Legal Research Revolutionized

Vol. 31 No. 3


Dan Giancaterino is the Education Services Manager at Jenkins Law Library, which has been assisting the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, legal community since 1802. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Jenkins Law Library.

As an attorney, you need to keep up with anything that impacts your profession. Rule 1.1 (Comment 8) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct states that you “should keep abreast of changes in the law and its practice, including the benefits and risks associated with relevant technology” (my emphasis) in order to maintain your professional competency.

Legal research is part of all that. And it’s going to change during the next decade. This article will explore some possible scenarios for the future.

Before I make my predictions, I’d like to go out on a limb and make a guarantee:

Traditional Research Methods and Venues Will Remain

Law libraries will survive, and even thrive, in the future. An article in the May 2013 issue of ABA Journal estimated that only 15 percent of the unique volumes in U.S. law libraries have been digitized. You’ll need your local law library to give you access to the other 85 percent. If your law library doesn’t own a particular title, it can probably borrow it for you from another library. Moreover, law librarians are subject specialists who can quickly identify other relevant sources of legal information for you.

Subscription access to large legal information services will also continue. If it fits into your budget, a Lexis or Westlaw account provides almost (but not quite) one-stop shopping for legal research. This can save you a lot of time and effort.

Wow, pretty clairvoyant, huh? Maybe not, but it’s important to note that the changes in legal research I’m looking at during the next decade are an evolution, not a revolution. So on to my predictions.

Tablets Will Be Ubiquitous

This trend has already begun. As I write this, I have the following news stories open in different browser tabs:

  • Research firm IDC is predicting that tablets will outsell PCs and laptops combined for the first time during the fourth quarter of 2013 and annually by 2015.
  • Gartner, Inc., projects that shipments of PCs and laptops combined will decline more than 11 percent in 2013, while those of tablets will shoot up by more than 50 percent.
  • ABI Research is reporting that during the second quarter of 2013 sales of lower-cost Android tablets surpassed those of premium-priced iPads for the first time.

In short, tablets are becoming cheaper, more utilitarian, and less of a status item. That’s going to help make them a key component of legal research.

Tablets also do the best job of balancing size versus portability. The display on your smartphone is too small for extended legal research. I’ve used the free Fastcase app both on my Nexus 4 smartphone (4.7-inch diagonal screen) and on an iPad (9.7-inch diagonal screen). No contest. It was so much easier to type queries, navigate through results, and read cases on the iPad. (By the way, this is also why those recently introduced smartwatches aren’t going to take off in legal settings.)

A typical laptop weighs at least twice as much as a tablet. Imagine all that extra weight hanging from your shoulder as you move from location to location throughout the day. And because a tablet’s battery life is generally better than that of a laptop, you probably won’t have to lug around a charger as well. You won’t ditch your laptop completely, however—you’ll use it at the office for typing briefs and other types of documents.

Now, tablets aren’t exactly “legal research” per se, but they’re important to the evolution of legal research because they enable a flourishing app ecosystem. And that leads to. . . .

Legal Books as Apps

We’ve all seen the typical legal advertisement on the Internet, on TV, or even on the covers of telephone books (remember them?): an image of an attorney sitting in front of a wall of legal books. It impresses potential clients. And it implies that the attorney is continually consulting the accumulated wisdom of legal scholars throughout the ages.

But the truth is you need most legal sources for only a few days or weeks. The rest of the time they just sit on your shelf looking impressive but presenting you with challenges:

  • They’re expensive.
  • They take up office space, which is a fixed cost you need to minimize as much as possible.
  • They need upkeep. You must file updated pages or pocket parts or you risk committing legal malpractice by relying on outdated materials.

Legal eBooks pretty much take care of the last two problems. However, they’re just as costly, even when “chunked” into subparts or purchased with monthly pricing. (They can be just as expensive, or even more so, for your local law library to purchase.)

The solution: Rent them as applications. In this scenario, you’ll go to the online store—iTunes (, Google Play (, Windows Phone Apps+Games (, the publisher’s own site, whatever—and select the title you want and how many days you want it. The publisher will set the expiration date in the app, charge your credit card or online wallet, and initiate the download.

West has already taken a baby step toward this delivery model. You can, for example, download the Black’s Law Dictionary app from the iTunes store for $54.99 or from the Windows Phone Apps+Games store for $59.99.

But that’s still way too much money. I want to be able to download Black’s for something like $1.99 for one day’s use or $2.99 for a week. And I’d like to take this further. I want to be able to download the Collier Consumer Bankruptcy Practice Guide with Forms app for a few dollars for a day instead of buying the eBook for $1,150.

Legal books as apps can be a win-win for attorneys and publishers:

  • The app model features lower pricing with no contract. (There goes another fixed cost.)
  • There’s no need to download an eBook viewer or worry about incompatible file formats. All you have to know is your platform: Apple’s iOS, Google’s Android, or Windows Phone.
  • You’re spared the drudgery of filing updated pages and/or pocket parts. The publisher will update the app, if necessary.
  • You’re downloading smaller chunks—an individual section or chapter from, say, a treatise—not a ginormous eBook.
  • The app can feature a simpler interface than those typically used for eBooks so that you can focus on the material and not be distracted by technology.
  • The publisher sells more products to more attorneys than it would have otherwise. [Note to legal publishers: I’m currently tracking a Lifehacker online poll, “What’s the Most You’ll Pay for a Mobile App?” Of the nearly 3,000 respondents, 26 percent chose $4 to $5, another 12 percent picked $6 to $10, and 24 percent even said “More than $10 if the app is right.” So there’s money to be made with the app model.]

