By Ashley Ahlbrand • February 04, 2014•Writers in Residence
In the world of electronic legal research, two names have always dominated the market: Lexis and Westlaw. There are others of course, such as LoisLaw, Fastcase, and Casemaker, and a couple of years ago, Bloomberg Law entered the market. The trouble with these databases is that they’re subscription-based, and even those that tout themselves as low-cost will set you back a hefty sum. Luckily for us, the Free Access to Law Movement (FALM) has spawned and inspired a variety of legal research platforms that offer access to statutes and cases without a costly subscription. These platforms range from official codes posted on state and federal government websites to law school born databases, such as Cornell’s Legal Information Institute (an official member of FALM). For this post, I’m going to focus on another, very new, legal research platform born out of a law school and inspired by free access to law: Ravel Law.
Ravel Law began in 2012, a product of Stanford University’s law school, computer science department, and d.school. With a mission to “unravel the law,” this platform combines traditional case law research with data visualization and analytics. Anyone can run a search on Ravel Law, but it’s best to create an account with them; this will allow you to annotate and save cases to return to later. There are three levels of accounts: Free, Premium, and Firm. While in the beta testing phase, anyone can ask for a Premium account at no cost. It has not yet been revealed what the prices will be when Ravel comes out of beta; however law students, librarians, and professors will always be eligible for a free premium account.
So what is it that makes Ravel Law such a unique research platform? It has to do with the integration of visualization and analytics into the search algorithm and results. You can search by justice, by jurisdiction, or by performing an all-encompassing keyword search. If you just need to pull up a specific case, you can find it by case name or number. Learn more about Ravel’s court coverage and acceptable search operators by going to their FAQ.
When you run a keyword search in Ravel Law, the top 75 most relevant cases will appear in list form on the right, and a visual display of all results will appear on the left. The total number of results is displayed at the top-left.
The result list on the right provides a snippet from each case, containing your keywords, citation information, and the number of times the case has been cited. Hovering over a case in this list will highlight where that case is found in the graphical display on the left.
The visual display takes two forms: The bottom graphic features a timeline of your search results, showing which years had the most cases that fall under your search. You can drag and slide the bottom timeline to limit your search results by date. On the top is another graphic timeline of cases, represented by circles of varying sizes. The size of the circle indicates the importance of the case based on citations. A circle with a green line around it indicates that case has been cited in the past ten years – the thicker the line, the more citing references. A red line indicates that case has not been cited in the past ten years. You can change the display of these circles by clicking the ‘filters’ box just below the search bar; options include relevance (most relevant at the top), court (Supreme Court at the top), cluster (better shows the relationship of cases to each other based on citation). You can play around with the graphical display to see how cases in your result list relate to each other.
When you’re looking at a case in Ravel, the opinion itself is fairly standard, but the content on the left and right of the opinion set Ravel apart from others:
At the top-right, you’ll see another timeline graphic; slide the green bar around, and you will see a listing of the opinions each year that cited to your case and a number indicating how often that case cited your case. Further down the right side of the screen are the footnotes to the opinion; rather than having to scroll to the bottom to see them, they are displayed alongside the portion of the opinion where the footnote is found.
On the left, as you scroll through the opinion, the page number of the print version of the opinion is displayed. Pages that have been heavily cited will be accompanied by a series of stars (1-5). Cases listed below a page number include each case that has cited to that page of the opinion, giving you an idea of the prominent parts of the opinion.
In all, Ravel Law has many features that make it stand out from other case law research platforms: the graphical display of search results helps you easily see how cases relate to each other; the timeline shows trends in particular cases over the years; and the opinion display helps you easily see which pages of the opinion have been cited to the most. Before you leave Westlaw and Lexis behind, however, bear in mind that Ravel Law does lack some prominent tools, especially a citator that will tell you whether your case is still good law. Tools like these take a long time to develop and are the bread and butter of the more expensive legal research platforms. Putting that aside, however, Ravel Law is one of the best free case law research tools I have seen, and it’s only a couple of years old. The tools it has in place for identifying relationships between cases is better than many other case law research platforms I have seen, and the graphical features make it even easier to identify these relationships.
I encourage you to try Ravel Law out, and if you are a law student, take advantage of their free upgrade to the Premium account for the full effect. This platform is off to a strong start, and I predict that it will only continue to improve.