Thursday, September 22, 2016

Darn Broken Links!

The World Wide Web has become the go-to source for information in our society.  We have easy access to about 47 billion web pages on the World Wide Web. This number only accounts for the surface web.*  In order to be accessed web pages need to have an address.**  Web pages can lose their addresses if their owner fails to pay the web-hosting bill, if the server breaks down, if the files which make up the web page are moved or deleted, or if the owner of the website simply decides to change the content.  We even have a name for when a web page loses its address: link rot.

This can be a problem when conducting research.  In academia, writers rely on the process of citation to show the reader where they found information.  In law, jurists and expert witnesses will also use citations to inform the reader of information upon which a decision or the expert’s opinion might be based.***

Prior to the internet the citation process was straightforward because once something was published in print it was recorded in a physical and unchanging form.  This is not so with web pages, since there are many reasons links may become unavailable over time.

So what can you do if you’re conducting research and come across link rot?  Well, there is one thing you can try—check out the Wayback Machine.

What is the Wayback Machine?

The Internet Archive Wayback Machine is a web archive which enables users to view webpages across time. Simply go to the website and enter the URL of the website for which you’d like to see past versions in their search box. If the website has been archived, you will be brought to a page with a bar graph indicating how often the page has been indexed.
The bar pictured is for “”
The bar graph consists of one box for each year since 1996.  Within each box are up to 12 black vertical lines which represent each month within that year.  The height of each vertical black line represents how many times the web page was archived that month. Clicking on the boxes will bring up a calendar for that year with days highlighted when a snapshot of the webpage was archived. To see the webpage as it was, click the highlighted dates.

Note: The Wayback Machine is a free service and is also very popular.  This means that sometimes you may sometimes get an error message because their servers are busy—be patient.

I recently had occasion to do some research on expert witness reports. In one of these reports (link requires Westlaw password) I was surprised to find a great number of the references to an advocacy website (PFLAG) were broken due to changes to the organization’s website. Of the five links which were broken in the expert report, I was able to retrieve all five using the Wayback Machine including one pdf file.  While your results may vary—if you come across a broken link while doing research the Wayback Machine may be a good solution.
* Surface web means the part web which is indexed by the commercial search engines (e.g. Google). The surface web accounts for about 4% of the total web.  Non-indexed parts of the web are called the deep web and dark web. To learn more about those click here.  
** Web addresses are usually thought of as Uniform Resource Locators or URLs. For more detailed information about URLs click here
*** Legal scholars have recognized link rot as a problem. See e.g. Jonathan Zittrain, Kendra Albert, Lawrence Lessig, Perma: Scoping and Addressing the Problem of Link and Reference Rot in Legal Citations, 127 Harv. L. Rev. F. 176 (2014).

Monday, September 12, 2016

Law Reports from the Library of Congress

Legal researchers are familiar with Congressional Research Service (CRS), a division of the Library of Congress, and the great bipartisan reports it provides for Members of Congress. In fact I wrote about CRS previously and that post is available here. To recap, CRS “experts assist [members of Congress] at every stage of the legislative process — from the early considerations that precede bill drafting, through committee hearings and floor debate, to the oversight of enacted laws and various agency activities.” (from the CRS website).

But today I discovered that the Library of Congress also authors something called “Legal Reports,” also for Congress, available freely at this link. There are differences between these Legal Reports and CRS Reports – one of the biggest of which I just mentioned – they are available for free on the Library of Congress' website. 

There are also differences in subject matter covered. The CRS Annual Report states that major issues covered by CRS in 2015 included appropriations, congressional oversight, country of origin labeling, federal health insurance programs, inter alia. In other words, domestic and foreign policy issues. On the other hand, a review of Law Reports created by the LOC reveals that these Reports tend to have more of a foreign or comparative law slant. For example, there are Law Reports covering children’s rights in 16 countries, regulation of drones in 13 countries and the European Union (I could have used this last semester), the impact of foreign law on domestic judgments in 13 countries, extradition of citizens in Brazil and 157 other jurisdictions, to name only four of the more than one hundred Reports! The index for Law Reports available can be found here

Another difference between CRS Reports and Law Reports is that there is no author attribution for the Legal Reports; the author is listed as the Global Legal Research Center. As you know, the CRS Reports are written by subject specialists and the individual’s contact information is given at the end of each report.

It’s a good day when I discover a whole new resource for research and I am happy to share this discovery with you.

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).