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There’s no one perfect algorithmic solution to searching law. It’s too complex. To balance this, companies have been adding supplementary specialized intelligence to legal search tools to support nuanced and in-depth legal analysis. For example, one reason for this complexity is that the words used in U.S. law are themselves confusing. Legal terms and concepts vary in meaning and validity depending on the jurisdiction you are working in. Many parts of the law can be filled with open-ended terms, the meanings of which change over time. A lawyer from California might be bewildered by the degree to which Louisiana law diverges from what he or she considers “standard.” Searching for “code” will give you very different results in patent law than property law.
Above left – search for “code” within Patent Law.Above right – search for “code” within Real Property Law.
Solving ambiguities in legal terminology requires specialized software that can parse and match terms to jurisdictions and areas of law. For example, a Lexis Advance® search recognizes over 15,000 legal phrases. Search algorithms are now able to understand lawyer research requirements and parse legal information with tools like phrase and case recognition, as well as implied phrases and the relationships between specific search terms.
The relationships between courts can also make a difference. Different judges have different levels of expertise, and will get recognized in the legal case data. Courts in Delaware may get more attention (in the form of citations) for corporate cases, just as East Texas will for IP cases, or New York for finance. Just look at the complexity of the network of Supreme Court citations over time. But which ones do you want to read first? Case decisions from senior or superior courts may be more relevant, but the lower court’s decisions often have more discussion of the relevant facts. Research into lower court compliance with Supreme Court decisions has revealed similarly complex patterns of links and relationships. Understanding these networks will help improve the accuracy and reliability of legal content search systems.
Though technology has come far, law content is about people as much as numbers. It’s still the human element that really makes legal search work. When it comes to paid legal information services, that is where much of the money goes. Thousands of experts are needed to customize and enhance legal information.
Headnotes are a good example. In Lexis Advance, attorney-editors synthesize and prioritize the elements of a case, showing what’s interesting and where it belongs in the larger context of law so you can be sure that court decisions are not misrepresented.
Humans still have the advantage in digesting legal information, even if their efforts are not scalable in the same way servers are. The architects of legal information systems will be looking to balance not only the ability of technology to set the pace of change, but also the way real people can contribute to making the change lasting and valuable.
Going forward, the legal information landscape will continue to change. The continuing growth of digital legal information will make it tougher to identify the most critical and relevant information to a case or client matter. More courts are publishing information digitally, and some are going paperless. The predominance of online access might even change the way cases are written.
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