Researching the law, and everything else, with web 2.0

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Review of AltLaw: a Federal Appellate Opinion Search Site

AltLaw (BETA) is a new search engine for (so far) US federal appellate opinions (including Supreme Court opinions). AltLaw is:
a joint project of Columbia Law School’s Program on Law and Technology, and the Silicon Flatirons Program at the University of Colorado Law School. AltLaw was written by Stuart Sierra and Paul Ohm, with help from Luis Villa, and produced by Tim Wu
The idea is to make the common law more accessible to professionals and laypersons alike, without paid subscriptions--"to make the common law a bit more common." I'm all for that, and I'm actually fairly surprised, now that I think about it, that this kind of project wasn't undertaken and completed by someone long ago.

Nice that it's all free and in one place, and at an easy-to-remember address, with a clean and simple search page. Even better? AltLaw allows you to use proximity in your searches, as the Advanced Search page includes a "These words [form blank] within [form blank] words of each other." Also on the Advanced Search page you can tick and un-tick which courts' opinions you want to search, along with the usual boolean options and date range.

The database only includes federal appellate decisions for "about the last 10 to 15 years," but evidently the goal is to end up with a complete set of state and federal opinions with reporter citations.

I tried the Advanced Search, searching 8th Circuit and Supreme Court opinions containing the exact phrase "search and seizure" and containing "defendant" within ten words of "weapon." I got back a pleasantly clean-looking results page listing 4 cases, ranging from 1996 to 2005, each with 4 lines of search terms in context.

At the top of the page, AltLaw offered the option to "sort by relevance." For a search site this relatively simple to offer that option is a nice surprise. Naturally, sorting by relevance re-orders the results by the number of times search terms appear in each case, so sorting by relevance didn't bring up the case that had the most to do with my proximity search terms, since they only appear once within 10 words of each other in each case.

I backed up and broadened my search to all federal appellate courts and the Supreme Court, but narrowed the date range to between 2005 and 2007 (not written in the mm/dd/yyyy format). AltLaw correctly returned 18 results from between 2005 and 2007.

AltLaw is easy to use, and already boasts some intriguing search features. As they add more features and, especially as their database of cases grows (do Missouri state cases next!), AltLaw could easily become one of my most frequently used free legal research tools on the web.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Possible Legal Rights of Cryogenically Revived Persons » SlideShare

Really? I'm pretty sure I'll never need to advise a client on this, but I'll admit, now I'm oddly curious about the theoretical rights of slow-motion time travelers. Points for originality.

(via slideshare, by A. Christopher Sega, Esq.)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Zotero Releases Update

If you do a lot of online research and you use Firefox, and you haven't already installed Zotero, you should. It's probably the single most useful Firefox extension for research I've found, and possibly the most useful research tool I've found, period. It's a powerful but easy tool for saving research from the web or online databases in an organized way.

Zotero is especially valuable for legal research because if you're using a subscription database like Westlaw or LexisNexis, and you're charged per transaction, you can use the database to access a source once, save it with Zotero, and come back to it any time without having to use Westlaw or Lexis to retrieve it (of course, be careful not to run afoul of copyrights).

Zotero lets you keep an ever-growing, searchable, organized, portable private database, with your various research "collections" organized in a drill-down table of contents; within each collection, you can create sub-collections, which means you can also use Zotero as a kind of mind-mapping tool, starting a new sub-collection for each sub-issue in your research problem.

The interface stays visible and editable while you navigate through pages in Firefox, too, which is an overlooked feature in a research tool: being able to use both a research tool and a browser window without having to toggle back and forth between them saves time (I envy those of you with a two-monitor set-up).

The only reservation I've had about Zotero has been some bugginess. Now Zotero has just released a new version, and it looks like it could be a leap forward, with a lot of bugs fixed and some new features as well. I just installed it in my Firefox, so I don't know for sure yet just how improved it is, but this is the most excited I've been to get an update to a Firefox extension.

If that's not a nerdy statement, I don't know what is. Oh well. I kind of gave up on being cool when I enrolled in law school. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Recent Financial Presentation by Thomson Gives Insight Into Legal Research Market and Practices

Via slideshare, a web 2.0 site for searching and uploading slideshow presentations, comes this financial presentation from Thomson's Legal Segment dating from this June, detailing the legal research technology and products market from Thomson's point of view.

The presentation depicts a steadily growing market for legal research, with Thomson as the market leader. Yet, interestingly, the presentation predicts that law school enrollment will level off and slightly decline in the next few years (presumably, the growth of law firms would follow suit). The presentation doesn't address what that trend might mean for the future of the legal research market or Thomson's approach to it.

Slide 31 shows the relative amount spent by legal researchers on different steps in the research process for litigation. It's no surprise that researching the law accounts for the greatest expenditure of researchers in research for litigation, but the "file and present" step accounts for nearly 2/3 as much revenue as research of the law. I'm not sure what that figure represents--perhaps downloading forms or double-checking citations? Of course, the mere fact that researchers spend a certain amount of money on certain research steps for litigation doesn't mean that money is efficiently spent that way, but it gives a broad idea of about how much research resources researchers consider appropriate for each step in researching for litigation.

This leads me to a thought: wouldn't it be nice to see a more detailed breakdown based on which databases are used, how often, for how long? I would be surprised to see any info like this from Thomson (maybe I'll look for it anyway, just for giggles), but perhaps it is worth looking for a good way to use your Research Trail on Westlaw to keep track of your own research habits and analyze them for efficiency.

The presentation of course also reveals quite a bit about Thomson's business model for the legal research market. Naturally, online research now dominates Thomson's revenue from legal research, at 2/3 of its legal research revenue, as "[y]ounger attorneys [are] primarily trained in online research."

According to slide 21, "combining online and print resources is [a] very compelling value proposition," but I'm inclined to be skeptical about that. From what I've noticed, researchers who prefer one or the other format would likely prefer to stay within that format for a particular research task. I'm not sure what I, as a researcher who prefers online research, would look for in a combined print/online service that I wouldn't prefer to see integrated entirely in an online service, but maybe they know something about researchers' habits that I don't know.

So far, it doesn't look to me like slideshare hosts a lot of legal research-related presentations, but I could see this as a great resource for CLEs if attorneys and researchers find the place and start posting.

Friday, August 3, 2007

About Social Scavenger

I'm a third-year law student curious about: using social bookmarking for legal and other research, law practice in Missouri, persuasion and psychology, and pretty much everything else that crosses my path.

I'm using this blog in part as a personal aggregator for links and feeds, in conjunction with an attempt to organize my life.

I'm also working on creating legal research software and databases.

email me at hierophantus [at] gmail (dot) com.


Over the next few days, I'll be adding feeds and setting up pages for legal research, bookmarking and folksonomy, lifehacks, and other categories. Blog posts will be coming as I find time over the weekend.