of the Free Law resources provide indexing, metadata that facilitate's online searching.

At the present, Westlaw, LexisNexis, +Fastcase, HeinOnline, Bloomberg Law and a few others are the only ones building digital content that is actually useful for online researchers. Other free sources do what they do as well as can be expected, but concepts such as federated searching across free online law reviews, digital commons, state supreme court websites, etc., virtually non existent.

This is the greatest crisis that I see facing the the legal profession, and especially law librarians today: Insuring that digital content produced by amateurs is useful. This is one thing that tech services librarians can work on: creating new levels of description, classification and meta data to online resources that may make disparate digital resources accessible through the use of federated search engines that are yet to be developed.

No comments: