Lawyers employ algorithms to guide pricing, advertising and advising
Sam Harden was tired of hearing attorneys make the hard sell to land clients.
“I know some lawyers would tell potential clients the worst-case-scenario sentence as a motivator for hiring them,” says Harden, an attorney in Tampa, Florida. For example, attorneys would tell first-time offenders they were looking at six months in jail for DUI charges, something Harden says is legally possible but also unheard of.
Unfortunately, potential clients did not have the data to confront the validity of these “worst-case scenarios.”
To remedy this, Harden created LegalOptics, a company that analyzes court data to determine likely outcomes for clients facing a DUI charge.
After compiling the data, he found no evidence of a first-time offender receiving six months in jail for a DUI. With this information, clients can now be better informed when seeking legal representation.
Often derided for its aversion to math, the legal field is in the midst of a data-informed renaissance. Across the country, lawyers, firms and legal entrepreneurs are leveraging data and algorithms to improve the business and practice of law.
Currently, LegalOptics is active in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, Florida, which include Tampa and St. Petersburg, respectively. For $100 a month, attorneys can access the dashboard, search case outcomes and undertake direct advertising. Meanwhile, potential clients can see, for free, how an attorney matches up in front of the judge hearing their case.
According to the platform’s analysis, 78 percent of those represented by an “A-rated attorney,” a determination made by Harden’s analysis, avoided a DUI conviction. This is in comparison to 40 percent of those represented by a public defender and 26 percent of those without an attorney.
St. Petersburg criminal defense lawyer Bruce Denson says LegalOptics improves his practice. “With these new numbers,” Denson says, he can better “articulate to clients” what their situation is. Before, he says, he struggled to convey the same point.
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Denson wants to see LegalOptics expand statewide and to other case types. However, he has concerns about the lawyer-rating algorithm. Currently, the rating is derived from an analysis of motions filed and case outcomes. Denson reasons that filing more motions for an “A” rating could irritate the district attorney, which may make plea bargaining more difficult. In essence, the algorithm could punish lawyers for collegiality.
Acknowledging this critique, Harden says he is always refining the algorithm to improve it.
Algorithmic blind spots like this are common, says Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction and founder of O’Neil Risk Consulting & Algorithmic Auditing.
Algorithms “are marketed as objective and true, and they are, in fact, nothing of the sort,” O’Neil says.
She writes, however, that these shortcomings can be improved through feedback, which is something attorney Drew Vaughn learned firsthand.
The founder of NuVorce, a divorce law firm in Chicago, Vaughn created a cost-benefit formula that turns a consultation into a flat-rate fee structure.
Calling the billable hour “asinine,” Vaughn says that he “took a bath” on early cases affected by factors not considered by the formula, such as the mental health of one of his clients.
Vaughn says the formula “is under constant revision to account for changes in law and new variables.”
Currently, both venture capital and law firms are looking to either invest in or buy NuVorce for their algorithms.
Beyond billing, data is also being used to improve legal advertising.
Chad Van Horn is a managing partner practicing bankruptcy law at the Van Horn Law Group in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He uses data to inform him on how to reach out to potential clients.
He also uses PACER, the federal courts’ document portal, to compile data that helps him understand his competitors, determine where to geographically place ads and refine his messaging.
As Harden did with attorney ratings, Van Horn would like to expand his data work to include bankruptcy attorney profiles, allowing consumers to compare success rates and fee structures.
Van Horn says this level of transparency “would be a game changer for consumers.” As for data’s growing impact on attorneys, he thinks it can shine a needed light on the profession.
“The legal community,” Van Horn says, “has been shielded from statistics for too long.”
This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline “Statistical Significance: Lawyers employ algorithms to guide pricing, advertising and advising"