Legal Research on the iPhone

By , November 4, 2010 5:16 pm

by Philippe Cloutier

The iPhone and the iPad are largely designed to consume media. They are unparalleled when it comes to an all-in-one portable that offers music, videos, the web, news, blogs, books and more. They make other tasks efficient and quick too: navigation with maps and GPS, e-mail, social media use, keeping up with sports scores and even requesting and staying up-to-date with library requests (Seattle Public Library app).

The looming question for librarians is: can we perform quality and time-sensitive legal research on an iPhone? There are a number of apps that cater to the legal researcher but don’t deliver anything new. While apps are helpful to find a case or statute, they don’t provide the level of multitasking researchers demand.

Strictly as anecdotal evidence, I researched California Consumer Laws regarding service policies and warranties on an array of products. The California Department of Consumer Affairs’ website is easy to view on the iPhone and just as easy to Google. Yet extensive browsing becomes a tedious exercise. After finding citations to statutes, I was able to jump to the text of California Statutes available online. However, trying to find all relevant statutes is difficult (as sections leap across chapters, sections, and codes). While navigating back and forth between California department sites and large volumes of code, I was soon in a web of text and links, and figuring out what was really relevant proved hard to visualize.

I’ve come to learn that simple research is doable on the iPhone, but anything requiring time and organizing a series of links/files leads to wasted time. My consumer research seemed fairly straightforward and when redone on a computer I had my results within minutes.

With app-based and limited mobile operating systems, research is done within a box. This box restricts us to one window, a few settings for copy/paste, and constant finger swiping to find a relevant excerpt. Legal research doesn’t always lead to an exact sentence or source that ties everything together. Rather, it is a series of works that when put together creates a picture. A picture that may be incomplete and in need of interpretation.

Perhaps doing research on an iPhone is akin to the days of the first Lexis and Westlaw terminals. There was no editing of documents or pouring through volumes of text, rather: find, print, and move on. It was one color on the palette. I’ll keep testing out legal research on the iPhone, but at this point, it isn’t the tool for creating a masterpiece.

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