Legal Tech Is Transforming the Legal Industry and Legal Education Needs to Meet the Moment
Harnessing the power of legal data and APIs is changing the way the legal industry functions. To provide an understanding of how APIs and data collection fit into the legal landscape, UniCourt is featuring a post from Alexa Thomas, our new Assistant VP of Content.
Alexa is a third-year law student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, where she focuses on business law, particularly private equity and mergers and acquisitions, and how it intersects with legal technology. She spent the Fall 2021 semester interning at UniCourt, where she researched APIs and how they affect the legal landscape, through UW’s Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic Technology Law Capstone. The clinic prides itself on giving free legal assistance to small or rural businesses and the capstone project specifically focuses on providing hands-on experience in the legal technology space to interested law students.
Alexa is well-versed in how data impacts business and how industries function based on access to data. She has a B.A. in International Relations and a B.A. in French from Michigan State University, as well as a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. She was also a Technology Innovation Summit Scholar with Latham & Watkins LLP and spent the summer interning with a technology manufacturing company in Denver, Colorado.
APIs in the Wild
APIs make everyday transactions possible. They let you pay for your pizza online, find a driver with a rideshare app, and even check the weather on your phone. Businesses in every industry have been harnessing the power of APIs for years; it’s a space the legal industry is just now breaking into.
However, before you can increase efficiency and decrease costs with APIs, it’s vital to know what they are and how they work. API stands for Application Programming Interface; think of it like a messenger between websites or applications. Take ordering a pizza, for example. You decide on your order and submit your payment details. The pizza website can’t approve that payment on its own; instead, it uses an API to transmit that data to a validation source, which approves (or rejects) the payment information and sends its answer back to the pizza website through an API.
So why are APIs important? In a world where data is the new frontier, APIs play a critical role: they make data sharing and collection possible. Data isn’t simply found and downloaded in perfect pieces. Instead, something has to collect it all in one place, sort it out, and make it usable. APIs allow businesses to gather data from different sources and assemble it in one place, all in a structured, readily-consumable format.
The Legal Industry, Legal Data, and APIs
At first glance, you can be tricked into thinking the legal industry doesn’t use data like its business or retail peers when in actuality, it’s just late to the game. By collecting, normalizing, and analyzing the vast amount of legal data available, law firms can increase their efficiency while decreasing costs, ultimately staying competitive in a consistently saturated market.
Legal data allows law firms to analyze their competition, hiring practices, practice areas, and more through one convenient pool: litigation data. Wondering what a potential hire’s win rate is in court? Legal data can provide that, and APIs can pull it from court records. What about a practice area your firm wants to get into- is it ripe for investment, or should you wait out a downturn? Litigation data can provide that insight, allowing your law firm to make better business decisions, both short and long term. Facing off against opposing counsel you’ve never met before? Litigation data can help with that too.
Legal data doesn’t just stop at the legal industry, though. The news industry uses legal data to understand and stay on top of its blockbuster cases. Background check companies (and private investigators) don’t get their information out of thin air: they use legal data to tell you if your potential hire has spent time incarcerated or charged with a crime. Even the financial industry gets involved. When a company wants to acquire or merge with another corporation, it’s important for them to know what lawsuits the other company is currently embroiled in, as well as potential or upcoming litigation in that company’s business area.
APIs make all of this possible. By taking data downloaded from courts around the country and putting into an easily transferable format, APIs can help organize and structure data in a way that allows even the least tech-savvy person to understand what’s going on in their industry and company.
Legal Tech and Legal Data – A New Frontier for Law Students
Law students aren’t taught to think like businesspeople. We don’t look at cases as sources of money or information, and we certainly aren’t given access to the latest legal technology. Some even argue that law is one of the slowest moving industries in regard to digitization and innovation. The amount of paper in any law school classroom will confirm those suspicions.
Even in speaking to law students as a whole, technology as it applies to law is not something we understand. Patents are ‘scary’ unless you’re a ‘patent kid,’ usually an engineer. Business analytics? Count large numbers of us out. This ‘technological ignorance’ is only furthered by the lack of technology law classes offered at most law schools. For example, the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School’s first class on technology law debuted in the spring of 2019, only joined by one more class (the Law and Entrepreneurship Clinic’s Technology Law Capstone) beginning in Fall 2021.
Law students cannot help transform law firms and create a more technologically-advanced industry without the correct tools and knowledge. As millennials, today’s law students are used to technological advancements that enhance our lives, making our days easier and more efficient. Anything we could possibly want is at the tips of our fingertips. However, without understanding how technology and legal data can help advance the legal industry, this expectation of highly advanced capabilities will not follow us to law firms. In an industry mainly run by those who prefer paper to digitized documents, today’s law students will be the ones to bring technology and efficiency to firms. Without law schools that foster technological education, the legal industry will remain behind the curve.
The practice of law is no longer cut and dry – it’s competitive and requires a business-savviness that relies heavily on data analytics and performance-enhancing technology. Legal technology and data developed through APIs provide the necessary basics. Without an education on how to effectively use the legal tools available, law students will be at a massive disadvantage when compared to peers in other industries, who are well-versed in the latest industry technology from the start.
The Future of Legal Technology
Data is the new oil – and we have an untapped supply. The legal technology and data industry is just starting to emerge; in the next five years, we will almost undoubtedly see the rise of a new way of lawyering, focusing on data analytics in the way other industries have already centered their businesses around. It is imperative, then, that the legal community embrace this coming change. Law firms must digitize and utilize APIs for data collection in order to stay competitive, efficient, and profitable. Similarly, law schools need to provide law students with the legal tech education necessary to become successful attorneys in a rapidly-digitizing, data-focused world.