Can you apply big data to the legal industry?
That’s exactly the question Daniel Lewis and Nik Reed, the co-founders of Ravel Law, asked when they were law students at Stanford.
They were frustrated with the old way of doing legal research, which often involved reading through thousands of different cases to find information.
If they could make research easier, they thought, then they would save students, lawyers, librarians, and paralegals thousands of hours of time — and make law firms more efficient in the process.
When you sign up for Ravel, you instantly get access to thousands of cases and opinions going all the way back to the 19th Century — for free.
While sites like Lexis Nexis and Westlaw have vast digital case libraries, most of the information is stuck behind a paywall. (Ravel’s proprietary analytics tools, which are geared towards professional lawyers, cost money.) Ravel also makes it easier to search, by “mapping” related cases, allowing lawyers and students to easily find and visualize relevant information.
But as lawyers aren’t your typical entrepreneurs, starting out was hard.
“We were prone to think a lot about things, without necessarily getting into action as quickly as others might,” Reed told Business Insider over the phone.
Learning from the engineers and computer scientists who’ve launched countless startups out of Stanford, Reed and Lewis signed up for Launchpad, the famous Stanford design school (“d.school”) class started by a former eBay executive.
To get into Launchpad, students need to pitch ideas. The goal of the class is to move from an idea to actually launching a product — in one academic quarter.
Their idea was to digitize law collections from across the US, and build a layer of analytics on top.
Lewis and Reed were encouraged by one of their professors, Jonathan Zittrain, who was then a visiting professor at Stanford.
Zittrain is an expert on internet law (also a computer science professor), and he now directs the Berkman Center for Internet at Society at Harvard. Zittrain, importantly for Ravel, also runs the Harvard Law Library, the largest academic law library in the world.
The partnership between Lewis, Reed, and Zittrain started casually “over frozen yogurt in downtown Palo Alto,” Lewis said. “One of the initiatives that Jonathan (Zittrain) wanted to do during his tenure running Harvard’s law library was to bring it more in line with the digital age. We met up, and it was a perfect fit.”
But, Lewis says, the Harvard Law Library couldn’t pull off this massive project to “free the law” on its own — it has over 2 million volumes.
Using high-speed imaging equipment, Harvard and Ravel are bringing 40 million pages of court decisions online, totally for free.
“The partnership was, ‘look, Harvard has this comprehensive, massive collection of books’,” Lewis said. “They want to digitize them, and Ravel can bring the technology that brings this information to life, and helps people make sense of it.”
Then, the Harvard Law School did something unprecedented for that school: It took an equity stake in Ravel.
While that’s common for engineering and computer science focused schools like Stanford and MIT, it’s definitely uncommon for a law school.
“It’s a really innovative arrangement for Harvard as well,” Reed said. “They’re trying to think through how the university can foster new technologies, new startups, and work in ways that look more like what Stanford’s been doing for quite a while.”
As of Wednesday, Harvard’s collection of California case law is now available on Ravel, and will be online in its entirety by mid-2017, according to a Ravel press release.
“Attorneys are fascinated by this material,” Reed said. “Having access to the original scans of all this material could be the thing that wins the multi-million dollar case.”