LAWRENCE — Big data and robot lawyers revolutionizing the legal profession may sound like something out of a law student’s abandoned side novel, but it’s real and happening now in law firms and courtrooms around the world. A new class at the University of Kansas is teaching future lawyers to understand statistics, data analysis, artificial intelligence and how they can challenge the very foundation of American justice.
“Legal Analytics” may not sound like the type of class to examine fundamental changes in how law is practiced by title alone, but the first-of-its-kind course focuses on how technology has already changed the field and how practitioners of the future can use it to their advantage in ways previously unimaginable.
Andrew Torrance, professor of law, Docking Faculty Scholar and Earl B. Shurtz Research Professor at KU, teaches the class and has spent his academic career bringing big data and scientific approaches to legal research. Many lawyers and law students can be scared off by the thought of math and statistics, but a general understanding can make them much more efficient, productive and valuable to their clients, Torrance said. The first half of “Legal Analytics” gives students a foundation in math and statistics, and with that foundation established, the second half moves on to how software, artificial intelligence and data analysis can change how they work.
“Math phobia is a real thing, but the class shows you can use it to your advantage without having a Ph.D. I try to make it fun and approachable in part by making it practical and showing how students can use it in their everyday practices,” Torrance said. “Because I do a lot of numerical analysis of law, I’ve used it in class more and more, and I found you have to spend time explaining the analysis. I thought it would be a good idea to have a course for any student interested, that wouldn’t scare anyone away with math. I feel like legal analytics is going to be a critical tool in a lawyer’s kit. In fact, in a lot of ways it already is.”
Mathematics and statistical analysis are already changing how law is practiced. In the late 1990s, e-discovery changed how lawyers worked. Where teams of young lawyers used to pore over hundreds of documents searching for data, software programs now do that and without getting tired or making the mistakes humans make, Torrance said. In the same way, the class is examining how data can point to all manner of trends. Lawyers, for example, can analyze every case a single judge has decided, find tendencies on how he or she tends to rule, what arguments they favor and prepare their cases accordingly. When asked how they can apply data analysis in their careers, students in the class pointed to being able to decide whether to spend their billable hours, clients’ money and courtroom arguments on motions that are likely to succeed or not, as shown by factual data.
In a recent class session, students viewed data from one of Torrance’s research projects. He had previously cataloged every American court decision on design patents from 1982 to 2015. As the level of court, ruling, year and other data were displayed, they discussed the ins and outs of aesthetics in intellectual property and what the findings can tell them about rulings in such cases. Having an understanding in data analysis will give them an advantage as lawyers in a number of ways, the students said. One plans to practice law as an Army JAG Corps attorney. Analysis of that system’s limited number of judges and deciding tendencies could provide invaluable insight quickly when preparing arguments. Another mentioned plans of working at the intersection of law and policy and being able to predict which type of policy would withstand legal challenges by analyzing reams of data and decisions on relevant cases in a short amount of time.
Perhaps nothing is speeding up legal processes more than artificial intelligence. The students have examined tools such as Robot Lawyer LISA, an online service that can draft nondisclosure agreements in about 20 minutes instead of multiple hours when done manually. Donotpay.com is a website determined to help people argue traffic tickets and can provide numerous possible arguments for fighting such tickets depending on the type of infraction, where it was received and numerous other factors. Those types of tools were developed not by web programmers, but by people with legal backgrounds who understand technology and AI. Students with an understanding of technology and analytics will likely be the ones who develop the next revolutionary legal technology, Torrance said.
Legal analytics have the potential not only to introduce technology, but to fundamentally change how law is practiced. For decades, lawyers have devised legal strategy and given advice based on their own personal experience. While that approach is not inherently wrong, being able to analyze large amounts of data can yield new insights.
“You have to be careful because law often assumes causes,” Torrance said. “So we look behind the causes in law to see if we can understand the patterns. Analysis lets you look at things in a new light and help notice things you couldn’t from just experiencing a few cases.”
Today’s lawyers and those of the future also have the advantage of having nearly unlimited amounts of data at their fingertips. What would have taken countless hours of research can be done quickly via data analysis technology. And what is viewed as “common sense” can be examined further to determine if it is borne out by the facts or simply the view of a powerful minority. Torrance shared the example of analyzing crime statistics, sentence length, income level and other factors to determine if commonly held beliefs are in fact true.
“We live in a world awash in data, and it’s only increasing,” Torrance said. “Analytics makes the legal system more accessible, I think, and makes one lawyer more able to serve more clients effectively.”