Thursday, August 25, 2016

Data Visualization and Legal Research: Resources You Can Use Now

Welcome back! We hope you had a productive and/or relaxing summer.

Have you heard of data visualization? Data visualization is a way of using computers to graphically present data in ways which humans can visually interpret. This can be a boon to people who are visual learners. While we all know about pie charts and bar graphs, you may not be familiar with some exciting ways in which legal information providers have applied data visualizations to help the researcher navigate legal information. Here we will be covering examples from several different providers Casetext, Lexis Advance, and Ravel.  


Casetext, an innovative legal information startup, has  created a heatmap, a type of data visualization in which values in a set of data are represented as colors, for their pro version. Casetext uses the heatmap within a case to show the number of citations to each page of the opinion. The line on the left is the heatmap, the boxes from top to bottom represent page numbers, and the shade of blue indicates how often the corresponding pages have been cited. The darker the shade, the more often the page has been cited.  This is useful because it indicates which portions of the opinion citing courts have found to be most important.

The heatmap is not to be confused with Casetext’s “Key Passages” as pictured below.  For instance, if we went to the page from the heatmap with the darkest blue, we see a callout with the number 164 just to the right of the passage.  The 164 represents the number of times this passage has been quoted in subsequent opinions.

Lexis Advance

Lexis Advance, a long-time industry leader, has recently added a color coded heatmap to its search results for cases. The example uses the following search limited to U.S. Supreme court decisions since 2007.

As you can see the visualization color codes my search terms and shows where the terms fall within the opinion from Headnotes to dissent. By clicking on the bands of color within the heatmap, Lexis Advance will display the relevant passages within the case.  The first example “evolving standards of decency” shows up in Justice Kagan’s opinion, note the relevant pale green bar on the heatmap is highlighted. 

Below we can see where the terms “minor” and “murder” show up in Justice Thomas’s dissent. Here, note the purple-orange-purple portion of the heatmap is highlighted.

The heatmaps within the search results represent only the top hits while going into a case gives a much more detailed version of the heatmap as you can see below. What constitutes a ‘top hit’ is determined by an algorithm which looks at inter alia search term location, frequency, and proximity in order to determine the most representative language within the document.

The most obvious use for this sort of data visualization is in finding your search terms within a case, but also by paying attention to the density of search terms and where the colors are together, one can guess where in an opinion the court is discussing the interaction between the different concepts.


Ravel is another innovative legal information startup that has taken a different approach to data visualization. Ravel’s main data visualization presents a search as a series of connections between cases.  The two images below represent Ravel’s visualization of a search for the phrase “evolving standards of decency” with the left image sorted by court and the right image sorted by relevance.  All of the same information is present. Each circle represents a case. The size of each circle indicates the number of citations within your search results and the color of each circle correlates to the level of the court which wrote each opinion which is more easily discerned in the image sorted by court on the left.

By clicking one one of the case circles, you can obtain a relevance mapping of connections between that case and other cases.  The image below reflects the relevance mapping for the case Trop v. Dulles, the case in which the phrase “evolving standards of decency” originated. The pattern in this image shows those cases which both include this phrase and cite to Trop v. Dulles directly. The connection is shown as a blue line with an arrow.  The arrow points from the citing case to the cited case and the thickness of the line correlates to the number of times cited. Notice how the image below correlates to the ‘relevance’ view, above right.

The next image shows the visualization for the case Estelle v. Gamble which applies the “evolving standards” from Trop in the context of medical treatment for prisoners. The image below shows the pattern of connections of cases either cited by Estelle or citing to Estelle. Ravel’s data visualization allows researchers to see connections between cases and the development in subsequent cases.


This post included explanations of three fairly new uses of data visualization in legal research.  There are many more out there and since Lexis Advance implemented such a tool the other major commercial legal databases are likely to follow suit. If your favorite legal research data visualization tool was not covered please share it in the comment section below.


* Western New England University School of Law students have free access to the pro version of Casetext, contact Artie Berns for full details.

** Ravel provides free access to its data visualization tools for free to law students.  You can sign up for a free Ravel educational account here.  

