The most significant innovation in legal history?

The most significant innovation in legal history?

LexisNexis' 200 year anniversary seems to have coincided with AI hitting the very top of the hype curve, blockchain finding its way into the everyday Lexicon and increasing numbers of leading law firms opening their own tech accelerator hubs. The amazing opportunities available today to lawyers, law firms, in-house teams, learning establishments and their customers got us wondering whether we are currently experiencing the most significant innovations ever seen by lawyers. Or perhaps the introduction of email was even more significant? Or the dominance of desktop computers? James Wilkinson, Head of Content Automation at LexisNexis UK, investigates...

We started asking for opinions in our Farringdon Street office and, as expected, there were numerous suggestions. However there was one technology that seemed to resonate strongly with everyone but is easily forgotten because of its pervasiveness within law and almost every other industry. It was an innovation that dominated LexisNexis (previously Butterworths) during the first 160 years of our history but had already been available for 350 years before Henry Butterworth opened his bookstore in 1818.

Johannes Guttenberg's printing press was a major first step on a journey of democratising information and transmitting it with ease and speed.

Whilst the printing press had been developed in the mid-1400s, it wasn't until 1481 or 1482 when the first English law book was printed: Sir Thomas de Littleton's Treatise on Tenures, which was written in French (the language of the legal profession and of the English aristocracy from the Norman Conquest until the 1600s).  Perhaps even more importantly, the first legislation was printed in 1483. Before then, the dissemination of legal information and ideas - including publishing law reports and instructional guides for solicitors and justices of the peace - was limited to a scribe's accuracy and speed and therefore tended to be limited to those few in the Inns of Court who had access to manuscript copies.

The pre-printing press, "manuscript culture", methods of recording and sharing information in notebooks or commonplace books and the direct conversations between lawyers made it challenging for those practising or upholding law to be sure that they were up-to-date with current legislation and practice. However the same methods also proved to be an ideal protectionist tool allowing (or perhaps even engineering) a major knowledge gap between those who had access to the law and those who didn't. A lawyer's value would regularly lie with just knowing what the law was, rather than how to apply the law. Of course this is no longer how a lawyer creates value and such a scenario seriously offends our current concepts of the Rule of Law since people cannot be truly equal if it is impossible for the majority to even know what the law is.

This advantageous knowledge gap meant that lawyers were short of incentives to extricate themselves from the manuscript culture and widespread adoption of print therefore took many decades. This is hard to imagine with the benefit of hindsight and knowing how legal publishing's more recent history exclusively focussed on books until the introduction of the Lexis terminals in 1973.

However even in the late 1400s and early 1500s, those lawyers who were early adopters benefited from being able to access the most up-to-date information they needed faster, with more confidence, and without geographic impediment, opening up new markets and commercial opportunities. As the world and the profession evolved, leading lawyers have embraced the advances and innovations afforded to them. Not for the sake of innovation, but to empower their work and advance the causes of their clients. New technologies have always been leveraged by innovative practitioners for commercial advantage – from legal books to fax machines and Dictaphones. It seems likely that this considered adoption of new technology will continue to be the hallmark of successful lawyers the world over.

James Wilkinson is Head of Content Automation at LexisNexis UK. 

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