The Evolution of AI in Law Libraries

Law libraries are undergoing a transformation fueled by Artificial Intelligence (AI). While AI isn’t replacing librarians, it’s becoming a powerful tool that’s changing how legal research is conducted and how libraries serve their patrons.

The history of artificial intelligence in law libraries is a fascinating journey marked by technological evolution, legal industry demands, and the gradual integration of advanced tools to support legal research, information management, and decision-making processes. Here’s a historical overview of this subject:

Early Beginnings and Development

1950s-1960s: Conceptual Foundations

The concept of AI began to take shape in the 1950s, with foundational work by pioneers like Alan Turing and John McCarthy.*  Although the application of AI in law libraries remained largely theoretical due to the nascent state of computer technology and AI research there were exceptions.

One example was the work of John Horty and his team at the University of Pittsburgh Health Law Center in the late 1960s. John Horty, a graduate of the Harvard Law School, became the Director of the University of Pittsburgh Health Law Center in 1956. From 1960, he was also an Adjunct Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. In 1959. while at the Health Law center, he began to explore the potential of computer technology for legal research and inaugurated a project to computerize all Pennsylvanian statues related to health law. The statutes were initially encoded on punch cards, the information from which was transferred to magnetic tape on a series of IBM mainframes. The scope of Horty’s database gradually expanded to include the rest of the Pennsylvanian statutes, the opinions of the Pennsylvania Attorney General on education, the complete statutes of New York, and decisions of the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, as well as of the United States Supreme Court.

Horty and his team of programmers developed the “KWIC” (“Key Words in Combination”) search system, which allowed legal researchers to customize a search free from the constraints of traditional print-based indexing tools. In 1968, Horty left the University of Pittsburgh to establish his own information technology firm, Aspen Systems Corporation. Peter Nycum, who later became a law librarian and professor of law, was a member of Horty’s research team in the late 1960s.

1970s: Continuing Experiments

In April 1971, a nationwide conference devoted to exploring the state of the art of law library automation and possible future directions of the field was convened at the University of Chicago. It was sponsored by the American Association of Law Libraries, the Chicago Association of Law Libraries and the University of Chicago. Attendance consisted of a broad representation of law librarians and lawyers from throughout the country, including many of the top luminaries in the field. While helping to organize this conference, I contacted Horty and invited him to participate. He supported the idea of the conference but was unable to attend due to scheduling conflicts. However, Peter Nycum, a former member of Horty’s research team, did attend and presented a paper. In his paper Looking Ahead–Law and the New Technology, Nycum mentioned that looking ahead artificial intelligence was one of the areas to be considered.  Conference proceedings were published in 64 Law Library Journal No. 2 (May 1971).**

The 1970s saw continuing experiments in the application of computer technology to legal research, including a renewed focus on creating databases and search engines based on technology available at the time. Organizations involved in these efforts included Aspen Systems Corporation, OBAR (a forerunner of Lexis) and the West Publishing Company. By the end of the decade, projects, including those of the Stanford Research Institute’s “The Lawyer’s Assistant,” aimed to provide legal information through natural language processing, although these systems were quite basic by today’s standards.

1980s: Emergence of Legal Databases

The 1980s marked significant progress with the advent of increasingly comprehensive legal databases, such as those introduced by LexisNexis and Westlaw. These platforms revolutionized legal research by providing electronic access to vast repositories of case law, statutes, and legal periodicals. While not AI in the modern sense, they laid the groundwork for future developments by digitizing legal resources and making them more accessible.

1990s: Advancements in Search and Retrieval

During the 1990s, search technologies improved, incorporating more sophisticated algorithms to enhance retrieval accuracy and relevance. Boolean search methods became standard, and early AI techniques such as keyword recognition and pattern matching, started to be integrated into legal research tools, allowing for more refined searches.

Modern Era

2000s: Introduction of Advanced AI Techniques

The early 2000s witnessed the introduction of more advanced AI techniques in law libraries, including natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning. These advancements enabled better understanding and processing of legal language, leading to more accurate and context-aware search results. Tools like LexisNexis’s “Smart Indexing Technology” began to employ AI to automatically categorize and tag legal documents, improving search efficiency.

2010s: AI-Driven Legal Analytics

The 2010s saw the rise of AI-driven legal analytics, transforming how law libraries and legal professionals approached research and case analysis. Companies like ROSS Intelligence used IBM Watson’s AI capabilities to create legal research tools that could understand natural language queries and provide relevant legal information. Predictive analytics also became prevalent with tools like Westlaw Edge and Lex Machina offering insights into litigation trends and outcomes based on historical data.

Current Trends and Future Directions

Integration of AI in Law Practice and Legal Research

Today, AI in law libraries is integrated into various aspects of legal practice from research to document review and beyond. AI-powered platforms, like Casetext’s CARA. introduced in 2016, and ROSS Intelligence’s legal research assistant, are examples of tools that utilize deep learning and NLP to offer highly accurate and efficient legal research capabilities. Lexis Nexis and Westlaw are also actively involved in developing advanced systems to support better integration of AI in legal research and law practice.

Focus on Automation and Efficiency

Automation has become a key focus, with AI systems handling routine tasks, such as contract analysis, due diligence,  document review and legal research. This not only increases efficiency but also allows legal professionals including law librarians to focus on more complex and strategic aspects of their work.

Ethical and Regulatory Considerations

The increasing use of AI in law libraries raises important ethical and regulatory considerations. Issues related to data privacy, algorithmic transparency, and bias in AI systems are being actively discussed within the legal community. Organizations, such as the American Bar Association and the American Association of Law Libraries,  are working to establish guidelines and best practices to address these challenges.

Future Prospects

Looking ahead, the future of AI in law libraries holds promise for even more sophisticated applications, such as fully integrated AI systems capable of offering comprehensive legal research and predictive analytics. The ongoing development of AI technologies, coupled with continuous improvements in data quality and processing power, will likely lead to even more transformative changes in how services are provided by law libraries in the future.


The history of AI in law libraries is a testament to the transformative power of technology in enhancing legal research and practice. From the early days of simple databases to the sophisticated AI-driven tools of today, each advancement has brought new capabilities and efficiencies to the work of law librarians. As AI technology continues to evolve, its role in law libraries and the broader legal landscape is poised to become even more significant, offering unprecedented opportunities for innovation and improvement. Overall, AI is not a replacement for librarians, but rather a powerful collaborator. Law librarians remain essential because of their expertise in legal research methods, information literacy, and critical thinking. AI simply augments these skills, making legal research faster, more efficient, and more insightful.

Thinking about her experience as director of a law library in developing and using AI applications to improve services provided by her law library, Diane Deng comments: ” law libraries have been using AI-assisted tools for a long time. It’s not something new. It became such a hot topic recently after Open AI introduced  ChatGpt to the public.  People think Generative AI (GenAI) can replace human intelligence in a large scale in near future. In the legal research field, after I participated in training using the products from major players in the GenAI legal research market, the conclusion I came to was that the day that GenAI can replace research librarian is still very far away.”


*John McCarthy coined the term “AI” in 1955 in connection with a proposed summer workshop at Dartmouth College, which many of the world’s leading thinkers in computing attended.

** Access to complete proceedings of the 1971 Chicago Conference are available only by subscription to Hein Online. However, opening remarks by Morris Cohen, then President of the American Association of Law Libraries who attended the Conference are available here.



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