The Digital Revolution: Online vs. Hard Copy Legal Research

Like many areas of the legal services market, legal research practices have been transformed in recent years by the great leap forward in legal technology solutions.

No longer surrounded by the clichéd dusty legal tomes, the modern lawyer must become adept at using Boolean strings, natural language searches and online file sharing platforms in order to grapple with the flood of legal material available on a day-to-day basis.

Are the days of law books numbered?

The economic challenges experienced by the legal market in the past five years mean that efficiency is now the name of the game and few would dispute that online research tools contribute significantly to improving productivity and managing costs. Research shows that lawyers can complete tasks three times faster using digital research platforms than hard copy materials (1) A related trend is the move towards lawyers working remotely. The legal profession is becoming increasingly enamoured with mobile communication technologies. According to the 2012 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report (2), 40 per cent of large-firm lawyers now use tablets. [pullquote align=”right” backward=”10″ width=”50″]”Indeed, the idea of “paperless litigation” and using iPads in Australian courts is now on the agenda”[/pullquote](3).  Online research platforms engage with this technology and allow users to access – and share – enormous amounts of stored knowledge while remaining completely mobile. Likewise, digital content provides virtually instantaneous access to current news and developments, helping practitioners stay abreast of recent decisions and important changes in the law as they occur.

The continuing case for hard copy

On the other hand, some argue that there is still a place for hard copy resources in the digital jungle. Textbooks and secondary materials are invaluable resources that are often not available online – and many lawyers still keep a well-thumbed copy of their go-to textbook close at hand. Others point to the fact that the licensing costs associated with online research platforms may not always be attractive to sole practitioners or smaller firms – and while “googling” is now a recognised verb, it doesn’t always return reliable or accurate legal research.

So what does the evolution of electronic legal research mean for the modern lawyer, law firm or legal researcher? The bottom line of the digital debate is that while hard copy still has a place, online research literacy is no longer confined to Gen X and Gen Y. It’s now an essential skill for every practitioner in the legal services market.



(1)    Thomson Reuters 2010, “Study: Westlaw Next is measurably faster than Westlaw”, 15 March 2010
(2)    2012 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report
(3)    Colley, A 2012, “The Federal Court builds case for using iPads”, The Australian, 14 August 2012

Emily Rich is a freelance legal journalist with a background in legal research and knowledge management. She has been a member of the Editorial Committee for the Sydney Law Review.

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