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Summer Legal Research Tips

Congratulations to those of you who have summer employment, an internship or law clerk’s position in a law firm, a court, a governmental agency, or another job where you can continue to gain legal experience and use some of the knowledge and skills you worked so hard to master in law school! Even if you do not plan on working at such a place this summer, make opportunities to sharpen your legal research skills.

The following are some tips for summer research:

Know your issue and take some time to understand an area of law unfamiliar to you
  • Ask your supervising attorney about the context, what sources to use, and about cost and time restraints. As you learn more about the issue and do get farther into the project, you may need to clarify some things. It is better to have that conversation than to spend too much time heading down the wrong path.
  • Understand the relevant court system, administrative agencies, or legislative bodies
  • Review treatises, practice guides, or legal encyclopedias that relate to your issue. See Renee’s recent blog post in which she gave you some great pointers on using these.
Write down your research question and develop a search strategy
  • See my tips on developing search strategy. Don’t start by just typing in some keywords into a search box. Taking a few minutes to develop your research question, identify synonyms to the main concepts, and determine the best resources to start with will save you lots of time and frustration.
  • Keep track of your resources and search queries so you know where you’ve been and revise your search strategy.
  • Utilize the advance search features and other filters that will narrow your search to a jurisdiction, time, and resource type.
  • Organize information as you find it. Remember you can save and organize your research online, sometimes with just a click or two using Westlaw and Lexis Advance folders, and some free ones like Zotero, Evernote, to name a few. (Ask a law librarian if you want some help with this and remember to comply with use paid database restrictions on retention of research.)
Utilize the resources available to you
  • Remember, as a law student here, you still have access to many recourses at the law library, even if you are not in the area. Lexis Advance and BNA are giving you the same access during the summer as you have when working on assignments for your law school classes. You can also contact Westlaw to arrange access. (Contact the law library if you have any questions about your access.) 
  • Check out eBooks from our LexisNexis Digital Library
  • Ask a law librarian! Does your office have a law librarian? While you may be away for the summer, your law school librarians are still on campus waiting to hear from you
  • If you are in Massachusetts or Connecticut, you can contact your state law librarian. You can also go to the libraries at several locations throughout the states to get help in person, find a treasure-trove of print materials, and access Lexis and Westlaw; (some have access to one of them or both). Here are links to information about library locations in Massachusetts and Connecticut
  • Familiarize yourself with the legal materials your law firm or office have and what subscription databases can you access from work?
Use free resources whenever possible – but make sure they are credible
Use subscription databases efficiently
  • Consult your supervisor about the office's subscription to databases and if there is a preferred database you should use.
  • Use the databases’ help features, online chat service or call and speak with a real person who is ready to give you suggestions.
Give yourself time to think
  • If you have not found anything relevant within 15 minutes, you need to stop and regroup. Work on something else and give yourself a chance to gather your thoughts or confer with someone who might give you another perspective. Hey, it’s summer – get outside and spend a few minutes enjoying the fact that you aren’t in classes
  • Remind yourself of your research question and reevaluate your research strategy.
Update your sources
  • Shepardize or KeyCite cases and statutes upon which you are relying.
  • Check citing references.
… and most importantly, find some time to get outside, enjoy the summer, and read a book or two for fun!
George Mason University School of Law, Free Legal Research Sites, (May 11, 2015).

University of Virginia School of Law, Legal Research for Law Students: Tips for Summer Research, (Dec. 8, 2015).

Rebecca A. Mattson & Theresa K. Tarves, Teaching Cost-Effective Research Skills, 20 AALL Spectrum 31 (2016).

University of Illinois Law Library, Summer Legal Research Tips,

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Fastcase: an alternative legal database

Are you a law student? Is there a possibility that you will be practicing in Massachusetts after law school? If you answered yes to these questions you should start learning how to use Fastcase.

How you ask? The Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA) allows law school students to join for free and it is very reasonably priced for newer Massachusetts attorneys. In addition to a lot of other great member benefits, MBA membership includes full access to Fastcase.

Fastcase has many great features including:

Fastcase's Advanced Search Functions
  • Full text cases, statutes, and regulations from all U.S. jurisdictions with advanced searching features such as Boolean and proximity searching.

