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One of the key skills of lawyering has traditionally been the ability to rapidly sift through large volumes of information (statute law, precedent, evidence and other data) to identify the important pieces of the legal jigsaw puzzle and effectively advise their clients. But although legal datasets have increased exponentially over the years and search engine technology has advanced substantially, are lawyers taking advantage of the latest tools - and what does the future hold?
Many lawyers practicing today will have learned research techniques prior to the dawn of the internet, when manual searches through old dusty tomes in libraries meant time and effort was spent physically locating a relevant text. Digitisation only became commonplace during the 90s, with searchable online databases following over the next decade or so. Within a generation, legal research had moved from physical spaces governed by Dewey Decimal Systems to virtual libraries ruled by keyword searches.
According to Joanne Frears, partner at Lionshead Law, this shift was largely driven by cost efficiencies:
In the beginning there were scrolls, letters of law, statute, statements, codes and cases that had to be learnt by rote so precedent could be followed. Reduced to printing, this learning was ‘easier’ and in the history of legal searching, authority, either printed, memorised or delivered by a learned authority, has had the longest reign and it still plays a part in Court, where expert testimony is called for. The legal profession was quick to see the time and cost savings of digitising libraries of statute and case records and this type of searching has been available widely since the 1990s. From then on, searching case law no longer meant hours with your head in a book, it required accurate keyboard skills and an instinct for a fuzzy search term.”
Google has been at the forefront of online search since the noughties and serves as a bleeding edge model of search functionality in general. It incorporates technologies such as machine learning and neural networking alongside complex algorithms to create a very sophisticated search tool which can be likened to a form of artificial intelligence (AI). In fact, most of what is termed AI at present is essentially a very clever form of searching through big data, analysing and organising results into a useful distilled form.
Frears argues that effective search tools can sometimes even match the research skills of lawyers: “Searching has evolved and data libraries give
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