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Big Data, Small Law Firms

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In the year since I wrote about big data opportunities for small law firms at  Clio’s Small Firm Innovation Blog, the legal profession’s interest in big data has exploded.  According to a May 2013 ABA Journal story , law firms are using big data to determine which cases are likely to be an easy win, to figure out what their competitors are charging and to determine whether a recruit is likely to succeed based on assessment of past hires’ records.

Unfortunately for solos and smalls, they can’t always harness the power of big data. For starters, big data applications don’t always come cheap. For example, according to Tech Crunch, a single license for LexMachina, which can help predict the outcome of patent cases costs $10,000 [As an aside, ABA big data article mentions that Vicki Veenker is a solo who uses LexMachina, but fails to disclose that Ms. Veenker is a former Shearman Sterling attorney who is Lex Machina’s advisory board so my guess is that she’s not paying full freight for the product].  But the other problem is that solos and smalls don’t generate a critical mass of data sufficient to enable them to draw conclusions about how long a particular case will take or how much it will cost.  By contrast, large firms handling dozens of cases for clients (for example, consider an insurance defense firm defending in PI cases or employment lawsuits) can mine this data for valuable insights.

Still, there are plenty of ways that solos and smalls can – and are – taking advantage of big data to educate and advise clients, identify new opportunities and market their practice. Granted, some of these examples are somewhat primitive, but they’re accessible and a good introduction to both the value and the sex appeal of big data and its foxy first cousin, the info-graphic.

Big data to identify practice areas
Thinking about starting a new niche practice, but not sure if there’s a demand. Solos and smalls can find a treasure trove of data online to help make decisions. For example, if you’re thinking about targeting a particular race or gender based demographic, you could visit  City Data to find statistics on the particular group. You can also glean data on home sales and tax assessments or on income levels at US Census site to get a sense of a community’s economic well-being. Of course, firms have always had access to this kind of data in various almanacs, but online, it’s readily accessible and and updated and therefore, more useful.

Using big data to open the doors to a new practice area
Fifteen years ago, cracking into Supreme Court appellate litigation practice was unheard of for lawyers without a Supreme Court clerkship or tenure in the Solicitors’ office. These kinds of credentials enabled lawyers to market an insiders’ access to the workings of the Court.  Until a young D.C. based lawyer, Tom Goldstein crashed the party armed with nothing but a bunch of data and a system for predicting circuit split. Once Goldstein identified those cases the Court was likely to accept for review, he cold-called the parties and offered to represent them for free, thus building up his resume. To this day, Goldstein keeps his firm on the front line of Supreme Court practice with his quarterly Supreme Court stat pack with  information on Justices’ voting records, pace of grants and time between oral argument and decisions.

Screen shot 2013-08-21 at 4.49.15 PM Goldstein’s method can work for other practice areas as well. Lawyers interested in handling appeals at a state court or federal circuit can likewise track issuances and voting records and share reports and predictions with other practitioners. I publish an annual round up of FERC-related appeals in the end of year issue of my law firm newsletters which is well received by my colleagues.

Big data to educate clients and market a practice
Social security disability attorney Nick Ortiz  frequently uses data to educate clients and the public about the social security disability grant process.  For example, in response to the recurring question, “Why is my case taking so long,” Ortiz penned a blog post referencing online data from the SSA on the wait time for processing claims. In another post (which was widely referenced at other sites), Ortiz shared the results of data he crunched in an excel spreadsheet showing the fifty SSA judges with the worst grant rate. Ortiz’s post responded to claims that SSA judges are too lax and pay claimants benefits that they don’t deserve.

While Ortiz simply referenced or reconfigured already-available data, what’s most valuable is that he presents the data in a way to make it accessible and understandable to readers.  In fact, if you look at most of the big data tools that have been developed, it’s not so much that they offer new insights (many don’t) but present the information in a more intuitive and usable way (like LexMachina with charts and keywords).

Big data and visuals
Let’s face it, data in and of itself can be boring. Sometimes, in order to bring big data out of its matronly shell requires snappy visuals. Even the U.S. Census realizes that – and it creates little fun fact snap shots to highlight the insights gleaned from big data. With infographic tools readily available, solos and smalls can present big data findings in a way that will captivate potential clients.

By the way, tomorrow – August 22 – I’m participating in a Clio-sponsored webinar on how law firms are using big data – and it’s not too late to register here.

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