Monday, May 5, 2014

A Visual Approach to Legal Research

The ABA Journal has a feature story on a law student, Daniel Lewis, who has developed a new approach to visualizing legal research.  “He was trying to understand where his issue fit within a broad group of cases his research had found. In his mind he pictured a view of his issue triangulated against the most important cases at the center and all the other, less important cases circled around them.”  Lewis declared, “It took shape in my mind as sort of a visual process of trying to figure out where on this map I needed to locate myself and what the other cases were that I needed to be aware of.”  “With the rough contours forming in his mind of a better legal research mousetrap, Lewis took the idea to various people at Stanford, most influentially Jeffrey Heer, a computer science professor then at Stanford (and now at the University of Washington) and an expert in data visualization. Heer introduced Lewis to computer science research on understanding social connections and visualizing data sets that helped him begin to crystallize his idea.”

From his work, Lewis and a partner created Ravel.  “Ravel does not look like traditional legal research platforms. The difference is its visual presentation of search results. Rather than display a stack of text entries, Ravel draws a visual map of the results, showing the relationships among cases and their relative importance to each other—much like the triangulation Lewis originally imagined.  Enter a search query and you get the standard list of matching cases displayed along the right side of your screen. But across the left three-quarters you see a cluster map showing the cases as circles of various sizes. The larger the circle, the more important the case; the most relevant cases appear in the center.  Lines radiate out of the circles, connecting each case to others it cites and that cite it. The thickness of the line indicates the depth of treatment. Hover your pointer over a case and its information shows in the right pane. Click it to get a list of every case cited within it. Double-click it to get the full text.  Below the cluster map is a timeline, with the cases arrayed across the map by date. To see only cases from a specific period, drag bars along the timeline to limit the view.”

Others are using similar innovations.  “As if through some scheme of cosmic synchronicity, the last year has seen visual law take a place at the leading edge of legal technology across a range of applications.” “Unlike Ravel, which uses visualization to make sense of data, Hagan's [another innovator] focus is on design. Her strongest interest is in how elements of design can be employed to enhance access to justice and legal education.”  Hagen declares, “Design is the 'how' of the equation,” Hagan explains. “Law is very good at figuring out the what—what is the goal. But in terms of how to get at that goal, that is design. It is the art and science of how to make things usable.”

The article describes several visualizations and design innovations.  For example, “To eliminate the guesswork from settlement negotiations, San Antonio, Texas, mediator Don Philbin developed Picture It Settled, a Web and mobile application that uses predictive analytics to dynamically project the course of negotiations and the likely time and amount of a settlement.”  Similarly, “At the University of Baltimore School of Law, assistant professor Colin Starger has launched a project aimed at visually mapping Supreme Court doctrine. His SCOTUS Mapping Project combines sophisticated software with principles of information design to chart the relationships among the court's opinions, with the goal of enhancing teaching and scholarship about the court.”

Finally, “In Bloomberg Law, visualizations are used selectively when they can help present information to the user. ‘But we're also careful not to lean on it for pure aesthetics.’” “One example is Bloomberg's Docket Analytics tool. Search for a company and you get a pie chart showing its litigation profile by types of cases. This lets you see at a glance that a company is engaged in a substantial percentage of asbestos litigation or securities matters. Another example is a tool that overlays news and events across a chart of a company's stock performance. Click on any point along the chart—where a stock drops in value, for instance—to see news and events from that date.”

There is a lot more in the story here.  I think that visualization and design will become an important tool for lawyers and law professors in the near future.  However, as the article states, “That is not to say that visuals will ever replace text-based research entirely. ‘The law is text-heavy, so there will always have to be an interplay between text and visuals,’ Lewis says. ‘We're trying to figure out the right balance for combining those elements.’”

(Scott Fruehwald)

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