Tech advances allow new companies to harness networks of computers and people to sift through legal information and help lawyers prep cases.
“The legal industry is ripe for innovation,” says attorney and journalist Robert Ambrogi, who covers the role of technology in law. In an influential April 13 blog post, Ambrogi proclaimed a boom in legal tech startups based on a more than doubling of listings on startup directory AngelList. Ambrogi has since produced his own streamlined listing that currently has nearly 500 companies offering technologies to the legal industry. Several are courting attorneys who need better, cheaper ways to sort through the avalanche of legal filings, rulings, and spiderwebs of citations between cases, from the local to federal level.
The innovation upsurge may in part be generational. “If you make partner today in a law firm, and if you were in college with Google, you have different expectations of technology,” says Josh Becker, CEO of Lex Machina. The company tracks the activities of lawyers and judges using an artificial intelligence technique called natural language processing (NLP) to analyze court documents and figure out things like how a particular judge tends to rule on particular types of cases. It can also ferret out types of cases, such as patent or trademark, the specific IP a claim asserts, and all the attorneys involved.
The startup boom also comes from a new generation of technology. “We use Amazon Web Services for our computing power,” says Daniel Lewis, CEO and cofounder of Ravel Law. Started in 2012, Ravel ingests the corpus of current and historical U.S. legal data, using NLP and machine learning to map how cases interrelate, and how judges tend to rule. “We can spin up hundreds of computers in complex data-science work at relatively low cost,” he says. “Just 10 years ago, [that process] would have been dramatically more expensive and slower.”
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Lex Machina is not a typical scrappy startup. It grew out of a project at Stanford University Law School, funded by major tech companies, to address the explosion of intellectual property lawsuits in recent years (what some call patent trolling). The company spun off in 2010, and in November last year it was purchased by legal analytics behemoth LexisNexis for an undisclosed sum. In June, Lex Machina will expand beyond intellectual property to include securities and antitrust law.
Big money is not a requirement. The legal profession is joining other industries, says Ambrogi, where entrepreneurs with a good idea can take on giant players, such as research and publishing firms Bloomberg Law, LexisNexis, and Thomson Reuters Westlaw. “Now it’s law students, or younger lawyers who just aren’t happy with the way things are getting done and will get an idea and try to develop it,” says Ambrogi. PacerPro, for instance, is bootstrapped mainly by the family of its founder and CEO, Gavin McGrane. The company puts a user-friendly interface on the government’s clunky PACER database of federal court cases.
Ravel grew out of Stanford Law School. Nik Reed, Ravel’s other cofounder, credits the school for encouraging students to take classes in other divisions of the university, such as business and computer science. “It certainly helps to be at a school like Stanford if you’re trying to work on multidisciplinary themes and connect engineers, designers, and lawyers,” he says.
In 2013, Stanford alum Jake Heller founded Casetext—a repository of state and federal laws and legal cases, including crowdsourced analyses of them. Casetext challenges expensive services like Thomson Reuters Westlaw, which employ armies of writers and editors. “I immediately thought to myself … we’ve all seen this story,” says Heller. “Whether it’s restaurants or encyclopedias, this is going to be replaced by an open knowledge solution.”