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1 Introducing lawyers to computers

Most lawyers wouldn't know the difference
between a megabyte and a mozzie bite (Argy, 1986)

No experience necessary

Computer knowledge

This handbook has been designed so that it can be used in different ways by those who know very little about computers or information retrieval, and by those who know considerably more.

For those who know little, Part A provides an Introduction to Information Retrieval, which explains the basic concepts, and Part B provides a set of step-by-step `hands on' Tutorials on how to use the CLIRS and SCALE systems (the main legal information retrieval systems in Australia). These parts of the Manual assume little knowledge of computers, but references to some introductory books about computers are given below.

Those who know more about computers and/or legal information retrieval should choose which portions of Parts A and B they need to read, but will probably make more use of the Manual of STATUS Commands in Chapter 18, and Part D, a Directory of Australasian Legal Databases. Part C provides a survey of other computerised information systems of relevance to Australasian lawyers.

Because the Handbook is designed to be used in a number of different ways, we have intentionally included a certain amount of repetition in Part D of material covered in Parts B and C, and we have provided cross-references wherever possible.

Legal knowledge

The level of legal knowledge assumed in this book is that of a first year law student's knowledge of legal materials, including familiarity with the major sources of law such as cases and legislation, and how the documents comprising them are structured. For those not familiar with law or legal materials, some references to basic books on Australian legal research are given at the end of this chapter.


Some basic books about computers

Philip Argy (Ed) Computers for Lawyers Longman Professional, 1986: This 80 page introduction to computers for lawyers is very straightforward, and has been Australianised by the Editor. Price is about $15.

Kate Behan and Diana Holmes Understanding Information Technology - Text, Readings and Cases Prentice Hall, 1986: This Australian book is valuable because much of the jargon is put in an Australian context. It is a 500 page reference book, but easy to understand.

HL Capron and BK Williams Computers and Data Processing (2nd Ed), Benjamin/Cummings Publishing, 1984: This very good introductory text on computing has the disadvantage of being written for American readers.

Some basic books about legal research

Gwen Morris et al Laying Down the Law (2nd Ed.) Butterworths, 1987: An Australian introduction to legal materials.

Chris Enright Studying Law (2nd Ed) Branxton Press, Sydney, 1986: Another Australian introductory text.

E Campbell, EJ Glasson and A Lahore Legal Research Materials and Methods (2nd Ed), Law Book Co, 1979: The standard Australian text.

Computers for lawyers?

How little you need to know

A lawyer does not need to be a computer scientist to make effective use of computers in legal work. In fact, it is remarkable how little you need to know about how computers work.

Few people are mechanical engineers, mechanics or racing car drivers, or would know how to change a universal joint (if we could recognise one). But most of us have driver's licences and drive complex and potentially lethal machines - motor cars - on public roads without giving the matter much thought. A certain amount of knowledge helps: the functions of the steering wheel and the brakes; why and how to add petrol and oil. These are all essentially `user skills'.

Just as you don't need to know much about what is under the bonnet to drive a car with confidence, a lawyer can treat a computer as a `black box', a machine to be driven confidently without understanding much about what goes on inside. Lawyers are users of computers and consumers of information services, and they only need to have the `user skills' necessary to be effective users.

Why lawyers need to know about computers

Legal work is essentially information processing in one form or another. In most other professions or businesses, information and documents are only a by-product of other productive activity, such as curing a sick person or building a house. In contrast, lawyers produce and sell information, particularly in the form of documents such as contracts and wills, but also as advice or as argument before a Court. The other main `product' of a lawyer is decisions by Courts, Government agencies, or other individuals in favour of the lawyer's client. Such decisions can be seen as another form of information. Most of a lawyer's working time is spent retrieving, reprocessing and creating information.

We could therefore expect, simply from the nature of legal work, that the great changes in methods of handling information brought about by developments in information technology are more likely to effect lawyer's work than that of most other businesses or professions, with the possible exceptions of librarians and journalists.

What are lawyers using computers for?

The main emphasis in this Handbook is on the use of computers for legal information retrieval: methods of searching cases, legislation and secondary legal materials. It is therefore important to stress at the outset that this is not the only important use of computers for lawyers, and is probably not even the most important.

Some of the other uses which lawyers are already making of computers, or will be making in the near future, are:

Searching registries

Obtaining searches of Government registers of information, such as as land titles, company and business names is a tedious but important part of legal practice. It is now becoming possible for lawyers to search some of these registries from their own desks, as they are being computerised. The Court Registries of a number of States are now being computerised, so that the Court Lists of which cases are to be heard on which days will also be accessible by lawyers `dialling up' a computerised register from their offices. These developments are detailed in Part C.

Solicitor's precedent databases

The same information retrieval programs which are used by systems such as CLIRS are also being used by firms of lawyers, and by Government lawyers, to construct databases of documents used by the firm or Government agency on their own computer systems, so that they may be searched, retrieved and used again.

Litigation support databases

In large and complex court cases, these same information retrieval programs are being used to store and locate details of all the documents referred to in the case.


Computerised accounting systems are now commonplace in legal offices. They are sometimes coupled with `time costing' systems by which each lawyer has to enter into an `electronic diary' details of how each portion (say 15 minutes) of the day was spent, and which client it should be charged against.

Electronic mail and document delivery

The delivery of letters and other documents is a costly and time-consuming aspect of legal work. The costs of computerised data communications are dropping, and lawyers are now starting to send documents directly from their computer system to the computer system of the recipient. This is already occurring between firms of private lawyers, and, in future, it is likely to expand to allow Government registries to accept documents filed by electronic mail. Chapter 30 on LINK discusses this.

Word processing

Although they are still exceptional, some lawyers are now preparing many of their own letters and documents, rather than using a secretary. This is facilitated by the existence of computerised precedents, so that the lawyer only has to provide the details relevant to the particular transaction.

Legal expert systems

Legal expert systems, computer programs that take the details of a legal problem, analyse it, and provide legal advice, are being developed. One of their likely uses is to provide 'intelligent assistants' for lawyers. Chapter 3 discusses this and other new developments.

Computer-aided instruction in law

Some areas of law are suited to being taught by the use of computer programs. Programs to teach you how to use the information retrieval systems discussed in this Handbook are mentioned later.

This means you!

The conclusion that may be drawn from these developments is that, from the early 1990s, the use of computers will be an unavoidable aspect of most Australian lawyers' work. This will not be because of one predominantly important type of use -- such as information retrieval -- but rather because of the cumulative effect of all of the developments mentioned above.

Effective use of computers will be one of the characteristics of an effective lawyer.

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