Law Practice Management and Technology

The Bottom Line Volume 34, No.2, April 2013

Visualization of Law — A New View on Legal Search

By Daniel Lewis and Nik Reed

Legal research is often difficult and overwhelming, in large part because there is so much data to sift. Roughly 300,000 new case opinions are released every year in America, and those cases build upon common law that stretches back hundreds of years. Harvard’s Law Library holds over fourteen thousand volumes of reporters in its archives. For all but the most expert, legal research can feel like trying to navigate without a map. The connections between cases are complex, of vital importance, and almost chaotic.

With this large and ever-growing corpus, lawyers rightfully fear the possibility that a key case, argument, or insight will go undiscovered. Current search tools try to address this problem with headnote systems, advanced search language, and long text lists of cases. While such approaches were sufficient and cutting-edge two decades ago, they now feel antiquated and overwhelmed by the booming increase in case law and technological innovation.

This is not to say that legal research can be routinized or outsourced, like some other legal tasks. The law’s web of precedent is both broad and deep, and it demands subtle analysis and thoughtful insights. Making successful legal arguments requires fine attunement to large amounts of data and numerous variables: rules, facts, precedent, jurisdictions, judges, etc. The real question is whether research tools can create better access and make more sense of this data stream.

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