A lawyer recently called to the Bar of British Columbia eagerly showed up for work on the first day of her new job as a real lawyer at a small, specialized law firm in the Lower Mainland. She had recently completed a year as an articled student at an international, full-service law firm in downtown Vancouver. The firm where she articled was well-equipped with all twentieth century tools, including desktop access to the prevalent commercially licensed research database of the day, QuickLaw.
The receptionist at her new firm escorted her into her new office: the law firm boardroom. What was available to this lawyer to start her new career and work on her new files? Pens, pencils, paper and a telephone. As “luck” would have it, another lawyer had recently given notice that he would be leaving, and the new lawyer stood to inherit his office (and his computer) within a couple of weeks.
Faced with her first few files, including an assignment to “write me a memo about breach of contract”, the lawyer was somewhat stymied as to how to begin. There was an internet connection at the firm (although not in the boardroom), but no firm e-mail or access to QuickLaw. While the firm had an internal library, the nearest law library was a twenty minute drive away. She approached the partners about how she was to complete her research tasks without a computer and QuickLaw. “In our library,” was the answer.
Over the next few months, this lawyer took responsibility for the law firm’s knowledge management system. She began the laborious process of negotiating with the law partners to acquire a subscription to QuickLaw. When a QuickLaw licence was finally acquired, the system was accessed on a dial-up basis through a stand-alone (and stand up) terminal located in the firm’s mail room. At some point a tall stool appeared for the convenience of the user (usually, this lawyer or one other associate at the firm). While there was nothing available electronically in terms of a legal precedent system, following up on a practice at a small firm for which she had been a law student researcher, she began classifying prior legal opinions issued by the firm in accordance with Carswell’s legal classification system on paper.
The reader might be forgiven for assuming that this story took place in the 1980s or earlier. However, the year was 1999. While this story took place only seven years ago, a lifetime of technological change has occurred since and the accessibility of legal research technology has changed with it. When this lawyer came, in 2006, to interview articled students for the purpose of this study, she found that her experience posed a stark contrast to the legal research practices of today’s new lawyers.
In 2005-06, the seven articling students from Edmonton that are the subject of this study had access to a wide variety of resources, including desktop access to commercial legal research databases and internal electronic knowledge management systems. While some subjects of this study had access to only one commercially databases, others could access two or three. Not a single subject interviewed had no electronic access.
Despite this fact, and despite a level of comfort with computer assisted legal research that has been lacking in lawyers that have been the subject of past studies, these students are far from dependent on the computer’s assistance. Instead, they bring to their firms an understanding of the art of legal research, including most of the necessary elements and tools. They make use of internal and external, formal and informal resources, of which computers are but a means to an end.