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Law Librarian Conversations: The Future of Interface Design

By Jason Wilson

This Friday, I’ll be on Law Librarian Conversations with Ed Walters (CEO, Fastcase) and Tom Boone (Reference Librarian, Loyola Law School) sharing my thoughts on the future of interface design in legal research. In advance of the program, I wanted to post a few notes and links that may find their way into Friday’s discussion.

Interactive search.

Since the early 70s, our idea of computer-assisted legal research hasn’t changed too terribly much: a nonindexed, full-text, online database that can be searched (interactive) using Boolean logic (with proximity). See Harrington, A Brief History of Computer-Assisted Legal Research, 77 Law Libr. J. 543 (1984-85) (discussing Ohio Legal Center Institute’s 1966 definition of computer-assisted legal research). Yes, the quality and speed of search has improved in lockstep with volume of legal information being produced, interfaces have been upgraded, the data has been moved to the cloud and is accessible anywhere, etc. But for 40 years, the evolution of CALR has been incremental, adding tools here and there to mimic physical research habits and attorney-to-attorney or attorney-to-staff interactions.

We can talk all we want about the future of interface design, but until we decide a new definition of computer-assisted legal research is warranted, I’m not sure we’ll make much headway. As Harrington points out,

Until 1966 the idea of computer-assisted legal research had remained vague. Lawyers wanted it, but were not sure exactly what they wanted, partly because they had no idea of what was possible. The Ohio group set to work to write a definition [and this definition] is the basic definition of LEXIS and WESTLAW to this day.

Harrington, A Brief History, 77 Law Libr. J. at 545. Although the article is 26 years old, his observation is still accurate. And if we are to move forward, we have to ask, what is possible?

Here are a few of the things (mostly from Moritz Stefaner) I’ve found interesting enough to think about as they might relate to CALR:

Content landscaping. I like the idea of optimized serendipity (interactive, intuitive guiding), particularly when it comes unending databases and topics we don’t fully understand. Landscaping puts us in a different, and possibly better, search mode. Right now, we only have one: find this.

Elastic lists. Similar to content landscaping, but with fewer data points. Again, just a different way of interacting with data. Also check out the Prix Ars Electronica interface.

Relation browser. Primary legal is a complex network. The relation browser promotes concept networks, and is something that might suit a researcher who begins with a case and wishes to complete a primary law constellation. While some may find these data visualizations a waste of time, I would challenge you think about the legal equivalent to the CIA World Factbook demo, and what value that quick display of information might mean to someone (e.g., student, law clerk, associate) trying to understand a broad legal principle.

Visual indexing. I briefly touched on this in Upgrading to Elegant on Slaw.

IDEO’s wonderful The Future of the Book. I’ve found that IDEO’s concept presents quite a few interesting ideas that are particularly relevant to legal research, which I touch on below.

Brief packaging.

I swear, if one of the current CALR vendors doesn’t start offering brief packaging I’ll be amazed, particularly because electronic briefing will be the norm. What I mean by “brief packaging” is this:

Cloud-based document storage for briefs that are electronically filed. Once the brief is written and certified as complete, the CALR service “bundles” the brief for filing. Bundling means the brief includes, at a minimum, all primary law references cited in the brief, with linking at the paragraph level (to improve accuracy of citations and efficiency at locating source of proposition).

That last part is anchoring, and it isn’t new, although it has recently received some attention because the New York Times has implemented it.

The knowledge network.

For some time I have been thinking of the scope of the knowledge network around any given legal proposition or issue. At its core, it includes the primary law citation network, namely a seminal case, related statutory authority, positive and negative treatment, agency or executive treatment, and secondary source explanations. But it also includes a formal and informal social network.

Law is not practiced in a vacuum. We often rely on the discussions and the advice of others to help understand and formulate opinions about primary law. These discussions can take place anywhere, and it is for this reason that I see the following current technologies influencing our legal research habits (possibly through interface design):

Foursquare and Facebook Places (one-on-one interaction). Although they may not seem relevant to you now, when tied to geolocation (mobile), courthouses, judge’s dockets, and legal issues, knowledge networks could expand to include verified “friends” who happen to be at or near the same location you are that you could talk to about primary law related issues. This is no different than the “partner drops into my office to talk about a case” problem that so many new associates can’t bill for year after year, except now, you do it with friends while killing time.

Twitter, LinkedIn, and chat interactions. Twitter is, to me, an obvious extension into the legal research space. Realtime developments are now commonplace, and it is hard to imagine any kind of future interface that doesn’t seek to incorporate that data. LinkedIn is more of an authentication tool, so it suggests that we are concerned with speed of Twitter, but the authority of LinkedIn. These two will be critical to knowledge online network authentication, whether tethered or mobile. Chat, on the other hand, is old, but could see a revival in online CALR interfaces. Chat functions in Google Docs, for example, hint at opportunities for legal professionals when researching and designing documentation to fit a particular legal issue or client’s needs. Offshore research services could be incorporated as well to allow for maximum efficiency in conducting a query.

Social reading. This will be interesting, but a generation from now, I see the possibility that shared documentation, social reading, and commentary (asynchronous and synchronous) will be folded into legal research. Knowledge management will be less about maintaining a single firm’s intellectual capital and more about industry-wide intellectual capital. Sites such as Scribd and Docstoc will be the foundation (notionally) for shared documentation on the web. Experiments such as figment.com are laying the groundwork for social writing and commentary among our youth, and such tools will be commonplace when they enter law school and beyond.

Pretty visuals.

What can I say other than the fact that there are some interesting ideas on the relationship between a consumer and text that Bonnier has put forth in its excellent videos for Mag+ and News+.

Adaptive networks.

I really can’t speak to this because it was Tom Boone’s idea, but I would suggest reading Ethan Marcotte’s essay on responsive web design and (if you have the time) Nick Bilton’s newest book (just out), I Live in the Future & Here’s How It Works. From Marcotte’s essay,

Fluid grids, flexible images, and media queries are the three technical ingredients for responsive web design, but it also requires a different way of thinking. Rather than quarantining our content into disparate, device-specific experiences, we can use media queries to progressively enhance our work within different viewing contexts. That’s not to say there isn’t a business case for separate sites geared toward specific devices; for example, if the user goals for your mobile site are more limited in scope than its desktop equivalent, then serving different content to each might be the best approach. [¶] But that kind of design thinking doesn’t need to be our default. Now more than ever, we’re designing work meant to be viewed along a gradient of different experiences. Responsive web design offers us a way forward, finally allowing us to ‘design for the ebb and flow of things.’

What else?

We live in some interesting times right now. There are a lot of dramatic changes taking place in the legal research services market, many of which I’m still struggling to comprehend. But if there’s anything you think we should look at before the podcast, please drop it in a comment. Otherwise, I look forward to yammering about this stuff on Friday.

[Image (CC) by Vermin Inc.]

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