Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Interacting With Visual Legal Research Platforms

How users interact, contextualize, and evaluate information while doing research is the teaching focus for most law librarians. Our students need to know how to find the information in an efficient way and also need to understand and use that information in context.

Many of the research platforms currently focus on text-based results. Users can run a natural language or boolean search and evaluate the results based on relevance, date, most cited, etc.... With text-based results, it can be difficult for the instructor to make students understand why they are getting certain results and how the results and filters can change their research interaction.

But there is a new type of legal research platform brewing - the visual legal research platform. The ABA Journal reported on a variety of visual legal research platforms. Ravel seems very promising. "Ravel does not look like traditional legal research platforms. The difference is its visual presentation of search results. Rather than display a stack of text entries, Ravel draws a visual map of the results, showing the relationships among cases and their relative importance to each other. Enter a search query and you get the standard list of matching cases displayed along the right side of your screen. But across the left three-quarters you see a cluster map showing the cases as circles of various sizes. The larger the circle, the more important the case; the most relevant cases appear in the center. Lines radiate out of the circles, connecting each case to others it cites and that cite it. The thickness of the line indicates the depth of treatment. Hover your pointer over a case and its information shows in the right pane. Click it to get a list of every case cited within it. Double-click it to get the full text."

This offers an entirely new way for users to interact with their research. "The visualizations help researchers quickly understand the lay of the landscape for an issue—which cases are the major ones—and then better filter results to fit the research." As one developer noted, "[w]hat we're trying to do is make the process easier, more intuitive, more thorough and give people greater confidence that they're finding the cases that are best suited to their need."

This is a constant issue with teaching legal research. The evaluation of results typically means that students will ask, "how do I know which case to cite?" With the answer being something between "it depends" and a discussion about foundational cases and those cases that are closest in fact and result to their issue. These visual research platforms have the potential to help with these types of teaching moments.

Along with Ravel and other platforms, "Fastcase is focusing on bringing visualization tools to the front and center of its legal research platform. Since introducing its Interactive Timeline in 2008, Fastcase has continued to refine it. Now the timeline shows not only when each case was decided but also how relevant each case is to the query and how important it is based on the number of citations."

As the article notes, "[t]hat is not to say that visuals will ever replace text-based research entirely. The law is text-heavy, so there will always have to be an interplay between text and visuals. We're trying to figure out the right balance for combining those elements."

Monday, July 28, 2014

Will Student Debt Affect Character & Fitness?

There is a new article in the Journal of College and University Law by Kaela Raedel Munster called A Double-Edged Sword: Student Loan Debt Provides Access To A Law Degree But May Ultimately Deny A Bar License that makes the case that student debt might affect Character & Fitness.

From the article:
 “Misconception or not, lawyers are perceived as wealthy, well-to-do, educated professionals with the means to make their student loan payments. This perception, however, may not be consistent with reality.

Consider the following hypothetical:
Lauren, a twenty-six-year old woman and recent law school graduate, pursued a legal education after achieving academic success in her undergraduate studies. In deciding whether to attend law school, Lauren relied on statistical reports that described recent graduates' employment and salary data, financial assistance, and ability to pursue a meaningful career upon graduation. Lauren decided to enroll at an American Bar Association (“ABA”) accredited law school that offered her a substantial merit-based scholarship based on both her Law School Admission Test (“LSAT”) score, as well as her undergraduate academic record. Lauren's scholarship covered seventy-five percent of her tuition expenses, and yearly renewal of Lauren's scholarship was contingent upon her maintaining a minimum 3.0 grade point average. Lauren carried approximately $100,000 of prior academic indebtedness into law school so she relied on the assistance of her scholarship to fund her legal education. After Lauren's first year of law school, she was unable to maintain her scholarship so she subsequently had to take out private loans to offset her tuition and living expenses. Upon graduation from law school, Lauren's academic indebtedness totaled approximately $200,000 and remained at that amount when she sat for her state's Bar Examination. After she passed that exam, the State Bar refused Lauren's admission because the State Supreme Court had affirmed the State Bar Character & Fitness Committee's determination that, because of her high debt load and the fact that she had no reasonable plan for paying off her student loan debt, Lauren was financially irresponsible. After following in the path of countless young professionals who accrue academic debt in the hope of deferred success, Lauren was left destitute and found unfit to practice law.

The Character and Fitness assessment has been criticized by bar applicants, bar members, and scholars because of its arbitrary and unpredictable admission standards. Like many aspects of the legal profession, the Character and Fitness assessment has not evolved to reflect current economic and social trends, as student loans are an integral and pervasive tool for many to attend law school. Thus, basing the determination of an applicant's character and fitness on the concept of financial irresponsibility is an antiquated approach; the process must evolve to accurately reflect the current legal market."

