Legal search: what does the future hold?

Legal search: what does the future hold?

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?

Brief history of search for lawyers

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.

Modern search technology

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 up their deepest secrets to powerful digital interrogators whose inherent search facilities interpret results, test right and wrong outcomes to verify them and assess suitability - and they can include the ‘down the rabbit hole’ case law gems we previously believed only a trained legal professional could find. This technology is just that though - intelligent, trained and inexhaustible, the consummate professional driven to achieve the right outcome.

Are firms adapting their research methods to take advantage of latest search technology?

Although there is no doubt that huge advances have been seen in search technology, are law firms able to tap into the benefits? According to Loyita Worley, Director of Library Operations at Reed Smith, legal databases have a lot of catching up to do: “There hasn’t been much change in the legal databases in the past 10-20 years. Yes, the content has grown and technology has developed but fundamentally they remain the same. What I am finding is that they are not keeping pace with the technology / search engines around them and so whilst we continue to invest large sums of money for their content, increasingly our young lawyers are defaulting to Google because it is ‘easier’.

If lawyers are resorting to Google, that either demonstrates the effectiveness of Google or the lack of any viable search engine dedicated to legal profession - or both. Worley notes that searching through multiple databases is simply not efficient: “The lawyers of today and the future are looking for a single resource that is easily searchable, contains all relevant legal materials from case law, legislation, precedents – both internal and external – and other practical resources such as regulatory materials, calculators, relevant industry news etc.  They don’t want to – nor do they have the time in this competitive arena where we are moving away from hourly rates and towards fixed fee - to be doing multiple searching.

However, despite the lack of a uniform and all encompassing search tool for lawyers, various products are making strides in this area. Ross Intelligence (a portfolio company of Dentons' legal technology accelerator Nextlaw Labs) has harnessed the power of IBM Watson to provide a natural language research tool for lawyers. Lex Machina (acquired by LexisNexis) sifts through vast amounts of US case law to predict outcomes of various legal strategies. Meanwhile, evidence search tools are being effectively used to reduce the costs and time of e-disclosure, in a process known as predictive coding.

What does the future hold?

It’s likely that search will increasingly use machine learning techniques to personalise results for each individual user. Alex Smith, Innovation Manager at Reed Smith, argues that: “search is heading to be predictive and personal. So using search analytics and behavioural patterns we can make search personal to you and start to predict your intent.” This means that lawyers will need to spend less time on formulating instructions for search engines; instead their searches will be automatically tailored to provide relevant results based on their individual or company profile.

Furthermore, search will be able to present information in a way which guides the user, enhancing the overall research process and providing recommendations as to other relevant searches or information. Instead of a human interrogating a search engine, search engines of the future will act more as virtual research assistants, providing a ‘knowledge journey’. For examples of this emerging trend, Smith suggests looking at “Google’s knowledge graph at the top of their results (search “cat breeds”). Also look at Lexis Recommends at the top of UK Lexis Library and Lexis Answers in the US for how we’ll be suggested legal answers in future.

David Espley, CTO of LexisNexisUK comments that:

As a business, we are committed to providing legal and tax professions with the best search experience possible. We are investing huge amounts of time and energy over the short, medium and long term to make this experience as fast, reliable and relevant as possible.”

The future of legal search - at least initially - may lie in bringing together the various information silos under a single umbrella and combining all the different research tools in one place. Lots of advanced search technology is currently restricted to certain products which may either be unavailable to many lawyers or do not include data relevant to their field. So creating a single search source may be the first step in the future of search for lawyers.

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About the author:
Alex Heshmaty is a legal copywriter and journalist with a particular interest in legal technology. He runs Legal Words, a legal copywriting and marketing agency.