Category Archives: Technology

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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Using Technology to Make Study Groups Mobile

Yesterday, we explored some of the benefits of study groups in law school, as well as some techniques to make your study group more effective. One of the challenges that study groups face is the difficulty of getting everyone in one place at the same time. This is especially true if members of the study group have a job, live further away from the law school, have to arrange for child care, or otherwise find it hard to come back to the law school outside of class times. When your study group has these kinds of challenges, you can find solutions by thinking outside the box—try harnessing technology to make your study group mobile and more effective. Here are three types of technology that may aid your study group:

(1) Video chat platforms: There are any number of free video chat platforms out there, such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime, and many of them allow you to have several people participating in the same conversation. With a video chat, it doesn’t matter where the members of the study group are located—all each person needs is a good internet connection and a smart phone, tablet, or computer.

(2) Collaborative study platforms: There are also quite a number of free or low-cost collaborative study platforms that could be easily utilized by law school study groups. Some of these programs have some really good components. A non-exclusive list of platforms to explore includes mind42 (a collaborative mind mapping platform), Simple Surface (allows real-time collaboration and includes a digital whiteboard; can download what you’ve created to pdf), ThinkBinder (a free platform for study groups that includes text discussion, video chat, shared folders, whiteboard, etc.), and Scribblar (another collaborative platform with text chat, live audio, whiteboard, etc.).

(3) Study Apps: A number of study apps allow multiple people to collaborate in creating study tools and share what has been created. I’ve previously talked about some of the apps available for creating flash cards. There are also some programs that let you develop games that you could use to review material, such as FlipQuiz.

The key is to think more broadly about how you can use technology to maximize your study group’s efforts. Not only may these tools increase the opportunities for your group to work together, but they can capitalize on group members’ preferred learning styles and make studying more productive and enjoyable.

*Nothing in this blog post is meant to be an advertisement or endorsement of any of the referenced products.

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Taking Effective Notes in Law School

When most people think of taking notes, they think of sitting in a classroom and taking notes while the professor lectures. In undergrad, note-taking is often a pretty passive task—students write down what the professor is saying without really processing what is going on in class. Once class has ended, the note-taking process has ended. Some students don’t take notes in class at all, instead relying upon other course materials when they study for exams.

Your approach to taking notes in law school should be very different. The first thing that new law students need to understand is that effective note-taking is a cyclical process. Your case briefs are the foundation for your class notes—by creating case briefs, you are creating a set of notes that you can rely upon in class. Then, when you go into class, you should take additional notes about what happens during class. Many law students stop at this point, but there is still a third step to creating good notes. After class is over, you should spend a little time reviewing your notes from class, elaborating upon things you didn’t have enough time to jot down during class and correcting any errors in your notes. You should also use your class notes to clarify your case briefs. Complete this review of your class notes as soon as possible after class has ended because your memory of what happened in class will still be fresh.

Should you take notes by hand or on your computer? There’s an ongoing debate over whether law students should take notes by hand or on their computers. Some professors don’t allow computers in the classroom, and in those circumstances your decision is simple—you will take notes by hand. Most professors do allow computers in the classroom, however, and that means you will have to make the choice about what is right for you.

There are studies that have found that students who take notes by hand are able to remember lectures better than those who type their notes. One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that, when you handwrite notes, you are required to think more about what you are going to write—the cognitive process is different. Because most people cannot write as fast as they type, it isn’t possible to create a transcript of everything that is said during class. Instead, someone who handwrites has to process information differently so that they can write down the important things that were said in class.

Students who take notes on their computers have a tendency to try to write down every word. When you create a literal transcript of what happens in class, you are not really processing that information. Thus, if you choose to take notes on your computer, you will need to take a disciplined approach to your note-taking. Students who use computers also have to resist the urge to be distracted, as there is always the temptation to check social media sites, surf the internet, and message friends.

Check back in tomorrow for another blog post on this topic—I will be talking about what law students should include in their course notes!

