My dream tool for legal research

Imagine that you find a case which is perfect for your legal argument, but it is unfortunately from the wrong jurisdiction. Wouldn’t it be excellent if you could just go to Westlaw or whatever legal database and hit a button “find cases with similar results / arguments [in X jurisdiction]”? Obviously sometimes, perhaps even frequently, there won’t be any cases that were decided similarly for similar reasons, but if there were, wouldn’t it be nice to find out right away?

Today, you can look up cases with similar subject matter using the headnotes / keycites at the beginning of the case in e.g. Westlaw, but that says little/nothing about the result or legal arguments used. Obviously in most cases you want to find cases that both support and oppose your argument, but hey.

In other news, I really wish there were a “Google Law” type legal database, completely open and freely available to the public and with normal web search engine features + syntax, i.e. something that any regular web user could immediately use. I think I raised this idea with my friends once and they said it wouldn’t be good for our job security if just anyone could look up the law for themselves… then what would they need lawyers for? Upon further consideration and after chatting with uncleamos, I don’t think that’s true though… although people are increasingly able to do medical research online for themselves, that doesn’t mean they are less likely to seek medical treatment from a doctor. Simply having information isn’t good enough, you also need the expertise to use it, whether on the operating table or in the courtroom. It’s just empowering to have some idea of what your hired professional is doing for you instead of being totally clueless.

5 thoughts on “My dream tool for legal research

  1. Indeed. There are plenty of other artificial barriers (HMO-assigned GPs, medical licensing, the bar and having to go to law school to take it) that will keep both professions in the money for quite a while…

    That said, I do think the availability of public information does affect the market for doctors (and, theoretically, lawyers) to a small degree–namely, by discouraging trivial cases. If I get a weird rash or something, I can look it up online and see that it’s nothing serious. If I didn’t have that public information, I’d likely freak out and go to a doctor unnecessarily.

    Similarly, if someone reviews my product and pans the hell out of it, and I get mad and want to sue, right now I’d have to go to a lawyer to (hopefully) get told that I’m an idiot. If there was a public database, I could look for myself first and realize that I have no case.

    So that’s a small loss in business. But how many doctors and lawyers *like* dealing with hypochondriacs and sue-happy freaks anyway?

    • I’ve walked into the U of Minnesota law library without trouble. You can’t check anything out, though. I think you have to have a login to use online databases like Westlaw, too.

    • It depends on the library. Most of the university law libraries I’ve been to allow community access — though they may charge you a fee, and maybe a higher one if you actually want to check things out.

      And yeah, no community Westlaw/Lexis/other expensive database access, though they will happily let you pay a la carte by credit card, if you happen to be overburdened with money you don’t know what else to do with. You may as well pay an attorney to do the research for you in fewer searches.

      I am looking forward to the projects that are putting up case law, and hope they will have open efforts to get the legal research community to contribute metadata…

  2. I don’t see any reason why this is impossible in principle… court decisions are public documents, aren’t they?

    It would be interesting to have a semantic search (or very sophisticated syntactical search) that could identify key phrases and propositions, and tag a decision accordingly.

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