Recent Visualization Projects Involving US Law and The Supreme Court

"Copyright Sign in 3D", Image by Muses Touch

“Copyright Sign in 3D”, Image by Muses Touch

There have been many efforts over the past few decades to use visualization methods and technologies to create graphical representations of the law. These have been undertaken by innovative lawyers in diversity of settings including public and private practice, and in legal academia.

I wrote an article about this topic years ago entitled “Graphics and Visualization: Drawing on All Your Resources”, in the August 25, 1992* edition of the New York Law Journal. (No link is currently available.) Not to paint with too broad a brush here, but things have changed dramatically since then in terms of how and why to create compelling legal visualizations.

Two very interesting projects have recently gotten significant notice online for their ingenuity and the deeper levels of understanding they have facilitated.

First are the legal visualizations of Harry Surden. He is a professor at the University of Colorado School of Law. He teaches, researches and writes about intellectual property law, legal informatics, legal automation and information privacy.

I had the opportunity to hear the professor speak at the Reinvent Law NYC program held in New York in February 2014. This was a memorable one-day event with about 40 speakers who captivated the audience with their presentations about the multitude of ways that technology is dramatically changing the contemporary marketplace for legal services.

On Professor Surden’s blog, he has recently posted the following three data visualization projects he built himself:

  • US Code Explorer 1 consisting of a nested tree structure for Title 35 of the US Code covering patents. Clicking on each levels starting with Part I and continuing through V will, in turn, open up to the Chapters, Sections and Subsections. This is an immediately accessible interactive means to unfold Title 35’s structure.
  • US Code Explorer 2 Force Directed Graph presents a different form of visualization for Title 17 of the US Code covering Trademarks. It operates as a series of clickable hub-and-spoke formations of the Code’s text whereby clicking on any of the hubs will lead you to the many different sections of Title 17.
  • US Constitution Explorer is also presented in a nested tree structure of the Constitution. Clicking on any of the Articles will open the Sections and then the actual text.

Professor Surden’s visualizations are instantly and intuitively navigable as soon as you view them. As a result, you will immediately be drawn into exploring them. For legal professionals and the public alike, he impressively presents these displays in a clear manner that belies the complexities of the underlying laws. I highly recommend clicking through to check out and navigate all of these imaginative visualizations. Furthermore, I hope his work inspires others to experiment with additional forms of visualization of the other federal, state and local codes, laws and regulations.

For a related visualization of the networks of law professors on Twitter, please see the February 5, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Visualization, Interpretation and Inspiration from Mapping Twitter Networks.

The second new study containing numerous graphics and charts is entitled A Quantitative Analysis of the Writing Style of the U.S. Supreme Court, by Keith Carlson, Michael A. Livermore, and Daniel Rockmore, Dated March 11, 2015. This will be published later in Washington University Law Review 93:6 (2016). The story was reported in the May 4, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled Justices’ Opinions Grow in Size, Accessibility and Testiness, Study Finds, by Adam Liptak. This article focused upon the three main conclusions stated in the title. I highly recommend click-throughs to read both.

The full-text of the Law Review article contains the very engaging details and methodologies employed. Moreover, it demonstrates the incredible amount of analytical work the authors spent to arrive at their findings. Just as one example, please have a look at the network visualization on Page 29 entitled Figure 5. LANS Graph of Stylistic Similarity Between Justices. It truly brings the author’s efforts to life. I believe this article is a very instructive, well, case where the graphics and text skillfully elevate each other’s effectiveness.


To get online then you needed something called a Lynx browser that only displayed text after you connected with a very zippy 14.4K dial-up modem. What fun it was back then! 

Differing Perspectives on the Prospects of Today’s Legal Tech Startups

light-bulb-376924_1280[This post was originally uploaded on August 18, 2014. It has been updated below with new information on January 12, 2015.]

The title of a report on TechCrunch.com on August 5, 2014, The Jury Is Out On Legal Startups , appears to say it all. As it describes the current state of this specialized market for technology aimed at supporting law offices as well as benefiting consumers, investments by venture capital investment firms in this sector has fallen rather dramatically thus far in 2014. With just a few exceptions that have received substantial rounds of funding, many other have not fared well in raising money for their operations. I recommend a click-through and full read of this for the full details of this slump including some informative charts and accompanying quotes by experts in this field explaining the difficult dynamics currently affecting this market.

This turn of events and dollars seems to run contra to all of the five far more optimistic and enthusiast posts I have grouped here under the category of Law Practice and Legal Education. These cover different aspects of ongoing innovations in the marketplace for legal services as well as legal education.

Notwithstanding this situation, I continue to remain optimistic about the ongoing prospects for legal startups. There is a vast under-served market for people who need legal services but do not have the funds to engage them. I think it is nearly inevitable that some of these developing systems, services and apps will find a place in this market segment out of pure necessity and the economics of getting things done faster and cheaper. Continuing to monitor this situation will thus likely prove interesting during the next several years. Perhaps there is a legal app yet to be developed that will prove to be so helpful to lawyers and their clients, as has happened in so many other consumer markets, which will act as a genuine tipping point.

January 12, 2015 Update:

Less than four months after TechCrunch.com posted the article described above, the site followed up with a much more upbeat assessment of the legal startup environment in a most interesting post on December 6, 2014 entitled Legal Tech Startups Have A Short History And A Bright Future by Basha Rubin. I will sum this up and add a few additional links in order to present the author’s contrasting point of view. (I previously saw Ms. Rubin give a very informative presentation at a legal industry program called Reinvent Law NYC in February 2014.)

The author is much more sanguine about the prospects of startups in the legal services market, even while acknowledging the combined effects of the lag in venture funding, regulatory environment and the “rick-averse, disaggregated stakeholders”. Nonetheless, she identifies three significant trends to track during 2015 in a market she believes is right on the cusp of being disrupted.*

First, do-it-yourself (DIY) legal services will continue to gain momentum. An important element in this trend will be an increased focus upon which transactions and processes do or do not require the services of an attorney. Rubin cites the successes in this space such as LegalZoom and RocketLawyer.  Even DIY mobile legal apps such as Shake that “create, sign and send” contracts have begun to appear and provide new value to consumers who might otherwise either not have sought to engage a lawyer for certain types of  private agreement. However, she further emphasizes that the role of a lawyer still remains quite important when strategic decisions are involved.

Second, the marketplace for alternative arrangements of legal services provided by startups will see continued growth. This includes startups providing new online conduits for locating and engaging lawyers.   Cited as examples are Priori Legal (where Rubin is a co-founder and CEO), and UpCounsel, among others.

Third, is the appearance of more versatile and affordable new websites and applications that meaningfully improve attorneys’ efficiency and, in turn, clients’ convenience and satisfaction. These include offerings for legal research, document review, project management, document generation and billing.

I completely agree with Rubin’s assessment these market forces and look forward with great anticipation to additional legal startups launching and shaking up the profession.

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*  For a very insightful and enlightening analysis of whether the legal profession is actually being “disrupted”, I highly recommend reading Ron Friedmann’s July 31, 2014 post on his Prism Legal Blog entitled Big Law Changing or Being Disrupted?