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Law Student Voices: The Top 5 Apps for Law Students

For two years in a row now, I’ve done a presentation titled “Technology for Law Students” as part of my school’s 1L Orientation program. Much of what I discuss in that segment revolves around the use of apps to make studying for classes or drafting assignments easier and/or more effective for new law students. While I rely exclusively on iPhone/iPad apps, there are likely equivalents on Android and other platforms. Here, in no particular order, are my five favorite apps for law school:

1. Dropbox (Free)

DropboxDropbox is great for accessing files across all of your devices (i.e., laptop, tablet, phone) and also for sharing folders with classmates. One of my professors had a ban on laptops in the classroom, but didn’t have a problem with tablets. I was able to take advantage of that exception to view my briefs in class, eliminating the need to print them out beforehand. Dropbox is also useful for working on collaborative projects by creating a shared reservoir for research material and work product drafts. An alternative to Dropbox that builds upon that particular feature is Google Drive, though my own experience with Drive is limited.

2. Black’s Law Dictionary, 9th ed. ($54.99) ***Update: 10th edition now available!!!

Blacks Law Dictionary 1I feel forever indebted to this app for giving me a competitive advantage in my first year of law school. Black’s 9th allowed me to quickly search for terms and find related concepts even in the heat of a cold call. Not only does the app boast an impressive collection of definitions, Black’s 9th also contains highlighted terms within those definitions to explore large sections of the law with ease and speed.Blacks Law Dictionary 2

***Update: The App for the 10th Edition is now available. You can find it here. According to the Thomson Reuters website, the 10th edition has added roughly 5,000 terms (bringing the total to over 50,000) and also doubled the sources quoted and cited over the 9th.

3. Genius Scan (Free + $6.99 for Full Version)

Genius scan 1The concept here is simple: Genius Scan takes pictures using the camera on your phone or tablet and makes the image look as-if you ran the document through a traditional scanner. The app also allows you to organize collections of scans. There is also a full version for $6.99 called Genius Scan+ that removes ads and allows for printing, cloud export, and customizable email signatures.Genius scan 2

Sometimes school-provided scanners can be a pain. Other times, they aren’t accessible because you’re home or at work. Whatever the case may be, the first year especially is filled with administrative hurdles and it never hurts to have a scanner in your pocket to send professional-looking forms in a pinch. Having the ability to organize your scans is important on its own as you can separate pictures of your reading assignments from those taken in your bathroom mirror (selfies).

4. Rulebook (Free + $39.99 for Bluebook)

Rulebook 1Rulebook is free. Content that you can download through its library function is not, however. For example, The Bluebook can be downloaded through Rulebook for $39.99. Much like my recommendation for Black’s Law Dictionary, I find the searching and indexing functions of a digital book far more effective for the purposes of law school than a hardcopy can provide. As a perk, the Rulebook creators update the Bluebook fairly often with bug fixes and also respond to tech support questions quickly.Rulebook 2

5. Flashcardlet (Free)

flashcardlet 1Many people learn best using flash cards. While there is a surprising lack of good apps for flash cards on the App Store, Flashcardlet is pretty effective. Cards can be created within the app or through an internet browser. Decks of cards can then be shared with friends or classmates for efficient studying (if you have a friend that you trust to make good cards). A personal example: I created cards for the note cases in my contracts class while two other friends split up the main cases. We then had a productive study session together where we were able to draw out other interpretations and points-of-view about the cases.flashcardlet 2

In addition to these five, the large research databases make spectacular appearances on the iPad, including HeinOnline, JSTOR, LexisAdvance, and WestlawNext. In fact, I personally find Hein’s iPad app easier to navigate than its website. Finding preferences such as that are essential to learning efficient practices. Students should experiment with technology early on in order to find their own path to success in law school. The students who understand their own habits and resources first have a unique advantage over others in their class.

I used the iPad’s built-in screenshot function to capture all images contained in this review, with the exception of the Genius Scan photos. Those images were provided to the App Store and I saved them from there.

This review was authored by Justin Iverson, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2015, Savannah Law School.

**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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Law Student Voices: A Review of Citeus Legalus

One of the more daunting aspects of being a 1L is learning to make effective use of The Bluebook. Most students entering law school are familiar with one citation style or another (MLA, APA, etc.), but few have ever used a system as complex and seemingly arbitrary as The Bluebook. Kirk Sigmon, Cornell J.D. and associate attorney at Morrison & Foerster in Washington, D.C., saw an opportunity to straighten out the “veritable leviathan” known as The Bluebook by automating its formatting rules into a website. The result: Citeus Legalus.

