Mary Abraham at Above and Beyond KM suggests that “the current approach to legal research is fundamentally flawed”, and should be turned on its head. While lawyers skills rests within their ability to negotiate, write, analyse and advise, the way Westlaw and Lexis (Wexis) research is conducted, it turns the process in to “a frustrating game of ‘find the needle in the haystack.’”

The approach that Abraham suggests is that Wexis should basically do a reference interview of the researcher before asking the researcher to start entering in his or her queries. Such things as:

  • what are the pertinent facts of the case?
  • what jurisdiction?
  • what procedural approaches?
The idea (which hopefully Mary Abraham is apply for a patent as we speak) shifts the idea that the lawyers should change the way they work to fit the way Wexis databases are structured in an attempt to devise the best query search language. Since research these days is set up much more “Fact Specific” (as was stressed in Law Librarian of Congress, Roberta Shaffer’s talk at the AALL Colloquium), it make sense that legal research tools adjust to that style of research, rather than making attorneys fit inside the four-walls of the data structure in “hit-or-miss”… “needle in the haystack” method currently conducted in generic search technology found today in Wexis databases.
It is good for someone like Abraham to come in from time to time and ask the essential question of “why are we doing it this way?” I’d like to see some of the vendors take a look at these suggestions and see if research could be turned inside out and upside down in order to fit the natural skills of the researcher. I’ve had conversations with people like Jason Wilson about the idea that vendors should start taking into consideration things like geo-location for things like pushing court rules to lawyers who walk into a courthouse with their iPads, laptops or smart phones. Or, leveraging the work of a group of lawyers working on the same matter so that duplication is reduced, and that one researcher can perhaps see a different strategy of researching a topic by evaluating the strategies of his or her peers. 
I’m also sure that some of the vendors have probably started implementing some of these ideas. If they have, then it would be nice to have those pointed out to us. Maybe this is where a Fastcase or a Casemaker could come in and fill the need. Of course, if the vendors build upon Mary Abraham’s suggestions, I wish her the best of luck in getting those royalty checks!
  • Greg –

    Thanks for your kind words. You're absolutely right about the need to ask that critical question: "Why exactly ARE we doing it this way?"

    They say that the mantra of dying organizations is "we do it this way because we've always done it this way." I'm hopeful that both LexisNexis and Westlaw are sufficiently invested in their future prosperity that they are willing to rethink the fundamentals of their legal research business. Equally, I hope lawyers are sufficiently invested in the health of their profession and the well-being of their clients that they are willing to engage with the online research providers to find a more effective way to tackle legal research.

    As for those royalty checks, when they arrive I'll be glad to buy you a drink!

    – Mary

  • Writing a doctoral thesis on legal information retrieval, though from a European perspective, this is one of the questions I have been asking myself.

    In the beginning of full text retrieval, everybody was excited as suddenly one could access legal material directly and not only retrieve references via keywords. It is, however, exactly that meta-information, in my opinion, that can show us the way out of the information djungle.

    Information providers have focused on the search technology for a long time, hoping that algorithms will solve the challenge Abraham points out. Algorithms alone will, however, not be enough, in my opinion. The data has to be made more useful from the beginning, adding semantic values and relationship between cases, legislation and secondary material. Surfing in a connected web of legal information might guide us then in the right direction.