Monday, November 16, 2009

New Concept in Database Search Engines

I have been thinking about this concept for about a year, and I can't get it out of my head. It's time to share it. I hope that Google, CCH or BNA reads it, exploits it and sends me a hefty check....

Why online haven't legal database providers figured out that online databases are a new breed of legal research tool and developed something completely different? To date, all online databases are not much more than online versions of their old-fashioned print tools. There are differences, of course: Online searching allows users to find particular cases and documents quickly, sort rapidly and print more cleanly, but in reality, online tools do no more than allow users to skate around through masses of undifferentiated primary law, using cite-verification tools to sift through the mass of material fairly quickly. But without much help or guidance.

I propose development of a new kind of online search engine. First, let's establish a few assumptions. First, let's presume that cases cited by treatises, law review, blog writers and commentators are cases that are most important than cases that are not cited by these writers. Second, let's presume that cases cited more frequently are more important than less cited cases. Third, it is possible to make assumptions about the relative value of a case based upon the kinds of works a case is cited in, as well as the kind of treatment that a case receives in that work.

Based upon these three assumptions, I think that it is possible to develop a database(s) that is comprised of only cited cases. What's more, meta-data can be created that will note where it was cited, and the level of treatment.

There are at least six great sources from which you can build such databases. West has, perhaps the greatest library from which to build such a database. It's collection of secondary materials is tremendous. Lexis is also well-positioned to accomplish something like this with its Matthew Bender titles. But, perhaps the two companies best equipped to build such a high performance database are CCH and BNA. These companies own some of the very best specialized law treatises. It's nice for these companies to put their newsletters and looseleafs in electronic format, but, to paraphrase early library automation consultants, "an electronic version of a good looseleaf only creates a good electronic looseleaf." In other words, it doesn't make a good thing better; it only makes it electronic. In order to make a good thing great, it must be different. (That should be obvious, but somehow it's not….)

But what if you're not West, Lexis, BNA or CCH? Are you out of luck? I don't think so. There are two resources left. First, Hein Online is now comprised of an unprecedented collection of law reviews. This is a vast gold mine of notable cases. Hein itself could develop a search engine that sifts through the very best cases based on citation frequency among law review writers.

A newly emerging resource that may accomplish roughly the same thing, are digital commons and blogs. Looking forward, a crawler could be designed that will crawl through digital commons, legal blogs and law review websites looking for cited cases. Here, the presumption is that cases that are discussed by more writers are more significant.

Finally, it is possible that such as database could be made simply from cases cited by other cases. It can be presumed that cases that are cited by other cases most frequently are those cases that are more significant legal precedents.

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