In 2012, struck by how little the legal research tools had changed in the past decade, two Stanford law students launched a website that would have the potential to cut research time by up to two thirds. Daniel Lewis and Nik Reed, graduates of Stanford Law, launched Ravel Law as a way to combat the stagnant legal research giants, Westlaw and LexisNexis. The two entrepreneurs joined the Stanford class, LaunchPad, to get started and worked with students from Stanford Graduate School of Design and either engineering students or computer science students, depending on the report. The graduates disclosed in February of 2014 that they had raised $8.1 million in venture capital, led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA) and North Bridge Venture Partners. The law graduates pitched the idea and presented a prototype to NEA’s Patrick Chung, who holds a joint law and business degree from Harvard and who was instantly impressed by the proposal.

Ravel Law has several primary features that immediately set it apart from both Westlaw and LexisNexis. First, the program creates a visual map based on the keyword or case search. The data visualization allows lawyers to see the information in a novel light, potentially revealing ideas or themes obscured by Westlaw or LexisNexis’s straightforward lists. The visual display has two elements. First, a timeline runs along the bottom of your search results, which allows you to both see the frequency per year and notice trends, or drag the line and alter your search by year. Second, circles arranged chronologically appear on the left side of the screen. These circles are different sizes, according to how critical the search term was in the individual cases. The circles also have lines connected to each, spiderwebbing out according to which case referenced which. In addition to these two visual features, the right side of the screen features a list of the cases, for those desiring a more traditional approach.

While Ravel Law currently pulls its cases from publicly available sources, it has both paid and free memberships. The free membership has the aforementioned features, while the premium has a couple more. The new tools are designed to “automatically surface the key passages in whatever case you happen to be looking at, sussing out instances when they’ve been cited or reinterpreted in cases that followed.” The process seems fairly labor intensive: Lewis and Reed individually analyze the cases, looking for sentences or paragraphs that influence other cases and discover what ties them together. After each case, the founders hand off the cases to the engineers, who build models based on natural language processing to allow users to search more effectively.

In the legal market, lawyers are often only as good as the search engine they can afford. Lawyers were limited to the basic search engines of Westlaw and LexisNexis, and if the particular case or secondary source did not fall within their payment plan, they could not find it. Ravel Law is upending both the requirement to pay, with its free membership, and how the search engine works in the first place.

Torrey Samson

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One Response to Unraveling Legal Research

  1. Christine Carletta says:

    Great post, Torrey! I am fascinated by how legal search engines can and do shape the way we make connections and inferences in the law. Lex Machina is another great example of legal tech reshaping research methods and litigation decision making. It will be interesting to see whether Ravel law finds a stronghold as firms attempt to adapt to rapid technological change.

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