1 Introducing lawyers to computers
Most lawyers wouldn't know the difference
between a megabyte and
a mozzie bite (Argy, 1986)
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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