This is a thoughtful piece that should be considered. With the federal government looking to lower aggregate loan limits and state bars potentially limiting the ability to practice law because of loans, law schools need to take a proactive approach and help get law school debt under control.

Law schools can take a cue from an undergraduate institution, Indiana University, that was able to successfully cut student debt. "Studies have shown that many students, some as young as 17 when they first borrow, fail to understand loan terms and find themselves in financial straits when they have to begin repayment years later. Indiana University decided to tell prospective borrowers what their monthly payment would be after graduation and how much they would owe. That information had a dramatic effect on students’ willingness to borrow: Federal undergraduate Stafford loan disbursements at the public university dropped 11 percent, or $31 million, in the nine months that ended March 31 from a year earlier, according to U.S. Department of Education data."

This is a smart idea and makes loan repayment more transparent for the borrower.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

WEXIS Briefs Are Fair Use

Law Librarians posted a wonderful summary of the litigation surrounding the copyright infringement claim of the brief offerings on WEXIS.

There was an attempt to "copyright legal briefs with the intention to gain royalties or prevent others from using them."

As noted, "[t]he particular case that litigates the issue is White v. West Publishing Company and Reed Elsevier (USDC Southern District NY).  District Judge Rakoff ruled that the use by West and Lexis is fair use. Both companies transform the documents to a different purpose and use according to the Judge’s analysis under the four fair use factors:

The Court finds that West and Lexis’s use of the briefs was transformative for two reasons. First, while White created the briefs solely for the purpose of providing legal services to his clients and securing specific legal outcomes in the Beer litigation, the defendants used the brief toward the end of creating an interactive legal research tool. See Blanch v. Koons, 467 F.3d 224, 251 (2d Cir. 2006) (“The sharply different objectives that Koons had in using, and Bland had in creating [the work] confirms the transformative nature of the use.”). Second, West and Lexis’s processes of reviewing, selecting, converting, coding, linking, and identifying the documents “add[] something new, with a further purpose or different character” than the original briefs. Campbell, 510 U.S. at 579. While, to be sure, the transformation was done for a commercial purpose, “the more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism, that may weigh against a finding of fair use.” Campbell, 510 U.S. at 579. Thus, on net, the first factor weighs in favor of a finding of fair use. The Court dismissed the claim with prejudice."

Legal researchers rejoice! I find the brief offerings and the ability to search the full-text of briefs to be some of the most valuable content on WEXIS. Not only do the briefs help attorneys with their own claims, they also become a resource to mine for additional materials on point as the briefs cite to primary authority that aid in additional research.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Physical Toll Of Research

It's safe to say that research exercises the mind. When you research, you are in a constant state of learning, assessing, evaluating, and contextualizing information

But I had never really considered the physical toll that research can take on the body, so I was amused earlier this summer when I read a Chronicle of Higher Education post about that very thing. "When we think of academe as 'the life of the mind,' we’re obscuring one basic fact: Conducting research can take a real physical toll on a scholar’s body. No, scholarship isn’t a dangerous factory job. But hours spent hunched over in library carrels, staring at computer screens, and pecking away at keyboards can cause any number of problems—eye strain, headaches, back and neck pain, repetitive strain injuries, and the like."

Along with the normal ailments associated with office work, "there’s a piece of equipment that’s as unhealthy as it is inescapable: the microfilm machine. Even in our world of digitization, microfilm remains relevant. Librarians, journalists, lawyers, genealogists, and historians still spend plenty of time digging up obscure and underpublicized sources like local newspapers, old maps, government documents, and city directories. That stuff tends to be preserved on microfilm only."

How is a microfilm machine unhealthy? The author referred to it as 'microfilm malaise.' "The rolling of the pages across the screen, the whir of the spindle, the dark all around: It makes me dizzy, heats my body like a raging furnace, rocks my stomach, and induces a gagging that nearly costs me my lunch every time I use a microfilm machine." In other words, there is some sort of motion sickness happening. 

The author went on a quest to find out the reason for this 'sickness.' As a doctor said, "[v]ision is one of the inputs that we use to stabilize the entire body. So if there’s text moving under your eyes in ways that you don’t fully control, then you have to try to compensate. That can make you sick."

For any microfilm malaise sufferers out there, here are some tricks to avoid sickness: 
  • Take inexpensive, over-the-counter medications like Dramamine
  • If you don’t want to take meds take breaks every 20 minutes
  • Bring a snack
And if all else fails, remember that digitization projects increasingly mean that microfilm will become less and less relevant. 