Citeus is a fun site, owing in no small part to the comical mascot (a parody of Sigmon) drawn by artist Naomi Milliken. Sigmon has even referred to the site as “the legal citation generator for lazy law students.” However, I would caution readers against writing off this website as academically suspect—there is some serious infrastructure operating behind the scenes.

image 1Students can generate citations based on cases, periodicals, books, statutes, constitutions, and several types of government documents. Importantly, there is no generator for internet citations. The reason for that missing feature likely has to do with the endless variety of sources available online. Once a student chooses a category, he or she can manually enter the relevant information, or search for it through a database. For example, if I wanted to cite a casebook, I would select “Search and Cite” under the Books tab. In the search field, I would type “Roberts Remedies,” and a list of books would pop up with cover photos. After finding the correct book and selecting “Cite This Book,” all of the available publishing information is auto-generated with just a couple fields left for me to do myself. Additionally, students can save their citations in the Cite Briefcase for later retrieval.

image 2Citeus has the potential to teach The Bluebook as thoroughly or more so than those endless Legal Writing workshops and late night scavenger hunts. Building citations from scratch can certainly be beneficial, but it is not the only method of instruction. Legal Writing professors and law reviews both make use of the problem-spotting method where students must painstakingly analyze a citation to ensure conformity with The Bluebook. Used in this way, Citeus eliminates the stress of foraging while reinforcing rule analysis. To utilize Citeus to its maximum effect, students should generate their citations automatically and then thoroughly check them against The Bluebook. In my opinion, students who are not willing to do that extra step should avoid using any automatic citation generator, whether it is created by a law student, Westlaw, or any other reputable source.

image 3I contacted Sigmon prior to this review to get a peek at some features that may be coming in the future. While not mentioning an app specifically, he did indicate that there would be some level of mobile functionality such that students could smoothly generate citations from their phones and tablets. Further, Sigmon hopes to integrate Citeus with scholarship databases such as Google Scholar, which would allow a sort of “one-click citation” functionality. Stay tuned, folks!

This review was authored by Justin Iverson, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2015, Savannah Law School.

**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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Flashcards and Bar Prep

By now, those of you who are studying for the July bar exam should be settling into a regular study routine. As you discovered during your time in law school, there are some legal concepts that you just have to memorize to be successful on an exam, whether it is the final exam in Torts or the bar exam. As a result, you may want to pull an old tool out of the study toolbox—flashcards. Flashcards can help you memorize important rules, tests, and definitions that you will need to recall during the bar exam. They can be especially helpful as you juggle learning and reviewing material from numerous bar subjects. Flashcards can also help you assess what you know versus what concepts you need to spend more time on, allowing you to make efficient use of limited time.

There are two possible approaches to flashcards: (1) the old school, index card type of flashcard that is either handwritten or typed (the “traditional” flashcard); or (2) digital flashcards that can be viewed on a computer, smartphone, iPad, or other digital reader. Each type has its benefits and drawbacks, as discussed below. You just have to decide which type will work best for you.

Traditional Flashcards:

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

First, let’s talk about the traditional flashcard. For those of you who do not like to study from a digital screen or aren’t as comfortable using technology, the traditional flashcard may be your default approach. One of the benefits of the traditional flashcard is that many students find that the process of writing out each card actually helps them to remember concepts better, even before they actually start studying from the cards. For people who like a visual reference of what has been accomplished and what is left to learn, stacks of flashcards satisfy that need. It is possible to carry around a small number of traditional flashcards regardless of where you go, and you don’t have to worry about low batteries, loss of internet connectivity, etc.

On the flip side, making handwritten flashcards can be a tedious process, especially when you are creating them for every bar subject. They are easily lost or ruined (such as when your elbow catches that cup of coffee and knocks it over). And if you are one of those people who tries to reduce the entire BarBri outline to a comprehensive series of flashcards, you may take so much time on one subject that nothing else gets done before it’s time to take the bar.

Digital Flashcards:

So what about digital flashcards? Digital flashcards also have their benefits and drawbacks. One of the benefits of digital flashcards is their portability. If you have a smartphone with a flashcard app, you literally can carry your flashcards with you everywhere you go. As I’ve talked about before, there are any number of basic flashcard apps available on the internet for free or at a low cost, such as Flashcard Machine and Quizlet. You may have already discovered a program that works really well for you. Depending on the program, there may be limitations though. It may be difficult to separate out cards that you want to concentrate on for a single study session, or the ability to temporarily combine particular subjects together in a random way (how it will be on the MBE) may be limited. Not all apps work on all devices either. Some only work on Apple devices, while others work with android platforms. Very few seem to work with Blackberries, if you happen to have one of those.

