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The future of legal research

The future of legal research

Search tools in law firms are getting smarter, more integrated, and even socially aware. David Kidd examines what opportunities will be provided for lawyers in the future of legal search.

Search tools in law firms are getting smarter, more integrated, and even socially aware. David Kidd examines what opportunities will be provided for lawyers in the future of legal search.

When it comes to storing, accessing, and using documentation, the legal industry is like no other.

Take Freehills, one of Australia's largest law firms. It currently has 7.2 million documents, including emails, in its document management system, and the archive is expected to grow by at least 2 million each year - and that doesn't even include a decade of legacy content that is yet to be incorporated into the system.

For an industry that lives or dies on how quickly and efficiently it can find, use, and re-use information, it's little wonder that search tools are one of the most important considerations for law firms.

Nicole Bamforth, director of knowledge management at Freehills, says that when implementing an effective search system knowledge managers often discuss the "2am test".

"What happens when a lawyer is working on a high-pressure piece of work at 2am and they need to find something?" asks Bamforth.

"How do they go about it? If the system is user-friendly, reliable, and going to go out across the entire system and search the results, that's when you feel more confident about the tools you're giving to your lawyers."

This may sound obvious, but search tools still have a long way to go before they can truly pass the 2am test. Part of the problem, says Bamforth, is that law firms often employ a range of document management systems and information repositories, each using different search engines and interfaces.

"You need to know how to use the search tools within different systems. You can be required to constantly shift your mind to thinking, 'Okay, I should go to this site, and that will be able to help me find that piece of information, and then this is how I need to search within that other site'. You need to, as a user, think about that in order to use those sites."

The future of search, according to Bamforth, will involve integrated search engines that can retrieve information from multiple sources, and will understand how lawyers work and what they want - rather than the other way around.

Lawyers are different

When it comes to searching, legal professionals have a distinct set of requirements. For example, certain document types carry more authority than others, and different types of users have correspondingly different needs and access privileges. Justin North, director of knowledge management consultancy Janders Dean, says that future legal search tools must have a better understanding of who lawyers are and what they find valuable.

"Certain peer groups will search in different ways," says North. "[The search tool] must understand the different levels of lawyers- a first-year-qualified, second-year-qualified, senior associate, or a partner - and why they look for things, when they look for things, and what types of things they see as valuable."

And it's here that specially crafted legal search systems will always win out over more generic, mainstream search engines such as Google, or search engines that are useful only for a specific application, such as email.

“Conceptual searching is not only a dramatic shift in search technology, it will change how lawyers traditionally conduct searches”

The two biggest players in this space, Autonomy and Recommind, have distinguished themselves because of their understanding of how lawyers operate; in the case of Autonomy, you could even say it acquired another company - Interwoven - as a way to enter the market.

Understanding what lawyers want from their search engine is only one part of the puzzle. Conceptual searching - where the search engine will be able to determine what a document is about, rather than just the keywords it contains - is one of the most prized features of existing legal search tools, and it will only become more important in coming years. In fact, according to North, conceptual searching is not only a dramatic shift in search technology, it will change how lawyers traditionally conduct searches.

"One of the things that has come about in the past few years is conceptual searching [which means] I no longer need keywords to search - I can search for concepts within documents. This technology, in theory, will read all the documents that I have in my repository overnight, and then build concepts."

Furthermore, North says, by determining what each document is about, these future search engines will be able to connect lawyers to documents that are conceptually related, despite not sharing the same keywords.

Social search

James Dellow, senior business and technical consultant at enterprise consultancy Headshift, says there's one other area that future search engines may need to take more seriously: informal information derived from lawyers' behaviours and social interactions.

"I think we've almost taken the automated or very systematic approach to searching as far as we can go," says Dellow. "It still remains important, but what we now need to do is augment it with social-based search, or the search for the informal information in some of these social connections."

According to Dellow, Web 2.0 technologies - such as micro-blogging systems (e.g. Twitter), instant messaging, or simply tagging or bookmarking a website - can potentially hold a lot of value.

Automatically mining these informal systems - or tapping into the "activity stream" of lawyers' behaviour - can provide valuable information that might otherwise be missed.

"What becomes more challenging is in big cases, or when the client relationship lasts over a number of years, and [the formal knowledge management system] tells us nothing about the client relationship, and nothing about how things actually preceded," says Dellow.

"There's a real need to be able to search back and look at the more social, informal interactions that were going on around that case."

However, not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for incorporating informal information into knowledge management systems. Bamforth sees the integration of Web 2.0 into search as a "complex area", and one that might even be at odds with how lawyers use and access authoritative information.

"Culturally, [lawyers are] nervous about putting things out there that aren't properly scrutinised, verified and sanctioned," she says. "While you would think that because they're effectively trading in information and knowledge, it would lend itself to Web 2.0, [but those] underlying cultural issues oppose the freedom and sharing of that information."

However, while Bamforth doesn't see much demand for this kind of functionality, she acknowledges that if a law firm wants to move in this direction, knowledge management systems should be able to incorporate this kind of information.

The future is integrated

If there's one thing knowledge managers do agree on, it's that the future of search will be streamlined, more integrated, and better tuned to lawyers' needs. And according to North, lawyers won't even know what's going on behind the scenes.

"From an information architecture point of view, there are relationships between all pieces of data in the firm, and when I search for something, I'll not actually be searching a single document management system, or a knowledge system, or a CRM system. I'll actually be searching across all of these - I won't even know these systems exist."

Bamforth also adds that search technology is not just about algorithms - it's about people and relationships. She believes a good search engine will be able to adapt to new applications and information needs quickly, and will be an "iterative" process that emerges from an ongoing partnership between the firm and a search vendor.

But perhaps most importantly for the legal industry, which Bamforth describes as a "relationship sector", it's the lawyers themselves who should be a central consideration for any search system.

"It's not just a technical solution being sold to an IT department," she says. "It's all about what people are going to find intuitive ... And a lot of the law firms, when they look at the products and they conduct proof of concept [tests], it's their lawyers who are looking at those search results, and they're the ones providing the feedback."


There are two major search engines targeted at the legal sector: Recommind and Autonomy.

Company: Recommind

Formed: 2000


Key products: MindServer Search, MindServer Categorization, Decisiv Email, Axcelerate eDiscovery, and Insite Legal Hold

Technology: Recommind is the brain child of Dr Jan Puizcha, former UC Berkeley Research Fellow. It consists of a suite of proprietary algorithms collectively known as CORE (Context Optimized Relevancy Engine). According to Recommind, it has "myriad connectors into hundreds of applications, databases, archives, other systems and file types."

Customers: Addleshaw Goddard, Bingham McCutchen, Morrison & Foerster, Simmons & Simmons.

Company: Autonomy

Formed: 1996


Key products: iManage WorkSite, UniversalSearch, and RecordsManager

Technology: The underlying search technology in iManage products is the Intelligent Data Operating Layer (IDOL), which has been described as poster child of an emerging technology trend called "meaning-based computing". Autonomy's CEO and founder Dr Michael Lynch, who was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2006, describes the company's technology as something that "enables computers to see the patterns in data the way humans do."

Customers: SJ Berwin, Duane Morris, Slaughter & May, Pinsent Masons, Taylor Wessing

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