Law librarians should focus their instruction, in part, on how law students interact with, contextualize, and evaluate information while performing legal research. Our students need to know how to find information in an efficient way and understand and use that information in context.
Many of the legal research platforms currently focus on text-based results. Depending on the database, 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 a challenge for the law-librarian instructor to convey to students exactly why they are retrieving certain results and how the post-search filters can change their research interaction.
Visual Legal Platforms
There may be a time in the very near future when the major legal research platforms move away from text-based results toward more visual results. The ABA Journal recently ran an article on a variety of new visual legal research platforms. Of the list, Ravel seems very promising. As Robert Ambrogi describes in the ABA Journal article:
“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.”
Robert Ambrogi, Vision Quest: Visual law services are worth a thousand words–and big money, 100 ABA Journal, May 2014.
This offers an entirely new way for users to interact with legal 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.” Id. 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.” Id.
Legal-research instruction inherently involves the evaluation of results. When it comes to case law research, understanding how the cases fit together is imperative to successful legal research. The evaluation of results typically means that students will ask, “How do I know which cases to cite?” The answer will be somewhere between, “It depends,” and a discussion about foundational cases and those cases that are closest in fact and result to their issue. Visual legal research platforms have the potential to help with these types of teaching moments.
As the ABA Journal 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.” Id. But it is nice to have a new tool in a law librarian’s teaching arsenal.