From Paper Bits to Tera Bytes: How Big Data is Transforming the American Legal System

From Paper Bits to Tera Bytes: How Big Data is Transforming the American Legal System

By Lloyd Marino

It’s no stretch to say that 21st century society is awash in a data sea. As the Pew Research Center observed, in 2016, “tens of millions of connected people, billions of sensors, trillions of transactions now work to create unimaginable amounts of information.” Indeed, our own government agencies, which a groundbreaking White House report termed “enormous data generation machines,” are churning out information at unprecedented rates.  Nowhere, it seems, are these data machines running harder and faster than in the legal system—especially the courts. Anyone who has witnessed a legal proceeding has seen lawyers hastily assembling and juggling files, and burdened with so much paper that they must sometimes resort to hand-trucks to wheel in new stacks of documents. Thousands of forest acres are used to record bits of information. Assorted technologies, including projectors and videos, are often transported from great distances in support of evidence. Yet, despite the reliance upon information, the American court system is behind the veritable technology revolution eight ball and has only begun scratching the data and technology surface.

Changing Course

What can be done? Digitalizing legal records at both the micro and macro levels and even storing them in a private cloud would be a good place to start. Thomas Horstemeyer, an Atlanta-based boutique law firm specializing in intellectual property, has done just that, creating “a pure virtual environment” where they have eliminated “archives full of documentation about…different cases,” and replaced them with “storage area networks” where they can analyze collected data, according to an article on the website datafloq.com. The firm is now saving big money on capital expenses because they no longer need storage space for old case files. Digitalizing information is faster, easier and cheaper than slogging through piles of dusty old, dogeared paper files.

Another exciting development is that digital files now contain embedded sound and visual information, instead of separate media, further streamlining the information storage process.  Not only are files and relevant data processed in a flash, but also correlations can be analyzed, lowering costs, not to mention reducing the time spent in court. As more and more individual firms follow this model, efficiency will improve across the board.

Big Data is making inroads into the practice of law in other ways as well. LexisNexisAdvance MedMal Navigator, for example, offers predictions on potential medical-malpractice cases. The subscription-based software finds legal opportunities by looking at how similar cases fared in the same jurisdiction and giving its take on how new cases will fare. It also alerts medical-malpractice attorneys if their case may involve an issue related to standards of care, and offers pinpoint analysis on available expert witnesses, including insight into the kinds of cases those witnesses have participated in and the type of testimony they offered. According to a LexisNexis press release, “This product allows you … to determine in 20 minutes—versus 20 days—if a case is worth taking on. This tool is a powerful, one-stop solution for malpractice attorneys.”

Law firms can also use cutting edge tools provided by Sky Analytics, and TyMetrix, two companies offering web-based legal analytics software. TyMetrix Legal View Analytics collects billions of dollars in global legal spending and performance data in LegalVIEW™, the world’s largest permission-based contributory warehouse of legal performance data.  Combining these data with analytical and legal domain expertise, TyMetrix enables law firms, legal departments, and anyone involved in managing the business of law to peruse and analyze invoices and bills, providing an across the board snapshot of legal services costs, and  “benchmark themselves against the industry,” to determine appropriate fees, as well as what they should (or shouldn’t) spend on legal and ancillary services, according to an article on the American Bar Association website.

There are exciting developments in the courtroom as well. Here, Big Data can be leveraged to produce admissible, evidence-worthy information. As LexisNexis head honcho Ian Koenig told datafloq.com, “[Big Data allows us] to find the right needle in a stack of needles.” Similarly, Juristat, which bills itself as “moneyball for lawyers,” makes use of a proprietary algorithm that sifts through publicly available data to profile examiners on the assumption that past actions can predict future behavior. Patent attorneys use the profiles to decide whether to appeal unfavorable decisions, ask for a continuance, or even tweak the patent and re-file, in hopes of getting a different examiner. Juristat’s algorithm can even predict how a flu outbreak might affect a jury verdict.

Help for the Little Guy

There a number of Big Data applications on the client side as well, one of which, LawZam, helps clients find lawyers and lawyers to find clients. People with legal problems can visit the site and post questions that its lawyers answer with an initial free consultation. Rate Driver actually allows prospective clients to effectively window shop for attorneys by comparing what lawyers charge in all 50 states, Ask a Lawyer: Legal Help, offers consumers free of charge preliminary legal advice. Users can message attorneys via an online application and also chat live. The app also allows attorneys to screen potential clients, effectively replacing the free consultation concept. As technology proliferates, it will hopefully answer some of the justice system’s most notorious and onerous cost drivers, including over the top legal fees.

One remnant of the paper age is the local court—which is slowly being phased out in favor of  regional courts with a larger number of courtrooms.  This move will save certain costs, but also add layers of logistical and travel related expenses. The solution: supportive online systems, including the widespread use of electronic verification documents to counter the anticipated expense wave. In place will be hearing management systems that mitigate logistical costs like prisoner transportation( prisoners will attend bail hearings via video link). Defendants, witnesses and expert witnesses also will be able to testify via video, further streamlining the legal process.

While there is something eerily Orwellian about a “paperless, people-less court,” it is a reality on the horizon and one that’s already in practice in other countries.. Vancouver’s Civil Resolution Tribunal is a virtual system that works to amicably resolve homeowner disputes. While this move has raised the collective eyebrows of Canada’s National Center for State Courts, specifically they’re concerned about the older demographics’ inability to access such mechanized systems, they also recognize that the vast majority of citizens are technologically adept enough to welcome more efficient ways of doing business.

The Future is Now

It’s not hard to imagine that extant technology will continue to reform the centuries-old legal paradigm. Blockchain technology is one such reform. In case you wanted to know, butt were too afraid to ask, blockchain is a decentralized, digital asset ledger that records, stores  and verifies all bitcoin transactions, thereby by engendering trust in digital-economy transactions. Blockchain technology paired with digital asset and payment systems like Bitcoin, results in a trust-free, asset transferring system devoid of a central processor. “Think of a payment system with no middle man, where every payment is recorded and verifiable by anyone who accesses the blockchain,” say attorneys Joe Dewey and Shawn Amuial in a column on Bloomberg BNA.

Now that major players like Samsung, Bosch, and IBM have embraced blockchain, Forbes magazine predicts that blockchain will “likely break free from bitcoin to power distributed apps sometime this year.”

The execution of wills and contracts in the future is one area ripe for disruption by blockchain technology. Wills, for example, could easily utilize blockchain to automatically execute all elements of such agreements, obviating the need for lawyers to do follow up and execution of all elements of a will. However, before you start happily contemplating a lawyer-less world, blockchain tech won’t obviate the need for lawyers, but it will change how attorneys approach critical aspects of the practice of law including contract drafting, administration and enforcement among other aspects of the practice.

Clearly, Big Data and its attendant technologies are transforming the way lawyers and courts are doing business. In the process, procedures and costs are being trimmed, efficiency is increasing, and society is moving away from those stacks of paper toward an inexorable future.

Image By: Claire Anderson

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