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.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Thanks for taking a look. Any suggestions for improvement greatly appreciated -- we're still in beta!

There's some kinks in what we have now, and the obvious thing is to improve appearance, coverage and citations, but we're very interesting in hearing what people would find most useful.

Tim Wu