Friday, August 29, 2014

Pacer Disrupting Big Data One Byte at aTime

Big Data Hits a Wall c. J O'Grady
The disruption of access to court dockets through Pacer has implications beyond the retrieval of dockets and documents.

The  Administrative Office of the US Courts announced on August 11th that archival dockets from 5 federal courts would no longer be available through Pacer. I contacted the Office of the US Courts and they explained that the problem was in fact the courts themselves. The courts including the Second Circuit had failed to upgrade their platforms and the older data was residing on a platform that was no longer compatible with Pacer.  The data which was no longer available from Pacer could be obtained directly from the courts.

The Big Data  Hits A Wall. The most shocking thing to me was the fact that a significant archive of federal court data was suddenly less available to the public for historical "big data" trend analysis.  Lexis, Westlaw and Blaw all have tools for litigation analysis and trending which can be used to create charts and analytics showing litigation trends by jurisdiction, judge, cause of action, law firm. Big data is an increasingly valuable commodity. In law firms it is a valuable source of competitive intelligence. The federal government has recently recognized the value of "big data" in public administration. In this case the Pacer data should be useful for the analysis and judicial administration and workload. Why are the courts failing to recognize the importance of maintaining robust archives of litigation data?

 Pacer has just handed legal publishers  a marketing strategy.  Commercial online services will have the complete archive which Pacer can no longer offer. In other words - you get what you pay for.  I contacted representatives from Lexis, Westlaw and BloombergBNA. Each  vendor had previously created their own archives of Pacer data so they will be able to continue to make all the data available in one place. The one exception they cited was older cases which  are currently active-- but this appears to be a small number of cases.
The more law firms focus more on efficiency, the less attractive the cobbling together research results from “free resources” becomes. Yes free research resources have a place in legal research but premium resources deliver robust and reliable access.The removal of Pacer data is a powerful illustration of the value of commercial publishers in maintaining access to data when public authorities fail to do so. Not only will the major vendors be able to provide access to the dockets and the documents, but they will have complete data archives for analysis of litigation trends. These comprehensive archives allow custom reports combining  data elements extracted from dockets: including judges rulings, company litigation, law firm representation, causes of action and jurisdiction.



Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ravel Law: Legal Research Radically Reimagined

It is an understatement to say that Ravel Law is not your father's research platform.
You are not just using a new product, you are entering the "world of Ravel"... and you need to check all your preconceptions about legal research at the door.

Ravel Law makes me feel old. It has some similarities to Fastcase but also some major differences. Both  products are the brainchild of young lawyers hellbent on reinventing legal research. Both developed their own innovative search engines and visual approaches to  displaying search results.

I have often wondered how young lawyers will understand legal research without benefit of taxonomical hierarchies, digests and headnotes. Only time with tell, but I have to give the Ravel innovators the benefit of the doubt and celebrate something that may "speak the language" of "born digital" generation of lawyers.

The Ravel Research Universe

Daniel Lewis co-founder of Ravel Law grew up in a family of lawyers. When he attended Stanford Law School he became convinced that the legal profession needed a new approach to legal research. He and  co-founder Nik Reed, a fellow Stanford law school alum developed Ravel in collaboration with students from the Design School at Stanford.

Lewis describes the Ravel Law platform as offering a new kind of analysis by using machine computing and data visualization. Ravel built a platform to appeal to younger lawyers. 

For those of us who learned research using taxonomical hierarchies, viewing research results on Ravel is like landing in an alternate universe. Interpreting  Ravel search results requires the learning a “visual language.”  Lewis believes that  Ravel’s landscape -- the visual display  of search results --conveys more information than can be displayed by  the traditional "results list of cases." This may be true but first you have to learn their "display language."
Key to the Ravel Universe:
  • Each circle represents a case
  • The size of the circle represents its importance
  • The Line is the citation
  • The thickness of the line represents the depth of treatment.
At the bottom of the screen you can display the chronology which shows the evolution of the law. The timeline  shows the whole universe of cases related to a search. Filters allow you to limit results by court level. 

The Radical Ravel Leap. Here’s where Ravel breaks with the competition. Ravel only displays the top 75 cases which result from the search. The assumption is  that the algorithm has gotten you the best cases in the top 75. This breakpoint  forces the  researcher to focus on the most highly relevant cases. It also requires complete trust in the search algorithm.The researcher can continually expand and refocus the search to include more cases.

Case with citation history display

Jump Cite Ranking. A "jump cite" refers to a reference to a specific issue within an opinion. The citators on Westlaw and Lexis both have systems for locating cited principles within a case, neither has developed a system for ranking these  specific internal citations. Ravel has developed a unique system for ranking jump cites.

Star Reading system. Ravel highlights the most relevant text in the jump cite in order to show the relevance of a particular page in a particular case. Lewis describes this as  “building out good and bad law on a page by page basis.” The star reading system assigns stars to each page of a case using a 1 to 5 star scale, depending on how many times that page has been cited to by other cases. A one-star page has been cited to at least 5 times, and a 5 star page has been cited to at least 2,000 times. The cases that get listed as citing to a particular page can then be ranked in two ways: 1) by date, 2) by rank (which means how many times that case has itself been cited).  

"Killer Ap" Coming Lewis gave me a preview of an exciting new feature which is not currently offered by any competitor. It is the kind of feature that law firm partners are likely to  want on their desktops. This new feature will  use a "big data"  analysis to  fill one of the voids  where lawyers rely on intuition and anecdote because they are lacking objective data.

Interaction vs Reading. Ravel unravels every preconception you have about legal research. The thing that will most likely  appeal to young lawyers is that Ravel begs you to interact with with it rather than read. The law still requires deep reading, analysing, distinguishing finer points of arguments. Will it seduce lawyers away from reading into focusing on narrower and narrower slices of text? The optimal legal skill set of the future will require both the ability to engage in visual data manipulation and reading full cases.

It is exciting and  also humbling for me to witness the birth of a new generation of legal research platforms. Ravel offers legal research reimagined ... untethered from the inherent constraints as well as the familiar conventions of research systems born of print.... Ravel Law opens up a brave new world of legal research for exploration...