Another benefit—and drawback—to many digital flashcard programs is that they allow you to share your flashcards with others. On the plus side, this means that you and two of your best friends could divide and conquer the flashcard creation process . . . if you trust those people’s judgment calls about what is flashcard-worthy. On the negative side, most people end up knowing best the cards that they created themselves.

A New Type of Digital Flashcard for Law Students and Bar Takers: SeRiouS:

There is also a new digital flashcard program specifically for law students and bar takers called SeRiouS.

Here’s a video explaining how SeRiouS works:

From my exploration of the SeRiouS platform, there are two different ways that you can use it. First, you can utilize flashcards, created by law professors, on a variety of bar subjects. As it stands right now, there are over 600 different flashcards on mostly MBE topics, but it appears that more will be added over time. Second, you and your friends can create your own cards as well. The benefit to SeRiouS is that it draws upon scientific research regarding memory. As you go through each flashcard, you rate how confident you felt about your answer. Based upon your level of confidence, SeRiouS applies an algorithm to determine how often you see that flashcard as you study—a process called spaced repetition. The principle is that, as you start studying a topic, you need to review it frequently in order for it to be stored in your memory. As you continue to review that same topic over time, however, you need to see it less and less often to maintain it in your long-term memory. (I’m not an expert on the subject, but this is how I understand it.) One of the drawbacks to this program is that the website is a little hard to navigate at first until you figure out where everything is located, but it shows a lot of promise. A plus is your ability to chart your mastery of the cards (it gives you an update about your status) as well as gentle reminder emails to get back to reviewing your flashcard deck. At this point, SeRiouS is in the beta stage and available without cost to law students and bar takers at least through the July bar exam period.

**This blog post is not an endorsement of any product mentioned herein; I am just providing some suggestions of resources that are available for you to explore.

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Law Student Voices: A Review of the BriefCase. App

Other posts on this blog have made reference to the importance of briefing cases for class (here and here). Briefing is an important skill for first year students to master early on, if for no other reason than it forces 1Ls to separate elements of a case into a basic conceptual framework. At the same time, to new law students, briefing can often feel like a relic of the past. Until recently, there has not been a modern equivalent to keep tech-savvy Generation Y on the road to success. Enter: BriefCase., an iPad app.

Creator David Lutz, a third-year student at The University of Michigan Law School, has found a way to quickly and easily separate segments of court opinions and documents into a condensed form. BriefCase. is beautifully designed with smooth transitions, a simple interface, and intuitive controls. Folders are available to keep cases and their briefs organized within the app. Highlighting is color-coded to match the various assignable sections (i.e., facts, procedural history, etc.) and is easy to understand. The student (or practitioner) can also add notes, define terms, or search through documents.

BriefCase highlighter

BriefCase highlighted example

While the app is free to download and enjoy the basic functionality, there are a number of paid features available with a yearly subscription fee of $9.99. So why would anyone want to upgrade if you get the gist of the features for free? Simply put, BriefCase. is an entirely different app with a subscription (note: this author has only utilized the free version). From the FAQ, discussing the difference in account type: Premium Users will be assigned a personal @thebriefcaseapp.com address to automatically import cases from their preferred legal research website. They will also be able to sync with Google Drive and Dropbox, share briefs via e-mail and print their work. Free Users will not be able to remove their work from the application and must import cases manually.

In terms of usefulness, the free version only slightly gets to the point of the app. While students can brief cases, those briefs are trapped on your iPad. There are some professors who are radically opposed to technology and refuse to allow students to use it in the classroom. While there are valid concerns (i.e., Facebook, iMessage, shoe shopping), technology is capable of aiding many students in the learning process.

BriefCase final briefIt should be noted that students choosing to brief cases with this app are essentially copy-pasting rather than synthesizing “nuggets” from the bedrock of text. The effectiveness of this method is likely debatable. There are those who would argue that synthesizing is the whole point to briefing. Additionally, the vast majority of law students use a casebook with edited versions rather than downloading full-text opinions. As such, the best use of BriefCase. is either in the context of legal writing assignments or for young (by experience, not age) practitioners open to incorporating new technology into the workplace.

Verdict: try it out, it’s free! The Premium version appears to be leaps and bounds more useful than its free counterpart, but the free version has largely the same functionality. If you can bear to have your brilliant work confined to one device, this app may be worth a shot.

This review was authored by Justin Iverson, J.D. Candidate, Class of 2015, Savannah Law School.

**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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