Law Student Voices: (Un)Raveling the Mysteries of Legal Research

For untold generations of law students, LexisNexis and Westlaw have dominated the legal research field. Periodically, a challenger appears, attempting to break into some portion of the market, often with little-to-no success. The reasons for such difficulty are manifold, however, one prominent reason may be the lack of time lawyers have to experiment with new research databases.

One company that seeks to reverse this trend and make a name for itself in the legal community is Ravel.

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When you first visit Ravel, you immediately notice that it has the uncluttered Google-like interface we have all become accustomed to over the years. The search engine allows you to enter a variety of identifying information to find relevant case law, just like any other research database. The search box recognizes both natural language and Boolean operators. However, the real excitement begins when you hit that magnifying glass and see Ravel’s visual search at work.

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On the results screen, relevant cases are shown in various ways. To the right is the traditional research method—cases are ranked in order of likelihood of relevance, with pertinent information filling in below the case name. On the left, a complex yet easy to understand graph displays the chronology of a given issue’s development and connects to the most important cases.

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No longer must we sift through a dozen court opinions to find the source of a particular point of law: Ravel will trace the entire history of an issue to arrive at either the court of highest authority on the matter or the first court to address the matter. Not only is this resource good news for visual learners, it can drastically cut down on research time for everyone else. According to Ravel, “[i]n comparisons with traditional legal research tools, Ravel cuts research time by up to 70%.”

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Notably, once you open a case that appears relevant, Ravel imports additional information to allow the user to continue assessing whether or not a given case is on point. If the user has a “Professional” level account or above (note: students with a .edu email address receive the equivalent of Ravel’s “Advanced” plan for free!), Ravel allows you to make annotations, brief a case, and even export those notes to a separate doc.

One unique and much-appreciated feature is that footnotes appear to the side, in line with text instead of at the end of the document. This eliminates the wasteful activity of scrolling to the bottom as well as the often-annoying necessity to hover over footnotes.

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But perhaps Ravel’s single brightest moment appears in the form of its Star Reading System. With Star Reading, users can track the development of a single passage through the law. That level of depth has the potential to be on par with, if not superior to, any other cataloging system out there. According to Ravel:

Mining the connections that link millions of court documents, Ravel’s technology identifies cases’ key passages and shows how later cases have rephrased or interpreted them. This is lawyering powered by two centuries of judicial analysis.

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On the horizon is a feature called “Judge Analytics,” which will allow users to select a judge and view trends in his or her decision-making process. In addition, there will be filters to sort through the plethora of opinions as well as a keyword search. Such a feature would be undeniably beneficial for law students, academics, and practitioners alike.

This review was authored by Justin Iverson, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2015, Savannah Law School. The author acquired some of the images presented by screenshot, while others were obtained from Ravel’s representatives. As a law student, the author had access to Advanced features free of charge.

**This review is not intended to be an endorsement of any product. Its sole purpose is to provide useful information to law students.

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Filed under General, Legal Writing and Oral Arguments, Technology

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