  • Constitutions, Court Rules, Attorney General Opinions, and Administrative Opinions from many U.S. Jurisdictions.

Bad Law Bot
  • Bad Law Bot—this is a citator which uses an algorithm to search through the body of case law to find words like overruled, superseded, or abrogated in relation to case law.*  When used correctly these words signify when a case is no longer good law as outlined in the Bluebook.** Since this algorithm focuses on finding particular words to find bad law, a case flagged by the Bad Law Bot is very likely no longer good law on some particular point. However, a case which doesn’t use these standard signals may evade Bad Law Bot’s detection, therefore it is probably a good practice to use another citator to check cases such as KeyCite or Shepard’s before relying on a case.
  • Another great feature of Fastcase is in it's partnership with HeinOnline.  This partnership enables the user to apply Fastcase’s powerful search tools to HeinOnline's collection of over two thousand legal periodicals. Additionally, HeinOnline’s coverage of these legal periodicals is exhaustive; in many cases coverage goes back to the inception of each journal whereas coverage on the major commercial legal databases usually begins in the mid-eighties.

Since all this is included with MBA membership and MBA allows law students to join for free and is very reasonably priced for newer attorneys, Fastcase can be a valuable tool for those planning to practice in Massachusetts.  


 * By contrast KeyCite and Shepard’s use human editors.
** The Bluebook: a Uniform System of Citation 110 (Columbia Law Review Ass’n et al. eds., 20th ed. 2015).

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Should We Take This Case?

Tis the season for law students to leave for their summer jobs. In honor of this annual rite, I am addressing a common task given to summer interns and new lawyers – evaluating whether a potential client has a valid cause of action. Fortunately, I come with good news. There are several types of resources that will help you to jump start this task.

In order to find these resources, I went to my law school’s catalogue and entered a simple key word search for – causes of action. I didn’t even put that phrase into quotations but I would probably try it both ways the first time. My results included some golden results. I had planned initially to explore Massachusetts resources exclusively but my search results broadened my horizons and led me to make a larger point – it is likely that any jurisdiction you are researching in will have similar resources. Yeah!

Here’s what this first search brought to light – electronic resources entitled Encyclopedia of New York Causes of Action: Elements and Defenses; Encyclopedia of Connecticut Causes of Action; and Pennsylvania Causes of Action, all available on LexisNexis.  All three of these resources provide access points to the various causes of action, either by grouping them as common-law or statutory causes of action, or grouping them by issue – tort, property, insurance, as examples. Typically an entry in this type of resource will list the elements, relevant cases, statutes of limitations and in some instances, the burden of proof.

For Massachusetts, my search results included a resource published by Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) entitled Massachusetts Civil Causes of Action which is available in print and online on both WestlawNext and Lexis Advance. This resource has 30 causes of action so not as comprehensive as the Encyclopedias, but you may find the entries to be a little more substantial. For example, the entry for False Arrest starts off as follows: “False arrest is a common law action, an intentional tort. It is seldom brought as the sole claim in a lawsuit. Ordinarily it is joined with claims for false imprisonment, malicious prosecution, and/or battery. False arrest has been described as a ‘species’ of false imprisonment.”
That is a lot of useful information concisely given. I omitted all of the footnotes in the above quote, but rest assured that each sentence is supported by case law in the endnotes to each chapter. This entry has additional sections defining the elements, the defenses, and the remedies.

Another resource for the purpose of evaluating cases that I consider underutilized are your jurisdiction’s jury instructions. Of course jury instructions come into play at the end of a case but since this is what the jury is going to be told you had to prove to establish your case, isn’t it a good idea to have them in mind from the outset?  In Massachusetts MCLE publishes Massachusetts Superior Court Civil Practice Jury Instructions, Massachusetts Superior Court Criminal Practice Jury Instructions as well as Criminal Model Jury Instructions for Use in the District Court. In Superior Court Civil Practice Jury Instructions at least 21 subject areas are covered, as well as several chapters covering miscellaneous and special issues. Let’s look at what is covered by the employment discrimination jury instructions (chapter 5): the Plaintiff’s burden of proof (an essential piece of knowledge); direct and circumstantial evidence of motive, intent, or state of mind; and the elements of handicap and age discrimination. All of these instructions are supported by citations to cases and statutes. I don’t think there is a way to put your hands on relevant material faster – but if you know of one do not hesitate to make a comment!

