Is AI for Legal Research Ready for Prime Time?

 Book Review: Ann Walsh Long, A Short & Happy Guide to Advanced Legal Research (West Academic Publishing 2020). Available from Amazon and directly from the publisher.

Ann Long has a message for lawyers:

Over the last five years, legal artificial intelligence tools, such as data analytics and natural language processing have moved from science fiction to practical tools. Versions of these powerful tools are available in Fastcase, Judicata, Casetext, and sections of Lexis Advance, Westlaw Edge and Bloomberg.

Prof. Long’s new book, A Short & Happy Guide to Advanced Legal Research, contains good ideas about balancing quality, speed and expense, as well as a wealth of other insights on improving online legal research.

AI & Data Analytics

These increasingly sophisticated tools can give lawyers who know how to use them large advantages. In an age when each year’s new print volumes containing U.S. District Court opinions take up13.5 feet of linear shelf space, we need all the help we can get. The threshold problem has been that learning how to use these new tools is not simple, especially for lawyers more than a few years away from law school.

How can AI and sophisticated data analytics help lawyers? It could be something as simple as automatically adding the synonym “physician” to your research request concerning “doctor.” It could be as useful as quickly obtaining sophisticated analysis of jury verdicts and settlements in the relevant jurisdiction. It could be something as powerful as generating an extensive, easy to use analysis of the decision pattern of the judge who is hearing your case, one that takes into account the 98% of decisions that are not published. Prof. Long analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of these tools and explains exactly how to use them.

Balancing Quality, Speed and Cost

As valuable as the artificial intelligence sections of this book are, I like another feature even more: The emphasis on considering the cost and speed of various automated legal reference tools. Two tacit assumptions pervade much legal research instruction:

  1. The researcher will always have access to unlimited use of the most expensive resources, and
  2. Every issue deserves the same amount of time as the critical issue in a Supreme Court case

I’ve never met Prof. Long but she won my heart when she wrote “Legal research is costly in two ways: expense and time.”

Engineers joke about clients who insist “This project must have very quick completion, minimal expense and the highest quality.” The engineer’s punch line is “Well, between quick, cheap and good, you can only have two.” This concept is sometimes called “the triple constraint triangle.” Things can be quick and cheap. They can be quick and good. They can be cheap and good. They can’t be quick AND cheap AND good. Every day, in so many fields we juggle quality, speed and cost. Legal research is no different.

Legal ethics rules require our work products meet reasonable quality standards. They have to be “good.” This means that in practice lawyers must weigh time against expense. Can you compile a legislative history using only free tools like the U.S. House of Representatives version of the U.S. Code? Sure, but it will take longer than using proprietary legal research tools. Ann Long understands this.

A key feature of the book is the many charts analyzing research tools, first explaining why the resource is valuable (“good”) and then explaining how each is “cheap” or “fast.” One of the best examples: The chart on pages 53 through 57 containing a detailed chart analyzing Good, Cheap and Fast options for statutory research.

Serendipitous Benefits

One of the best things about this book is the author’s habit of almost casually dropping useful ideas that are probably nothing new to good law librarians but will be welcome novelties to most practicing lawyers. For example, absent this volume, I most likely would never have learned about Ken Svengalis’ Legal Information Buyer’s Guide & Reference Manual, an excellent consumer guide that I wish I’d had in hand when negotiating with the “big three” online legal research services.

Prof. Long’s recommendation of the browser extension Pocket may give me even more long-range benefit. Many lawyers will find this utility for organizing web research results quite valuable.

Organization

The seven chapters of A Short & Happy Guide to Advanced Legal Research can be divided into four parts:

  1. An introductory chapter on approaching a legal research project
  2. Four chapters dealing with the best resources for dealing with each stage of a legal research project (whether there is a cause of action, is the issue worth pursuing, discovery & investigation and pretrial action, pleadings, motions & briefs).
  3. A chapter on the ethics of online legal research (available at no charge via SSRN).
  4. A chapter on research on upper level writing (law reviews, etc.),

A copy of the Table of Contents is available online. Things are changing fast in online legal research, which is why Prof. Long advises she will be making free updates available online.

Conclusion

Though originally intended for academic audiences, A Short & Happy Guide to Advanced Legal Research is an essential tool for practicing lawyers, especially for non-experts. It’s the best $22 investment practicing lawyers are likely to find. Highly recommended.

Previously published in Attorney at Work, reprinted with permission.

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