Helping lawyers predict the future

juriA company started over the course of a weekend today is one of the winners of the St. Louis Arch Grants competition. Juristat, which applies big data analytics to legal caseloads, won a $50,000 grant as part of the competition. This comes on top of a $50,000 equity investment by Capital Innovators, a St. Louis-based venture capital firm. Juristat’s tagline is “helping lawyers predict the future.”

A little over a year ago, Drew Winship was one of the participants in the St. Louis Startup Weekend. The goal was to find others of like mind and form a company within 50 hours over a weekend. I watched as he brought his team together and began to formulate their plan, and it was fascinating. Winship’s idea was to download information from the state court websites to determine the best days and trial judges for lawyers to try their cases in front of. Because there are differences among them, and if you know going into a trial that you can get a better outcome some place else, why not use that to your advantage?

For example, why not figure out the probably of a judge granting a summary judgment (meaning a shortened trial)? Or which litigators at particular firms have better won/lost case stats? Or if your stats are better than competing law firms’? Or the composition of particular juries? If you get enough data, the analyses can be pretty compelling, particularly for large dollar law suits.

There was just one tiny problem: the Missouri state court website didn’t have any easy way for the general public to download its data. So Winship and his team put together a series of automated scraping techniques to gather the data over that first weekend. That created something of an issue, because this automated scraping effort looked to the court website as a denial of service attack in progress.

So began Juristat. You could see how lawyers and their regulatory bodies might not have much of a sense of humor, especially when it comes to having their data taken without their permission. Indeed, if you examine the sad tale of Aaron Swartz and his suicide earlier this year, he was essentially doing something similar with downloading batches of academic journal articles.

Winship is a member of the Missouri bar and somewhat reluctant to become a cowboy data wrangler: mainly because he could be put in jail for these activities. The courts decide what is and isn’t appropriate fair use of their data, even though it should be available to the public. This reminds me of the early days of the Internet when folks like Carl Malamud fought with the US Patent Office and the Securities and Exchange Commission to to free their data archives. Now we don’t think much of having this kind of access: indeed, you would be hard pressed to find folks that prefer the paper documents to what you can find online.

I spent some time with Winship last week and he brought me up to date on his fledgling company. While Missouri’s courts have since balked about giving him any data, he has been able to legally access the entire New York state court system and process it in his system. He is expecting contracts from a couple of major Manhattan law firms “any day now” and has continued to develop and refine his algorithms to make them unique and useful to his legal clients. Part of their challenge was to develop application interfaces that would work and that others could use to build on top of Juristat’s efforts. And part was just manipulating the data in such a way that it would be useful for your average lawyer with no computer knowledge. (Insert your favorite lawyer joke here.)

Yes, there are some pretty big players in their space, including Lexis and Westlaw. They don’t have all the data that Juristat has, and they don’t have any accessible analytics either. That is the golden opportunity available, and why the company has won the attention of Arch Grants.

But what I like about Juristat’s story is that you don’t often find its founders that simulate a DDOS attack to start up their company. And certainly not by a bunch of lawyers! I wish them well.

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