Disrupting Law: Free Access and the Modern Librarian

By Ulysses Jean (Follow us on LinkedIn)

The traditional scarcity principle has long governed the economics of legal publishing, leveraging the perception of exclusivity to exact premium fees for specialized or rare legal resources. Corporate publishers became the gatekeepers of the cases, statutes, and regulations that comprise the laws. They repackaged them with annotations and convenient tools to research the law and sold them at a premium. Every year, they made minor updates, changed page numbers, and sold them to librarians again. They argued that they added value because legal materials were hard to find and organize. However, this paradigm is undergoing a significant transformation in the Internet age and with the pace of rapid technological advancement.

Robot reading surrounded by books in a library

Modern law librarianship now finds itself at the intersection of technology and social Justice, leading the charge in the free law movement to democratize Access to Justice through digital means. Gone are the days when the traditional scarcity principle could dictate the exclusive cost of specialized legal resources. Government and non-profit websites regularly provide access to legal materials for free. New technological tools allow for rapid research on immense amounts of data to be simplified and retrieved at minimum costs. In today’s digital age, modern law librarians are at the forefront of technological innovation and social Justice, steering the free law movement to digitize and democratize Access to Justice.

The Facets of Access to Justice (A2J)

Access to Justice is not a monolithic concept but a multifaceted issue that concerns all types of law libraries—from academic and corporate to public and courthouse libraries. While small, rural courthouse libraries often struggle to meet even the basic requirements for access, a consortium approach that involves judges, court administrators, bar associations, and legislative bodies can elevate the level of assistance provided.

Law librarians are increasingly leveraging their roles as educators and legal information experts to develop partnerships that aim to bridge the justice gap. These partnerships range from initiatives with legal aid organizations to collaborative projects with legal technology startups focused on A2J solutions. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being retrained to work with closed datasets and other techniques to reduce their proneness to hallucinations and improve accuracy. It’s just a matter of time before new technologies allow us to retrieve legislation and case law, but to do so with an assistant to highlight the elements of the cases, the ones who won and lost, how much compensation to expect, and how to prepare a case for maximum probability of success.

The Rise of the Free Law Movement

By 2012, many law librarians in the United States had signed the Durham Statement. The drafters of the Statement are in general agreement with the definition of Open Access in the 2002 Budapest Open Access Initiative, which calls for:

“[f]ree availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself.”

Since then, the Open Access Movement has become a world player in Access to Justice. This movement promotes the free availability of scholarly articles, case law, statutes, and other legal documents, thereby democratizing the realm of legal information. Eliminating paywalls enhances the role of law librarians, who act as curators and disseminators of open-access materials. The elimination of cost barriers to legal information is crucial for bridging the knowledge gap and making the legal system more accessible to all.

The Free Access to Law Movement is progressively evolving from a fringe concept to a mainstream initiative. Rooted in the belief that access to legal information is a fundamental right, this global movement has picked up pace, amplified by digital connectivity and increasing societal awareness.

Organizations like Cornell’s Legal Information Institutes (LII) and various Open Access repositories have empowered law librarians to curate a robust collection of free legal resources. Furthermore, innovative partnerships with legal technology innovators enable librarians to offer cutting-edge, user-friendly tools that simplify the legal process for laypeople.

The Symbiosis of Technology and Access to Justice

Technology is becoming an indispensable part of the legal landscape, with law librarians spearheading its integration to optimize A2J. Aside from classic applications like online legal databases and research tools, technology also facilitates unique virtual legal services. These include virtual legal clinics, online Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses, and even chatbot-based legal research platforms. Additionally, technology streamlines court processes with e-filing systems and offers alternative dispute resolution methods online.

Law librarians are forging meaningful partnerships with legal technology companies, thus contributing to a revolution in legal workflow. Their expertise in legal research and information organization enables them to co-create powerful tools that are intuitively designed. Beyond that, law librarians are instrumental in shaping and promoting virtual legal services.

These modern virtual legal services range from online CLE programs to AI-powered legal advice platforms and access to massive digital repositories, electronic books, and permanent hyperlinks to scholarly materials. Harvard’s Caselaw Access Project, H2O Open Casebooks, and Permacc are great examples of the work being done by innovative libraries. These initiatives demonstrate the reasons for excitement in the air surrounding technological innovations and access to justice ideas.

The New Equilibrium

The dominance once held by legal publishers, facilitated by the scarcity principle, is being contested by the surge of free online legal resources and the corresponding Free Law Movement. Modern law librarians are active participants in this change. Through a blend of technological innovation and a commitment to social Justice, law librarians are vital contributors in reshaping how society accesses legal information and Justice. Their work is instrumental in fostering a more equitable, transparent, and efficient legal system.

Law librarians have emerged as active facilitators in the tech-driven legal landscape, no longer mere gatekeepers of legal information. Law Librarians also craft efficient and user-friendly tools through partnerships with legal tech companies and advocating for Free Law Movement initiatives. Their efforts are breaking down barriers, democratizing legal services, and simplifying complex legal processes for everyone. The future seems bright for the modern law librarian.


  1. Access to Justice – Introduction to Law Librarianship – Pressbooks.pub 
  2. Putting a Spotlight on Civics Education: How Law Librarians Are Helping to Bridge the Access to Justice Gap – American Bar Association 
  3. Rationing Justice in the 21st Century: Technocracy and Technology in the Access to Justice Movement – DigitalCommons@UM Carey Law 
  4. Editorial: Scarcity, regulation, and the abundance society
  5. The Challenges facing Modern Law Libraries


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not those of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.