Interacting With Visual Legal Research Platforms

How users interact with, contextualize, and evaluate information while doing research is the teaching focus for most law librarians. Our students need to know how to find the information in an efficient way and also need to understand and use that information in context.

Many of the research platforms currently focus on text-based results. Users can run a natural language or boolean search and evaluate the results based on relevance, date, most cited, etc.... With text-based results, it can be difficult for the instructor to make students understand why they are getting certain results and how the results and filters can change their research interaction.

But there is a new type of legal research platform brewing - the visual legal research platform. The ABA Journal reported on a variety of visual legal research platforms. Ravel seems very promising. "Ravel does not look like traditional legal research platforms. The difference is its visual presentation of search results. Rather than display a stack of text entries, Ravel draws a visual map of the results, showing the relationships among cases and their relative importance to each other. Enter a search query and you get the standard list of matching cases displayed along the right side of your screen. But across the left three-quarters you see a cluster map showing the cases as circles of various sizes. The larger the circle, the more important the case; the most relevant cases appear in the center. Lines radiate out of the circles, connecting each case to others it cites and that cite it. The thickness of the line indicates the depth of treatment. Hover your pointer over a case and its information shows in the right pane. Click it to get a list of every case cited within it. Double-click it to get the full text."

This offers an entirely new way for users to interact with their research. "The visualizations help researchers quickly understand the lay of the landscape for an issue—which cases are the major ones—and then better filter results to fit the research." As one developer noted, "[w]hat we're trying to do is make the process easier, more intuitive, more thorough and give people greater confidence that they're finding the cases that are best suited to their need."

This is a constant issue with teaching legal research. The evaluation of results typically means that students will ask, "how do I know which case to cite?" With the answer being something between "it depends" and a discussion about foundational cases and those cases that are closest in fact and result to their issue. These visual research platforms have the potential to help with these types of teaching moments.

Along with Ravel and other platforms, "Fastcase is focusing on bringing visualization tools to the front and center of its legal research platform. Since introducing its Interactive Timeline in 2008, Fastcase has continued to refine it. Now the timeline shows not only when each case was decided but also how relevant each case is to the query and how important it is based on the number of citations."

As the article notes, "[t]hat is not to say that visuals will ever replace text-based research entirely. The law is text-heavy, so there will always have to be an interplay between text and visuals. We're trying to figure out the right balance for combining those elements."

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