How rural lawyers find their law.
by Michael Welsh
“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing.” – Wernher von Braun
I was asked to describe how legal research is conducted by those of us in the further flung areas of B.C. While Penticton is not exactly in the boondocks, the way we do it here likely mirrors the experiences of lawyers in most rural areas.
Much has changed in the past decade that levels the playing field for rural and urban lawyers. Some of us recall practising law when there were no fax machines or computers, let alone the Internet – just an electric typewriter with “whiteout” capabilities. Mail was stamped, not “e”.
Research meant reading through texts and digests and pouring through endless tomes from various law reports. It was easy for city lawyers in Vancouver or Victoria, as the courthouse libraries contained most law reports and many texts and digests in different practice areas. The same could not be said in small courthouses in more bucolic settings, but at least the few reporting series present were kept up to date. Any more esoteric topic meant a trip to the big city, however.
Then technology made its entrance. The difference it makes was summed up by Arthur C. Clarke. “Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Now research is almost all online. Personal exceptions are Martin’s Criminal Code, B.C. Annual Practice, and CLE and TLABC course manuals. The same applies for most lawyers in this area. Some buy the odd textbook and other practice manuals.
Courthouse libraries, at least in smaller towns, have stopped updating almost everything. Only the computer terminal is really used. All those dust-laden statutes and law reports should be given a deserved demise and the space put to better use.
Now lawyers look at legislation, digests and then cases online, noting up the cases found and using keyword searches to look for others. Some use Westlaw Canada (Carswell) while others use Quicklaw. CanLII has the considerable advantage of being “free” (unless you consider the subsidy it gets from some of your Law Society fees a payment) and the database continuously improves. Keyword searches are easy and effective. Provincial and federal statutes and regulations are easily accessible online from the Queen’s Printer B.C. Laws and Justice Canada Justice Laws website respectively. A few lawyers use the Law Courts website to find cases, although from personal experience it is not “user friendly” and is more useful as a way to keep current by glancing through new Court of Appeal cases released daily. Many lawyers also update themselves using a couple of the weekly CLEBC online digests. Most court forms are available online in PDF form.
Finally, while in pre-computer days we could phone colleagues for help when “stuck,” we now have listservs. The TLABC offers very popular ones that are widely used. They are the new form of mentoring and are very effective when you are getting nowhere with your own research or need an answer in a hurry.
Being able to ask for help must be very tempting, as a few lawyers seem to use the listserv almost exclusively rather than doing the research work and thinking for themselves. We should use Internet research tools and our own brains and not expect our online colleagues to carry us through. As Einstein said: Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination.
Michael Welsh moved from Vancouver to the Sunshine Coast in the 1980s. In the late 1990s he crossed the mountains to Osoyoos where he grew grapes with a law practice on the side. He is now a partner in a small law firm in Penticton.
This article was published in the October 2009 issue of BarTalk. © 2009 The Canadian Bar Association. All rights reserved.