I can see some potential ethical issues with this approach, however:

  • Given how the app is designed, the publisher might (accidentally or on purpose) create for itself the ability to track where you are, what you click on, any notes you make, etc. You may remember that back in early 2013 researchers at Carnegie Mellon University discovered that two popular apps—Brightest Flashlight and Angry Birds—collected users’ locations and device IDs. Some of this information was shared with mobile advertising networks.
  • What happens if the publisher sends an update notice to your device but you don’t download the updated app? (They’ll know you didn’t.)
  • Can the app be considered as having the same authority as the official version of a legal resource, especially if the app publisher doesn’t have Lexis’s or West’s status in the legal publishing industry?

Where do law libraries fit into this scenario? They could negotiate discounts for legal apps for their members. They’d also continue to be crucial for helping attorneys identify relevant resources—in this case, apps instead of books. However, I believe that law libraries shouldn’t get into the business of loaning tablets with requested apps preloaded on them. This is forcing the new research paradigm back into the old lending-library model.

How about Case Law and Citators?

The app model works for case law research as well. Let’s say you’ve found a case on point and you want to make sure it’s still good law. You’ll go to the online store and submit a citator request. In a few minutes you’ll be able to download a Shepard’s or KeyCite app containing the results. It’s possible that this could also follow the rental model, but I think it makes more sense that you’d own this app.

Obviously this would also work for Shepardizing or KeyCiting a statute.

You may have noticed that I didn’t discuss case law searching in this section of the article. This is intentional. I’m predicting that case law itself will become a giveaway, a sort of loss leader. Sources such as Google Scholar and the free Fastcase app (among others) are helping to drive this trend. The legal publishers will make their money off their citator services.

You Wear It Well

Many people are talking about “wearable computing.” I’ve already touched on smartwatches above and found them wanting as far as legal research is concerned because of their screen size. What about Google Glass? For the uninitiated, Google Glass resembles a pair of eyeglasses without traditional lenses. One side of the frame contains an interactive display the size of a postage stamp that allows the wearer to retrieve information, take notes, get directions, send messages, check calendars, take pictures, and record video. Like smartphones and tablets, Google Glass has its own app ecosystem. (As I write this, there are rumors that both Microsoft and Samsung are working on rivals to Google Glass.)

I believe Glass has the potential to be another effective legal research tool. Here are just a few of the ways that a mobile, tech-savvy attorney can use Glass:

  • Creating photo vignettes—for example, a picture of a crash scene with the time and weather conditions in an overlay box in the upper right-hand corner.
  • Recording video depositions.
  • Performing hands-free research using voice search.

I don’t think wearable devices such as Glass will truly become accepted legal research tools until we see some ethics opinions setting standards for acceptable use. And perhaps laws as well—in October 2013 a Glass wearer in California was ticketed for driving with a visible video monitor. (Her citation was dismissed three months later because there was no evidence that her Glass was turned on at the time.) Also, the price will need to come down from the current $1,500 range or this will remain a niche (geek) product.

Embracing the Cloud

My last prediction: Attorneys will stop hyperventilating about the perils of cloud computing and finally embrace it. This is the place where your office staff can share their research results with you or you can share it with colleagues.

Case in point: As I’ve been writing this article, I’ve been periodically saving it to Google Drive. It’s backed up so I don’t have to worry about inadvertently losing my work. When I get home at night, I can download the file and continue working on it. And I’ve shared the file with colleagues at Jenkins so they can access it on Google Drive, review it, and give me constructive criticism.

Yes, I know there are potential problems with cloud storage. The service can be down owing to technical problems or the provider can go out of business without any warning. I understand your fears about putting your information (or your clients’) on someone else’s servers—servers outside your care, custody, and control. But, overall, the cloud can be as safe as or safer than local storage. Here are some hypotheticals that illustrate this:

  • If you only store your practice-related information locally, you could lose it if you suffer an office or home catastrophe, such as a fire, broken water pipe, robbery, etc. If you have a backup drive but it’s in the same location, you’ll lose that, too. A cloud backup would be untouched. After a local disaster you could purchase a new tablet or laptop, download your information, and be back up and running in a couple of hours.
  • Your tablet could be stolen. They are tempting targets for thieves. The police call it “Apple picking.” If you’re using the cloud, the thief would get your device but not what’s really important: your confidential documents. (This is assuming that you follow good security practices on your device: Create strong passwords, don’t store them in any app, and log out when you are done using the app.)
  • If you’re traveling to and from locations outside the United States, any or all your electronic devices could be seized in a warrantless border search. It could take weeks for them to be returned. You wouldn’t know who had access to your documents. The cloud allows you to keep sensitive information off your devices.

Cloud providers have begun to strengthen their security measures in the wake of recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s domestic spying activities. As I write this, Google is currently testing the encryption of individual files uploaded to Google Drive. In the meantime, I’ve chosen to use the free, open-source TrueCrypt program ( to encrypt sensitive files before I upload them to Google Drive. (File encryption is included in the standards for reasonable care contained in the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s ethics opinion on cloud computing.)


It’s hard to predict the future. I’ve avoided going the whole Star-Trek-computer-of-the-future route in this article. If you don’t think that legal research will evolve as quickly as I’ve described, all I can say is this: Less than ten years ago (seven, actually) we weren’t talking about powerful handheld devices featuring downloadable, customizable applications. Now everybody seems to have one (or more) of them.

It can change that fast.


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