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Medical-Legal Partnerships For Holistic Treatment

Poverty can take a toll on health in ways that medical professionals, alone, cannot solve. The NYTimes reported on situations when poverty makes you sick, and a lawyer might be the cure.

"Being poor can make you sick. Where you work, the air you breathe, the state of your housing, what you eat, your levels of stress and your vulnerability to crime, injury and discrimination all affect your health. These social determinants of health lie outside the reach of doctors and nurses."

Because these social determinants of health lie outside of the reach of doctors and nurses, medical-legal partnerships have emerged. "Clinics that have medical-legal partnerships approach health differently than others. When doctors have no options for helping patients with the social determinants of health, they tend not to ask about them. With a medical-legal partnership, they do. At Cincinnati Children’s, [for example] each patient’s family is asked: Do you have housing problems? Problems getting your benefits? Are you depressed? Are you unsafe in your relationship? Would you like to speak to a lawyer or social worker about any of these things?" And there are attorneys and paralegals on site in the primary care center five days a week to assist with these issues.

How can lawyers help cure sickness? The article gives the following example:
"By early summer 2010, the temperature had already reached 100 degrees in Cincinnati. At Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, doctors were urging the families of children with asthma to use air-conditioning. One mother handed a piece of paper to her doctor: The child’s room did have a window unit, and she was using it. But then the landlord responded — he apparently didn’t want to pay the electric bills. Use that air-conditioner, the letter said, and you will be evicted.

A concerned doctor might have tried to call the landlord to fight the notice. Or, she might have handed the letter over to a social worker. But Cincinnati Children’s had something better — it had lawyers. In 2008, the hospital and the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati set up a medical-legal partnership, the Cincinnati Child Health-Law Partnership or Child HeLP.

Child HeLP sued on behalf of one severely disabled boy with a tracheotomy whose health depended on air-conditioning. The repairs were done in a few weeks."

The good news is that medical-legal partnerships are on the rise. "There were few medical-legal partnerships until about five or 10 years ago, but now 231 health care institutions have them, according to the National Center for Medical-Legal Partnership."

Monday, July 21, 2014

Amazon Offers Unlimited EBook Subscription

The NYTimes reported that Amazon "introduced a digital subscription service that allows subscribers unlimited access to a library of e-books and audiobooks for $10 a month."

"The service, Kindle Unlimited, offers a Netflix-style, all-you-can-read approach to more than 600,000 e-books. So far, however, none of the five biggest publishers appear to be making their books available through the service. HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster, for example, are not participating, representatives from the three companies confirmed. Penguin Random House and Macmillan declined to comment, but a search on Amazon suggests that they are not making their books available."

This all sounds wonderful, right? And then here it comes - the call to close libraries. "More titles, easier access and quite possibly a saving of public funds. Why wouldn’t we simply junk the physical libraries and purchase an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription for the entire country?"

To that end, I think that the Magpie Librarian responds best. As Magpie points out, public libraries offer far greater services than just access to books. These services include but are not limited to:

  • Adult & child programming
  • A safe environment (for latchkey kids and the homeless)
  • Offer job finding services
  • Lending the very technology that you need to access ebooks (i.e., Kindles)
"I mean, if this unlimited Kindle subscription can not only lend us books, but provide safe places for our kids, educate us, help close the digital divide, provide specialized research assistance, help us in natural disasters, find us jobs, help the homeless population AND lend us free Kindles, then, well damn. I, for one, welcome our Amazon overlords." Thank you, Magpie!

Friday, July 18, 2014

I Got 99 Problems But My JD Ain't One

Thomson Reuters Legal Solution's blog recently posted tips on how to survive in this legal market.

According to the blog, "[t]he question isn’t so much whether [conditions for new grads] will improve as much as it is when they will improve. Lawyers will always be needed, but currently, the supply of new lawyers has completely overtaken the demand.  But law school enrollment is at its lowest levels in 40 years, so the market is currently in the process of correcting itself. Nevertheless, since it may take a long time for the legal job market to recover – but your bills aren’t going to wait – you may need to figure out how to keep your head above water in the meantime."

The blog goes on to offer tips for the tough legal market:
  • Don’t let your legal education collect dust
  • Be tenacious
  • Network
All great advice. And the notion of not letting your legal education collect dust is very important. To that end, Findlaw's blog posted 99 Things to Do With Your JD, Besides Practice Law. 

"Whenever you experience the moment when you realized that using your law degree to practice law is an option but not the only option, you may have started wondering ... so, what else can I do with my JD?"

