Monday, April 7, 2014

Mobile Apps for Legal Research #16: BriefCase

Briefing cases consumed a fair amount of my first semester of law school. My study group tried all sorts of approaches to briefing. We wrote margin notes. We typed up summaries. And we highlighted. We had colors for rules, facts, issues, reasoning, and more. One of my friends even created The Briefinator, an amalgamation of seven highlighters, to cope with all the highlighting we did for our briefs.

David Lutz, a student at The University of Michigan Law School must have had an experience similar to mine. By his third year, he was fed up with the cumbersome, time-consuming process of briefing, so he created an iPad app to simplify case briefs. The app, BriefCase, lets you annotate PDFS with notes and six different colors of highlighters, and then it automatically generates briefs from your annotations. This video from the BriefCase website explains the goals of the app.

BriefCase. - Automatically Brief Your Legal Cases from BriefCase. on Vimeo.

BriefCase is available for free, but access to advanced features requires a 12-month subscription for $9.99.

To use the app, you have to first load in a PDF. If you have the 12-month subscription, you can email the PDF to a special address and the app will load the PDF automatically. In the free version, you have to email the PDF to yourself, open the email on your iPad, and send the PDF to BriefCase with the export button.

After you load the PDF into BriefCase, the app asks you for the case information--case name, citation, date, whether the case is good law, and a case synopsis. BriefCase uses this information for the heading of your brief.

To start annotating the PDF, select a block of and choose either highlight or underline . Tap the highlighted/underlined text to bring up a menu that lets you change highlighter color, add a note, or delete the annotation.

Each color in BriefCase is linked to a traditional brief section: facts, procedural history, issues, holding, reasoning, and dissent. From the menu, you can access the highlighter settings and change the color linked to each section.

Once you have finished annotating the PDF, select the Brief button in the upper right to generate your brief. BriefCase will automatically create your brief by pulling in all of the highlighted text and dividing it based on colors/sections. Within each section, the app breaks the text into bullet points, with one bullet for each annotation.

If you are using the free version of the app, you can look at the brief in the app but can't do anything else. If you have the 12-month subscription, you can export the brief to Dropbox or Google Drive, email the brief, or print it.

BriefCase is a good idea, but I think it still has a ways to go. The app's usability issues make briefing a case in BriefCase more of a hassle than just sticking with The Briefinator.

The app's greatest problem is how it approaches text selection. The app uses the iPad's built-in text selection feature. This feature requires pinpoint accuracy; I often have to try five or six times to successfully select a block of text. The thought of highlighting an entire judicial opinion one or two sentences at a time using that feature is untenable. I would never try it if pen and paper were an option. The app needs a customized selection tool that makes highlighting text more natural.

Another issue with BriefCase is how it orders information within the sections of its brief. It puts the information in order based on its location on the page; information higher on the paging comes before information lower on the page. This approach makes sense until you annotate a PDF with columns. BriefCase pays no attention to columns; information from the top of column two is placed before information from the bottom of column one because the column two information is higher on the page. You can rearrange the bullet points in the finished brief, but that undermines the purpose of the app. It is supposed to build the brief for you, not make you build it yourself.

If David Lutz can fix the two major usability issues, BriefCase will be a great tool for organizing case law. Until then, BriefCase is little more than a law student novelty. It is certainly no Briefinator.

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