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Technology For Populists
Promising Legal Reforms Are Around The Corner

Big data is already changing how America’s court system works, the Wall Street Journal reports:

Lawyers looking for an edge in court are increasingly turning to hard data to predict how judges might rule, in some cases long before the judges put pen to paper.

New tools, mined from millions of court documents, offer lawyers statistics on the likelihood of a lawsuit’s being dismissed, for instance, or the average wait time until a trial. Lawyers say the data can help temper client expectations, influence courtroom decision-making and even save money by flagging strategies unlikely to succeed.

“Everybody knows litigation is wildly expensive and risky, but the fact is, all of those risks can be quantified,” said Kirk Jenkins, a Chicago lawyer who blogs about the behavior of the highest state courts in Illinois and California based on years’ worth of data analysis.

Traditionally, judges’ reputations have spread through anecdotes, often gathered by lawyers’ sending a firm-wide email to colleagues. This has led to broad insights, like knowing that the Eastern District of Texas is a plaintiff-friendly patent court, or that a certain judge is short-tempered or gives out light sentences.

Some day in the not to distant future, algorithms are going to reduce the number of cases, civil and criminal, that go to trial. The prospect of a legal system that works faster, gives fairer results and costs much much less than what we have now is coming closer.

Legal reform is one of the most promising avenues to make American society richer and more fair and to reduce the time it takes to settle even complex cases. Some law firms will figure this out and ride to glory in the fast lane of the information highway. Others will stick to the old ways and be road kill.

Meanwhile, politicians looking for populist ideas that are also good policy should jump on legal reform as a way to help ordinary people get through life with greater dignity and ease.

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  • Andrew Allison

    It’s far from clear how knowing which Judge or Court to seek out or avoid will lead to a legal system that works faster, gives fairer results and costs much much less than what we have now.

  • Jim__L

    “Everybody knows litigation is wildly expensive and risky, but the fact is, all of those risks can be quantified,”

    Wow. “Risk can be quantified” — isn’t that the thinking that got us into the 2008 financial crisis?

    Also, isn’t “let’s not risk a Guilty verdict” in the plea bargaining phase what has made our justice system so broken?

  • QET

    Some day in the not to distant future, algorithms are going to reduce the number of cases, civil and criminal, that go to trial.

    For the algorithms to reliably work vis-a-vis a particular judge, many years’ worth of rulings by that judge on all manner of cases must be had. But during those many years, lawyers will have to go ahead and file all cases. In fact, it would probably be malpractice not to file all cases and then wait to see which judge was assigned, and withdraw a case from a judge the algorithm could reliably predict would rule against the plaintiff. Because there’s a chance the case could be assigned to a still-new judge whose ruling could not be predicted. So all of the cases will still be filed.

    Also, if the algorithms really do work well in streamlining the judicial system, then eventually people will ask why a new judge must be allowed any time at all to develop a body of rulings large enough for the algorithm to process reliably. Won’t such unpredictable, wild-card judges be seen as, at best, an inefficiency, and at worst an injustice (because one assumes the algorithm’s actions will be held up as Just)? It will turn out that prospective judges will have to, like commercial airline pilots, log hundreds of hours on “simulated cases” before ascending to the bench, so that from Day One the algorithm will be able to reliably predict their decisions. The next step will be for the results of those simulated decisions to be made public, so that a judge whom the algorithm predicts will rule the “wrong” way can be prevented from becoming a judge in the first place. And the “wrong” way is a decision that does not hold for a plaintiff in a protected class–women, gays, racial minorities, etc. So that in the end, we will end up with a judicial system where certain plaintiffs are guaranteed in advance to win their case.

    Welcome to justice in the era of “big data.”

    Good grief.

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