The list of things to do with your JD includes "everything from job titles, to big concepts, to names of famous JDs, and a bit more." But it may get you thinking outside of the box and on the right path to a fulfilling alternative career.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Michigan Board Of Law Examiners Decides To Scale Essays

On July 9, 2014, the Michigan Board of Law Examiners (MBLE) announced that it has decided to scale essays again. This response is likely due to the backlash over the changed scoring method that took place in February 2012, which lowered the first-time passage rate by nearly 30%.

From the MBLE's website:
Beginning with the upcoming administration of the bar exam on July 29th, an improved scoring system for the essay portion of the exam will be implemented that more accurately measures competence by:

  • ensuring that essay test scores across administrations reflect the same skill level; and, 
  • continuing to reflect differences in the difficulty between the multiple choice and essay portions of the exam. 

The new method establishes a common scale that to the extent possible accounts for differences in difficulty 
across [bar exam] administrations, while making sure the applicant scores accurately reflect their competence on both the multi-state and Michigan portions of the exam.

It's great to hear that the MBLE took the public criticism to heart and reevaluated the scoring system. Good luck to all Michigan takers this July!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Decline In Enrollment & The Impact On Law Librarians

Much has been written about the decline in enrollment, and law schools are seeing their smallest incoming classes since the 1970s. We also have a reputable investor service, Moody's, telling us that this downturn is not cyclical but rather a fundamental change in legal education.

We have seen faculty and staff cuts at some schools, and I suspect that will continue. And I can't help but wonder what this means for law librarians. The conferences that I have attended over the last five years usually have at least some programming dealing with alternative careers and the need for law librarians to promote their worth. Something doesn't sit right about all of this - especially in the new legal economy.

According to the ABA Standards and Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools 2013-2014, a law library and law librarians are essential functions of a law school.

CHAPTER 6 of the Standards covers Library and Information Resources.

(a) A law school shall maintain a law library that is an active and responsive force in the educational life of the law school. A law library’s effective support of the school’s teaching, scholarship, research and service programs requires a direct, continuing and informed relationship with the faculty, students and administration of the law school.
(b) A law library shall have sufficient financial resources to support the law school’s teaching, scholarship, research, and service programs. These resources shall be supplied on a consistent basis.
(c) A law school shall keep its library abreast of contemporary technology and adopt it when appropriate.
Interpretation 601-1 
Cooperative agreements may be considered when determining whether faculty and students have efficient and effective access to the resources necessary to meet the law school’s educational needs. Standard 601 is not satisfied solely by arranging for students and faculty to have access to other law libraries within the region, or by providing electronic access. 

This is an important standard that has come under attack as being too expensive to maintain. And some have called for the end of print, but as you can see in the interpretation of Standard 601-1, the Standard is not satisfied solely by providing electronic access. It does appear from practice, however, that the interpretation of Standard 601 has changed to allow for more electronic access with some accredited-school libraries moving in that direction.

Standard 604 deals with the law library personnel, including law librarians.

Standard 604. PERSONNEL 
The law library shall have a competent staff, sufficient in number to provide appropriate library and informational resource services.
Interpretation 604-1 
Factors relevant to the number of librarians and informational resource staff needed to meet this Standard include the following: the number of faculty and students, research programs of faculty and students, a dual division program in the school, graduate programs of the school, size and growth rate of the collection, range of services offered by the staff, formal teaching assignments of staff members, and responsibilities for providing informational resource services. 

As you can see from the interpretation of Standard 604, the relevant factors include the number of faculty and students. This means that if there are fewer students and fewer faculty, it is likely that some law librarians may be displaced. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Essential Legal Research Skills In A Law Firm Setting

The American Association of Law Libraries (AALL) Annual Conference wraps up today. I couldn't make the Conference this year, but the content looked great.

The Legal Solutions Blog posted about one program, in particular, that brought together academic law librarians and law firm librarians for a better understanding of what law students need to know to succeed in a law firm setting.

The "session brought together academic law librarians and law firm librarians in order to find common ground and improve the training that students received both prior to graduation and after they entered the legal workforce."

As noted, "[l]egal research is often combined with legal writing into a legal skills course. Those law students who have taken an advanced legal research class are easily identified by firm librarians when they are hired.  In general, new associates spend almost half of their time conducting legal research; it should be a newly hired attorney’s most important skill.  At the very least the new attorney should be familiar with the various treatises that act as the “bibles” in the associated practice areas.  All too often, however, they do not."

In terms of evaluating and contextualizing research, "[s]ome law school librarians realized that few law students have actually had the experience of beginning their research with a case file rather than a professor’s hypothetical. To help them efficiently pull out the relevant facts and issues and issues to effectively start their legal research, they began bringing example case files into the classroom to act as a starting point for legal research."

These are just a few examples of how law librarians are adjusting and trying to fill the knowledge in action gap so that law graduates are able to "hit the ground running" in terms of legal research.