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The Google factor

The Google factor

Law librarians throughout Australia are well aware of the effect Google is having on legal research, particularly for younger lawyers. Mary Cavanough, the national know-how-manager at Minter…

Law librarians throughout Australia are well aware of the effect Google is having on legal research, particularly for younger lawyers.

Mary Cavanough, the national know-how-manager at Minter Ellison, says that she has young lawyers coming to her saying they’ve searched everywhere and still can’t find something. When asked where they looked, the young lawyers typically say they’ve run a Google search.

Natalie Wieland, director of specialist legal research training company Bliss Consulting, repeats a quote she read: “They are no longer looking for a needle in a haystack – they are looking for the haystack.”

Currently there’s a real problem with younger lawyers failing to understand the tools and resources needed to be an effective lawyer, says Wieland. “I just think they stumble upon things – they don’t care if it is authenticated, they don’t tend to care who wrote it, where it came from, what jurisdiction. And instead of understanding the whole area of law, they just look for individual answers.”

Hearing from the young lawyers themselves, matters don’t appear so bleak. Scott Fitzgibbon, a 25-year-old first-year litigation lawyer with Macpherson + Kelley Lawyers regularly uses Google for his research, but exercises discretion about what for.

He says he uses Google every day and it is his first point of call when doing research on the background of a particular issue or client. When it comes to specific legal research, however, he will first turn to the likes of LexisNexis (Lawyers Weekly is published by LexisNexis) LawLex and AustLII.

“My concern, I suppose, is that anyone can post anything on the internet and it’s difficult to verify other than, say, if it’s from a government website,” he says.

Fitzgibbon’s colleague, 29-year-old Alex Martin, is from the same school of thought. “If I wanted to make a legal point I certainly wouldn’t rely on research from Google,” says Martin. “But if I was just trying to get some sort of background information for something else, I would go to Google. I use it a lot, but I don’t take what’s on it that seriously.”

And while young law students might be entering the workforce with a certain reliance on Google, this habit is quickly quashed by the natural research audit chain found in the law firms, says Cavanough. She says that typically junior lawyers are asked by the senior associates and partners to do the research. The senior associates and partners are very critical and aware of where the junior lawyers should have searched. They quickly get the young lawyers on the right track.

So what role should Google play in legal research?

It’s easy to dismiss Google as non-academic and the simplistic way of going about legal research. As Weiland tells her students: “People don’t come to a lawyer to be googled.” That said, however, it’s hard to dismiss some of the positive elements of Google.

“Google has been an absolute boon to us,” says Cavanough. “The things that would have taken me days to find years ago are now just right there at my finger tips. The unusual, the international.”

Rob Shilkin, the head of corporate communications and public affairs for Google Australia and a former lawyer, says that Google and other general search engines can play useful roles in legal research. “In terms of getting a number of perspectives, as a starting point for research, or just finding a case name on the tip of your tongue, search engines are proving very valuable,” he says.

One of the biggest concerns about using Google for legal research is the reliability of the information that’s found. This is one of this issues Wieland addresses in her role as research skills advisor at Melbourne University.

One exercise she asks her students to do is to look up the tallest building listed in Wikipedia. Wieland says that three different buildings come up. She also warns that a googled version of the Fair Trading Act could be as out of date as five years. “I’m not saying that electronic and Google is irrelevant, I’m saying there needs to be more methodology and process in how it’s used.”

Catherine Wheery, the librarian at Macpherson + Kelley, uses Google as the last resort. She also has concerns about lawyers, particularly the younger ones, having the discernment to wade through the Google quagmire. “You have to look out for misinformation and it’s hard to teach them how to look out for misinformation,” she says.

Shilkin dismisses concerns about lawyers inappropriately relying on what they find through Google. He says that lawyers are renowned for being critical thinkers and having the ability to assess information they are presented with. “Lawyers are great at using their research skills and discernment and to find what results are the best and most suited to their particular problem.”

With or without Google

There are mixed opinions about the future of legal research and the role Google will play.

Wieland predicts a return of old-fashioned legal research skills. She was recently at an Australian Law Libraries Association event, where there was a panel discussion on the topic. There was a general consensus that as a result of the likes of Google, legal research has been neglected.

There is now a movement to revert back to teaching more critical skills related to being a good researcher. Some of the universities have already got on board. Melbourne University, Monash University and Newcastle University have all recently created teaching roles dedicated to legal research skills, says Wieland. Weiland was Melbourne University’s inaugural appointment earlier this year. “They’re actually going back to the basics,” she says.

Cavanough has different thoughts about where legal research is heading. She predicts that rather than turning away from Google, the future of legal research will embrace that model. “People are becoming more and more googalised and they expect that internally as well,” she says. “We think that’s the future of research.”

Minter Ellison is working on an enterprise search engine that will internally replicate the Google experience. Cavanough says that within Minter Ellison, and all big law firms for that matter, there is an enormous amount of experience and expertise built up in previous advices and precedents and matters that have been run before, resulting in a wealth of internal resources.

“It’s just a matter of surfacing all that,” she says. Minter Ellison currently has a search engine but has had trouble tweaking it to meet their needs. With the technological advancements in recent years, particularly in search engines, Cavanough is confident of big developments in this area in the near future.

LexisNexis is another organisation modelling its future approach on Google. Currently LexisNexis is trying to make its platform more simple and more generation Y-friendly, says Daemoni Bishop, the Pacific research solutions director at LexisNexis Australia.

And rather than seeing Google as a threat, LexisNexis is making efforts to embrace the opportunities Google offers. “Google provides an exceptional aid to marketing and distributing any content we wish to make available to it,” says Bishop. One of the big developments LexisNexis is working on is to introduce transactional rather than subscription payment for information. This change is specifically targeted to customers who access LexisNexis through Google.

For those wondering whether Google will develop its own legal research tool, at this stage the answer is, no. Shilkin says that Google currently has no plans to launch into that space.

“I don't think any general search engine is ever going to replace specific legal research tools, like case citators, unreported judgements, law digest and so on,” he says. “I wouldn't be putting my CLRs in the bin just yet.”

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The Google factor
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