Friday, March 29, 2013

Q&A with Daniel Lewis of Ravel Law

There are many exciting things happening in the world of legal information systems.  One innovative graphical presentation approach has been taken by Ravel.  We were recently fortunate to have Daniel respond to our questions in the following article.


When did you start working on the system?

Ravel began as a research project in 2011 at the Stanford Law School and, a collaboration between law, computer science, and design thinking. As law students and summer associates at big firms we became intimately familiar with the existing legal research tools, and couldn’t help but notice that the interfaces and underlying search technology had failed to keep up not just with the times in general, but with ever increasing amounts of legal information in particular.

Graphical interfaces are new to the law, what inspiration have you found elsewhere in your current approach?

While graphical interfaces are new to the law, they are widespread in a number of other research spaces where people navigate large amounts of data, including scientific research, finance, and engineering. Our goal is to build an interface that helps lawyers understand and interact with search results in a new way to ensure that they don’t miss relevant information and insights, and to reveal patterns and trends from the cases. The visual tools we use are similar to the ones used by the New York Times when they build info-graphics  and we take inspiration from a number of sources including websites like Hipmunk and Zillow.

(click on the image above to enlarge)

What are your users telling you about your new system?

Lawyers, law students, and librarians from across the country are using our system and giving us great feedback. We’ve had people tell us that Ravel is “invaluable” for their research and is like “Shephard’s on steroids”. The system gets better every day in large part because our users are so helpful and vocal, and we take our design cues from them. We focus on building a platform that will help them become the best at what they do.

What other data / information would you like to access from the courts?

We’re focused on building a comprehensive collection of case opinions and statutes. If courts made more information like dockets and briefs easily available that would be great, and we could surely find interesting ways to make use of it.

What can courts do to make their information easier for your system to use?

Courts around the country are putting their case opinions online, but there are two main challenges. One issue is that the opinions made public are the slip opinions, not the official, citable-in-court, versions. The second issue is that the cases are often not released in a machine-readable format, meaning a format that we can easily extract details from like the case title, date, and parties involved. PDF, for example, is great for humans to read, but it isn’t easy for us to work with from an engineering perspective. If courts released the official versions of cases in a machine-readable format, it would enable a tremendous amount of innovation, by us and others.

What else do you want to share with our Court Tech Bulletin readers?

Lawyers and courts can look forward to major improvements in the technology available to them in the very near future. Our goal is not to replace lawyers with technology, but rather to build tools that help lawyers do their jobs more effectively and thoroughly; it’s about providing the right technology at the right moment, so that lawyers can spend less time on basic research and more time on synthesis, writing, and argument crafting. We’re building Ravel for lawyers who want to become the best, and stay there, as the legal world changes around them.

Please share some of your or your team's background?

Daniel Lewis and Nik Reed are Ravel’s co-founders. We’re both graduates of Stanford Law School. Daniel has a B.A. from Johns Hopkins and Nik has a B.A. from Stanford and an MSc in Management from HEC Paris. Prior to law school Daniel worked at a think-tank in Washington, DC, and Nik worked in corporate strategy and finance. The engineering team is a mix of top-flight developers from Stanford, MIT, and Georgia Tech, including engineers with Masters degrees and PhDs specializing in data visualization. And we regularly get input, both in person and online, from an ever growing network of users about what we should build and how we can improve - they’re part of the team too, in their own way, since we spend so much time with them.

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