The Attorney as Knowledge Worker: The Age of Big Data

 
"Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimension."
-- Oliver Wendell Holmes
 
 


The practice of law, once stretched by new technology, will never be the same. Like it or not, advances in Information Technology (IT) have changed the way lawyers and other knowledge workers collect, process, and produce information. Lawyers unable or unwilling to use new technology tools to collect and manage the vast amounts of information available and needed to practice law in the 21st Century will be at a competitive disadvantage that may put them out of business.  Attorneys as Knowledge Workers

Attorneys in the Digital Era: The Impact of Advances in Information Technology on the Practice of Law

Over the last 40 years significant advances in information technology have greatly impacted society and the practice of law.  These advances began with the introduction of the PC and continue into the Big Data era that we are now entering.  This transition from lawyers using type writers, carbon paper, and regular mail and being limited to small geographical areas has changed to a legal World with court mandated e-filing, massive e-discovery battles with hundreds of thousands of e-documents, the rise of interstate and international law firms, and the emergence of the remote paperless office. 

From a lawyer’s perspective this explosion of information has created new opportunities in mass litigation and in the global economy, but has also caused significant information overload.  Lawyers that have adapted and continued to adapt to the new digital era are able to efficiently use the advances in information technology to effectively represent their clients.   Lawyers that do not adapt can find it increasing difficult to practice law in this digital era.  This article reviews some prior changes in technology that have impacted the practice of law, then moves on to look at the rapidly developing technology of Big Data and how it is impacting the World and the practice of law.

The PC

In 1981, the Personal Computer (PC) was introduced to the public for mass production and distribution.  This advance in information technology brought computers into many homes and small businesses as well as into the practices of many solo, small, and mid-sized law firms.  Though it took several years for the PC to become wide spread and well utilized by law firms, it was soon apparent that this advance in technology was much better than the typewriter and the more successful law firms would need to upgrade to PCs with word processors.  The result of this advance in the law was a paper explosion.  Lawyers and law firms were given the ability to create more discovery, pleadings, and other documents than ever before.

In fact, this paper explosion ultimately led to many courts including the Texas courts to determine that they could not store the vast amount of paper discovery that was being created.  As such in the early 1990s, the Texas Supreme Court determined that they would no longer require the filing of discovery with the court and tried to limit and standardize some forms of discovery.  

From a law firm perspective, lawyers were able to represent an increasing number of clients more efficiently and were able to more easily develop forms for specific types of cases.  

Networks and the Internet

A second significant advance in information technology was in networking.  The ability of computers to communicate through networks including the Internet created a new world for society, businesses, and law firms.  Described as the Information Superhighway, these networks have broken down traditional barriers and allowed information to travel throughout the World sometimes at the speed of light. 

From a law firm perspective, networks gave lawyers the ability to access online law libraries and information resources, build large databases, communicate with clients around the World, and work in large groups. During this time, large national and global law firms start to appear more often.  Moreover, some large mass tort law firms representing tens of thousands of clients became common.    

From the court’s perspective, these advances brought about the solution to the paper explosion problem in the form of e-filing.  Though the transition from paper filing to e-filing has not been an easy transition for many lawyers or courts, the amount of paper that lawyers have created in digital era has created the necessity for many courts and some law firms to move to e-filing and paperless offices.

These networks have also increased opportunities and competition as many law firms and information technology business have moved to a global marketing perspective.  It is now common to see out of state law firms, legal document companies, and lead generation firms advertise for business in Texas.  It is also common for Texas firms to represent clients from throughout the nation and the World.   Being able to communicate with businesses and individuals throughout the World through the global information networks (Internet and Telephones) is now easier and more cost effective.

Big Data and the Explosion of Information

We are now in the Big Date Era of the Digital Age.  In this era, we are collecting a large amount and variety of data. Examples of this information include smart chips which have been placed in billions of devices including our Smart phones, Smart appliances, Smart vehicles, and Smart houses.  Social media, Amazon, and many large companies are also collecting large amounts of information on almost everyone's digital footprints resulting in vast amounts of social and commercial data on potential customers.   Moreover, large distribution companies such as Wal-Mart, Amazon, and Fed Ex are tracking millions of items as well as other large companies use sophisticated tracking systems to for logistical purposes to track supplies and marketing purposes to identify potential customers.    

From a government perspective, the United States government has invested $200 million in an attempt to improve their ability to capture and process unstructured data including medical records, communication records, and financial records.  It is estimated that over $200 billion a year could be saved through Medicare and Medicaid through the structuring of medical records and medical billing.

From a court's perspective, many legal issues are arising on the legal use of Big Data, privacy issues surrounding the collection of Big Data, and discovery battles regarding what Big Data information will need to be produced in litigation.  Courts have already put restrictions on the types of files and file sizes of information that are e-filed.  Expect these restrictions to be tested as Big Data issues hit the courts in the next 5 to 10 years.

From a lawyer’s perspective, the Big Data Era can be overwhelming. Lawyers and businesses that are able to most efficiently process this data should be more successful. In transitioning into the Big Data Era, it will be important for lawyers to learn how to gather and utilize this ever increasing amount of data to obtain cases, make business decisions, and to analyze cases. From a legal marketing perspective, lawyers should understand that most potential clients are now seeking lawyers through search engines and social media.  To compete on an international basis through search engines and social media, lawyers will have to be able to understand SEO as well as be able to monitor and gather social media data.  Most of the search engines have analytic tools that help law firms analyze marketing data and make business decisions on marketing.  

From a practice and case perspective, it will be important for lawyers to be able to identify cases that are large enough to justify the use of Big Data tools as well as the types of similar cases that can benefit from Big Data tools.  It will also be important to identify key evidence that will be important for these cases and the types of data where this evidence may be found.  By going through this process multiple times lawyers should eventually be able to set up the analytics in Big Data sources that will help them mine for relevant evidence on large cases and identify sources of relevant evidence for many types of cases. However, there is always going to be a need for a balance between the amount of data that is being mined and a lawyer’s ability to focus on key evidence. 

While determining your firm’s ability to mine Big Data, please keep the following quote by Robert Wilensky in mind: “We’ve heard that a million monkeys at a million keyboards could produce the Complete Works of Shakespeare; now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.”


Jason Coomer is an Austin lawyer who handles complex litigation.

Willie Buehler is an information technology & media specialist.

Michele McKeever.

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1 Oliver Wendell Holmes, A Father's Book of Wisdom, compiled by H. Jackson Brown, Jr., P.65 (1988)

2. http://www.nelh.nhs.uk/knowledge_management/km3/knowledge_worker.asp

 
 
 

Austin Technology Lawyer Jason Coomer provides a variety of legal services including business litigation, Estate Planning, Probate Matters, and wrongful death/personal injury litigation.  For questions on this article or legal services, please e-mail Austin lawyer Jason S. Coomer at jason@texaslawyers.com


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