Before moving on to a national resource that does something similar to the resources described above, I have to mention the four volumes of the Massachusetts Practice Series Prima Facie Case Proof and Defense by Massachusetts lawyer Richard W. Bishop, in existence for more than fifty years. This resource directs the researcher to applicable case and statute law, but one advantage to using Mass. Practice is that you will also be directed to related material in other parts of the Series. For example, looking at the False Imprisonment section in Prima Facie Case Proof and Defense points the researcher to supplemental materials found in Massachusetts Practice Procedural Forms Annotated which not only has more explicatory material on False Imprisonment but also, sample complaints.

The final resource I want to bring to your attention is called Causes of Action. This is a non-jurisdictional resource in its 2d edition, published by Thomson Reuters, and while it covers the same types of information discussed above, it goes further into the litigation of an action.  Causes of Action covers the standard common law causes of action, as well as causes pursuant to federal statutes like the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the Fair Housing Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act. For the print version, access to Causes of Action is through a print index that seems thorough. The online version can be found on WestlawNext.

Each volume in the series covers approximately six or seven causes of actions. The volume I pulled off the shelf at random had the following causes of action: Cause of Action against Motor Vehicle Passenger to Recover for Injury Sustained in Accident; Cause of Action for Damages under 11 U.S.C.A. § 362(k) for Willful Violation of Automatic Stay in Bankruptcy; Cause of Action for Discharge from Employment in Retaliation for Exercise of Rights Protected by Title VII, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 2000e to 2000e-17; Cause of Action for Violation of Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse (CFAA); Cause of Action against Neighboring Landowners for Trespass; Cause of Action for Medical Battery against Medical Practitioner; and Causes of Action for Invasion of Privacy Resulting from Corporate Use of Customer Online or Internet Data. I wanted to list all of these out to give you an idea of the breadth of the entries. 

Each entry is composed by a lawyer. In addition to covering the prima facie case and defenses the entry goes over jurisdiction and venue issues, the plaintiff’s and defendant’s proof, damages, checklists, and model documents. So a little more in depth than the resources I first pointed out which are excellent for doing that first round of research. Causes of Action may be most useful for the next step of actually putting the case together.

I hope this review of go-to sources for evaluating cases was helpful for you – and good luck in your summer research endeavors!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Bluebook Alternative? - The Indigo Book

There is a new online, open source legal citation manual that went live in February of this year. It was originally referred to as "Baby Blue Manual of Legal Citation." The nonprofit Public.Resource.Org, which released the manual, now referred to as The Indigo Book, had been at loggerheads with the Harvard Law Review Association for years over copyright interests.

NYU School of Law professor Christopher J. Sprigman oversaw the open source citation project with his students' assistance, and joined up with Carl Maalamud, president of Public Resource. They restated The Bluebook rules and created numerous citation examples to demonstrate the rules in action.

The Bluebook is published by the Harvard Law Review Association (HLRA), along with the Columbia Law Review Association, Yale Law Journal Co., and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, and is currently in its 20th edition. Malamud learned that The Bluebook's 10th edition had not renewed its copyright and was in the public domain, and publicized that information.

I just noticed today that the name of the open source citation manual changed to The Indigo Book. Apparently, HLRA's attorneys had notified Malamud that "any title consisting of or comprising the word 'Blue,'" would violate HLRA's federal and state rights. Whether the new title will prevent possible litigation remains to be seen.

It is interesting that the law students at Harvard, NYU, Stanford, and Yale have supported the open source citation project, noting that they feel obliged to make the citation system accessible to users. A letter that almost 30% of Yale law students signed states: "We believe democratizing the rules of citation increases access to justice for all." 

The Bluebook is often described as complicated and poorly organized.  Take a look at The Indigo Book and see what you think of the ease of use, organization, examples, and the "Indigo Inklings" sprinkled throughout the resource.

R15. Short Form Citation for Cases:

If you are interested in free access to the law, free and open access to the system of citation of the law is critical!