Visualizing Law: “A Scheme of Cosmic Synchronicity”

Anyone following the possibilities of visualizing law will be interested in Robert Ambrogi‘s recent cover story in the ABA Journal, “Visual law services are worth a thousand words—and big money.” Ambrogi is a lawyer and consultant who has been writing about legal technology and social media for a couple of decades.

He provides a nice overview of the current players working in the visualization of legal research. He begin’s with Ravel, the “legal research alternative” developed by David Lewis and Nicholas Reed at Stanford Law School and Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. When the pair graduated two years ago they already had a number of investors interested in backing their project. Ambrogi describes Ravel‘s approach like this: “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 …”

I like Kyle VanHemert‘s description of Ravel from his short article in last month’s Wired issue:

“Search results, instead of coming back as a block of text, are rendered as an interactive visualization. The cases take the form of bubbles, arranged by date. Landmark cases are nice and big; lesser cases are smaller. Lines join the circles, showing you how the cases are interrelated. You can filter these visual results in a number of ways, separating out, for instance, which rulings came from district courts, which came from circuit courts, and which were handed down by the Supreme Court itself.”

Ravel is still in beta but the potential looks great. There are a group of large law firms testing it out and the reports are so far positive.

Ambrogi goes on to look at this emerging trend to visualize law in what he characterizes as a “scheme of cosmic synchronicity.” He points to another Stanford initiative, the Program for Legal Technology & Design launched last November by Margaret Hagan and Ron Dolin. Hagan notes: “We are having a visual moment.”

Ambrogi attempts an historical overview of the evolution of law’s transition from text to visualization which he admits is “difficult to trace.” He starts us off with Fastcase who in 2008 provided an interactive timeline displaying search results as “various-size bubbles” and provides a nice description of this service later in the article.

He also mentions the Justis web visualization tool JustCite Precedent Map “which uses nodes to illustrate the relationships between cases and to help users see which cases most closely relate to their queries.” Justis, Ambrogi reports, had been using visual tools on their CD-ROM products in early 1990s.

He also cites the International Conference on Multisensory Law held in January of this year at the University of Zurich. This conference explored “the extent to which visual phenomenon are beginning to challenge the ‘verbocentric paradigm’ that dominates the study and practice of law.”

Ambrogi notes the challenges that the bigger legal research outfits have had in contributing to this trend. He cites former LexisNexis research scientist, lawyer and computer programmer, John M. Miano who is disappointed in the “collective failure to account for the visual aspect of communicating information.” However, Miano also points out that “Westlaw and LexisNexis are hampered in developing visual tools by the structures and size of their databases and the constraints of their browser-based interfaces.” They also don’t seem to feel that their clients are interested in tools like this, although this may just be a way to buy some time while they catch up with research in this area.

The Bloomberg financial platform has used visualization to assist decision-making creating graphs and charts to help digest large chunks of data. This experience will likely become part of the newish Bloomberg Law service and Ambrogi provides the Docket Analytics tool, which shows a firms litigation profile, as an example.

In his concluding remarks Ambrogi quotes Ravel‘s David Lewis who says, “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.” Earlier in the article Ambrogi notes that Fastcase was inspired by the work of Edward R. Tufte and Hans Rosling. You’ve probably seen Rosling‘s TED talk which is fantastic, but if your interested in the power of visualization I would also recommend Tufte‘s wonderful book, Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative.

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