Harrison “Harry” Alex (J.D. ’19) heard the warning sighs from his circle of friends after he graduated from Wofford College and declared his intention to attend law school. “Are you sure about that?” they cautioned. The job market for lawyers is saturated, they reminded him, and hiring is still soft.
But Alex chose law school, and he chose it over medicine — the family business.
“My dad is a dentist, my stepdad is a plastic surgeon, my stepmom is a dental hygienist, and my stepsister is a lab tech for a dermatologist,” said Alex. “Me, I guess I’m the black sheep.”
Alex, 24, could end up looking like a wickedly smart black sheep. He is in his second year at Georgia State Law and is focusing on the new disrupter in law: data analytics.
What data collection did in revolutionizing baseball (think the bestseller, Moneyball) could happen for law as well.
“It is a huge market right now,” Alex said. “It’s so new that no one knows how big it is going to be. Everyone wants to be in it, and no one wants to be left out. Legal analytics has the potential to be one of the next big things.”
Charlotte Alexander, an associate professor of legal studies in the Department of Risk Management and Insurance at the J. Mack Robinson College of Business with a secondary appointment at the College of Law, is leading the charge down this path for law students. Alexander is director of the university’s new Legal Analytics Lab, which brings business and legal scholars together with data scientists to take on legal problems and questions using data analytics tools.
Alexander is developing a data analytics course for fall 2018, and there is also a push to have a joint degree in law and business with a focus on data mining for lawyers.
Since its launch in October, Alexander has been meeting with law firms throughout Metro Atlanta to discuss possible projects and uses for the lab. She’s noticed a common thread.
“Almost every meeting involves somebody on the other side of the table saying, ‘Send us your students; we want students who are trained across analytics and law.’ We are meeting a need, particularly given the difficulties in the legal labor market. We will provide a set of skills to students that they can use in a direct way,” Alexander said.
The data analytics lab exists under the umbrella of the Institute for Insight, which provides the quantitative firepower for a variety of disciplines around campus. Now, the law school is joining the party.
Even in this internet generation, law has lagged behind other industries in the ability to gain insights from data analytics. And as the legal field embarks into the world of AI and analytics, questions will continue to arise — for example, will data analysts be authorized to practice law? But for now, Alexander is giving Georgia State Law some traction in the new law skills.
“The purpose of the lab is to bring advances in data analytics to bear on legal questions and problems,” she said. “There have been massive steps forward in computer science and data science, particularly in the area of analyzing unstructured data (documents, PDFs). One step is how to extract information from that raw material and use it to learn about patterns. Another step is to take that learning and turn it into predictive models.”
Using data analytics, lawyers can ask questions and get answers in a more efficient manner. Instead of sifting through thousands of pages of documents, a computer can apply filters to cut through clutter.
A lawyer can know a little bit about where they stand in a case with analytics before they enter the courtroom, or even whether they should enter the courtroom — student lawyers will learn that data can preempt frivolous filings.
While the curriculum is being developed, Alexander and her law students will do a sprint, or short-term collaboration, with local firm Barrett & Farahany. Teams of law students and teams of master students in analytics, along with faculty, will mine data and see if they can forecast outcomes in employment lawsuits.
It is a streetwise learning model, which is keeping with the Georgia State culture.
“If algorithms are going to be one of the lawyer’s tools in a toolkit, then we want our graduates to have that tool,” said Alexander, who earned her law degree from Harvard. “Our law school has always been good at preparing graduates for the practice of law, and we see this lab as a natural extension of that historical strength.”
Analytics are also valuable to lawyers outside of litigation. Firms that handle mergers and acquisitions or patent filings can make themselves more efficient with data, Alexander said. Skill with data can also mean wider opportunity for Georgia State Law graduates and a truly sustainable law degree.
Taimur Ghaznavi (J.D. ’11) is a manager in the Forensics Technology and Discovery Services group for Ernst & Young. His group helps companies and law firms solve complex problems related to litigation, investigations, data analytics and cyber incident response.
“Our goal is to find those needles in a haystack while also organizing that haystack into nice, little, searchable piles,” Ghaznavi said. “The haystacks are getting bigger, and we can’t just keep throwing more people at it. We have to leverage advanced technology and methodologies to help find those needles more quickly and efficiently.
“We help make the attorneys’ lives easier by reducing the time it takes to sift through data, so they can focus on higher-value tasks like analyzing and interpreting the data for their clients. Being an attorney myself allows me to bridge that gap between the technical side of the house and the legal ramifications.”
And here is where the law school comes in, Ghaznavi said. Law students need to be trained how to mine that data and interpret it correctly within legal boundaries.
Training in data analytics also gives legal job-seekers a competitive edge. There are three to four qualified J.D.s for every position, Ghaznavi said. Expertise in analytics can help differentiate you and get you in the door, as well as give you traction once inside.
“The most tech-savvy, sophisticated associates are being given the reins on some of these big projects,” Ghaznavi said. “They understand the technology and how it can further their legal strategy. Meanwhile, you still have senior partners who want every document printed out, red-lined and scanned back in. It’s only a matter of time before client demands force them to leave these outdated practices behind.
“If a client comes to them and asks, ‘Hey, what are you doing to make sure we’re not back in the Stone Age and are doing this in the most efficient way possible?’ the senior partners don’t necessarily always have the answers, but they will look to their associates for expertise in this area. Being trained on the right tools and methodologies can get you invited to client or strategy meetings that you otherwise wouldn’t. I have even seen paralegals brought in to decision-making meetings, just because they can speak the language and understand the tools.”
Will the data analytics pathway automatically create smarter lawyers? Maybe not, but it will likely create better-informed and more-efficient lawyers. The ability to find patterns that a lawyer may not have thought to look for and would not find without looking at enough information is a powerful tool. And it can be done quickly, searching cases across the continent.
“We are focused on the analytical part of it,” Alexander said. “We’re analyzing the kind of data we can extract from legal documents that previously couldn’t be extracted in bulk.”
Alexander ticks off the questions data analytics can answer: “What patterns are there that can be identified? What predictions can be made? What can we learn by the way the law operates? What can we learn about the way litigation happens by analyzing new data and different data?”
She wants Georgia State Law grads to be able to answer those questions.
While Alexander is excited about the possibilities of data analytics, she is not blowing a mighty trumpet. She understands there are limits and gray areas — data will not convert to black and white, right and wrong, winner and loser. Data collection will not conquer all and replace the keen skills of a lawyer or improve the merits of a case on its own.
“The best way to think about our lab is not so much as a lab, but as a think tank in some ways,” Alexander said. “We’re experimenting and trying to figure out how far we can push these tools to find insights and to question how reliable the insights are. How good is the data that’s available? If the data set is biased in some ways, say the lawyering is really bad, then do we want to predict an outcome based on bad lawyering? So, I try to be careful not to oversell these tools. There are things data can’t capture.”
Alex, who minored in business and accounting, is willing to bet on the numbers. He sees the career possibilities waiting for him.
“I think the big accounting firms are going to push to incorporate law students into the consulting services they offer,” he said. “One of the things I have been researching for Professor Alexander is identifying job opportunities. A lot of law firms and accounting firms are using analytics to find patterns in litigation and make forecasts.
“People don’t know exactly what is going to fill the bubble that burst in law with the recession, but legal analytics might be the next step.”