Saturday, April 5, 2008

Nice review for PreCYdent
Tom Smith

Forwarded to me by email was this very nice review of the PreCYdent search engine the start-up I co-founded has created.  It will take some doing to convince the legal research industry to take up this sort of technology, but that's what start ups are for.  I get the sense that some in the legal research industry think that the engineering problems of a network/citations based search engine are too daunting for law, but in fact, they are hard, but soluble. 

It has been fun for me as a lawyer and legal scholar to watch engineers work.  They run into problem after problem, and solve one after another, so that the final product is a kind of ensemble of solutions to problems.  What can I say.  Technology is neat.

Here is the review, from the litigation knowledge management ("KM") attorney at an Amlaw 100 law firm:

Legal technology guru Robert Ambrogi posted yesterday on’s legal technology blog about what he terms an “online legal revolution.” He had earlier posted on the subject on his own blog. He discussed four new web sites that are providing either search or direct access to databases of federal appellate caselaw. What’s happened is that in January 2008 obtained this caselaw through companies such as and has made it available in a fairly easy-to-work-with database format. Three other outfits have taken this data and have turned their search engines loose on it. I initially thought that none of these would be worth a legal researcher’s time, but as I explain in my detailed reviews below, one of them definitely is, for some types of work.

Ambrogi is plainly correct that the information in these databases does and should belong to the public. After all, the body of public caselaw is the highest and most enduring product of the combined wisdom, intellect, and conflict resolution skills of thousands of our best lawyers and judges over the course of more than two hundred years. As the cost of information goes down, and as consumers become more sophisticated about it is inevitable that caselaw will become more and more easy to search through and access, for lawyers and the general public.
I didn't get a clear sense from the article of which of the searches he liked better, so I decided to figure out which one I liked best.
 My Test
I decided to challenge all of the engines with the same search term—“in personam jurisdiction”, a legal concept that arises on occasion in the case law. The term refers to a particular court’s power to judge a controversy involving a particular person, usually a corporation or person from out of state. IPJ is restricted by statute and by federal constitutional guarantees of procedural due process, the theory being that it’s not fair to haul someone before a court in a state with which they have no connection.
I chose IPJ because, while not a jurisdiction expert, I had studied the subject hard under U. of Mich. Law Prof. Mathias Reimann, and had applied that learning in several instances in my practice as a litigator.
 The WinnerPreCYdent.
I was stunned by the results of my search for IPJ on PreCYdent. The top six cases were the leading U.S. Supreme Court cases I studied in Prof. Reimann’s jurisdiction class. Each of them is fundamental to an understanding of the application of personal jurisdiction in federal courts. I have never seen a such a highly relevant set of search results on any electronic case search engine. Not in Westlaw. Not in Lexis. Not anywhere.
Drilling into the cases, each clearly indicated where the page breaks were in the text. Federal appellate cases in the text of the case were hyperlinks to those cases.
There also appears to be collaborative social features such as tagging, ranking of how relevant the case was to your search, and display of other’s search terms that also generated this result. Based on these results, those features have not been fully implemented, or used, but as a dedicated tagger I like the idea very much.
This stellar result was no accident or the result of preprogrammed "best bets." I tested a few other terms (e.g., "abortion" "sodomy") and had comparably excellent results. The statute search also worked quite well.
And this is the “Alpha” release!
Although Ambrogi talked to the leader of PreCYdent, San Diego Law Prof. Thomas Smith, and apparently discussed “proprietary algorithms,” in my opinion he didn’t properly convey either the effectiveness of this search or how the tool might really work. (In an earlier post on Ambrogi's own blog he did point to a Youtube video from PreCYdent CTO Antonio Tomarchio.)
A look on the PreCYdent team list and firm description site has a clue.
“PreCYdent search technology is able to mine the information latent in the "Web of Law", the network of citations among legal authorities. This means it is also able to retrieve legally relevant authorities, even if the search terms do not actually occur or occur frequently in the retrieved document.”
What this search engine must do is to track how often a particular case is cited to by other decisions. Perhaps there is some weighting given to cases and case citations from higher courts such as the U.S. Supreme Court. I would hope that more recent citations might also be given more weight. I imagine Westlaw and Lexis, which also have figured out how to automatically identify a case citation in a document and to link it with the original authority (see this post on West KM), could have done something like this, but thus far they have to do so.


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Tom Smith