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They come in peace: Why the legal research market welcomes non-profit entrants

Legal research companies aren’t nervous when nonprofits enter the market. Instead they see an inexpensive way to upgrade their features and database

By Victoria Hudgins

 

Not all competition is bad competition. For-profit legal research platforms, for instance, argue there’s enough room in the market for new nonprofits entrants. In fact, they even see these nonprofit companies as aiding their advancement. 

Northwestern University’s Systematic Content Analysis of Litigation Events Open Knowledge Network (SCALES OKN) platform is one of the latest nonprofit entrants into legal research. 

While nonprofit legal research isn’t new—Harvard Law School provides digitized U.S. case law and CourtListener collects federal opinions and oral argument audio—SCALES stands out by collecting and analyzing federal court docket activity.

“[We’re] building these tools so we can understand what is transpiring in litigation so we can ask answers and questions for the broader audience,” said SCALES team member and Northwestern University clinical assistant professor of management and organizations associate director Adam Pah.

Docket tracking that analyzes every motion filed, rulings and other activity is labor intensive and often requires leveraging machine learning technology, noted SCALES member and Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law professor David Schwartz.

“The dockets are particularly messy in that every judge and every court has the ability to use any words they want, and that causes a lot of processing and data sciencing problems when trying to figure out what happened across a system,” Schwartz noted.

While researchers and journalists are SCALES’ initial primary users, access to its raw data and search engine is freely available to anyone.

“There’s a lot that can be done with the daily practicing lawyers and that can be drawn from this,” Pah noted. ”This is a giant apple and we are taking a bite out of it. We are just looking forward to forming partnerships and collaborations.”

Legal research companies aren’t concerned nonprofits’ efforts will take away their market share, noted Rick Merrill, founder and CEO of state court analyzer Gavelytics.

“The tools created for major law firms and corporate legal departments take millions of dollars to build,” Merrill said. “Those products are always going to have more features, the data is going to be more advanced than what could be achievable by a nonprofit effort like SCALES that is done as a side project with a small budget. And I don’t think they’re aimed at the same users and are asking different questions.”

To be sure, while nonprofit databases like SCALES serve different audiences, they can still stoke innovation in for-profit legal research platforms.

“Generally, getting analytical information more freely available is a good thing, and you will see value added [in] approaches publishers take or will have to do to enrich the availability of information,” noted Ken Crutchfield, the legal markets group leader of Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S.

Crutchfield noted the innovations of nonprofits aren’t lost on dominant for-profit figures in the industry. “It raises the bar but I think publishers will also rise to that level and deliver more,” he said. “If more content is made more freely available that generally implies the cost structure allows publishers—from a competitive and market standpoint and cost structure—to deliver more to their customers and I think that’s a natural progression in how commercial companies operate, they continue to want to improve.”

Fastcase CEO Ed Waters noted efforts that improve data collection are much appreciated. “We pay millions of dollars to access public law and get it into a single standard, and if a new project like SCALES can help to make that process more simple or more rational, that would be great.”

To be sure, nonprofits like SCALES can also allow smaller legal research brands and startups to improve and grow their offerings.

“I can imagine the creation of new tools that would make the law more understandable to every person in the United States, and not just the privileged few,” ROSS co-founder and CEO Andrew Arruda wrote in an email. “Powered by these [nonprofit] databases, not only legal research companies, but also other entrepreneurs, academics, public interest groups and individuals would be able to base their work and their decisions on real data about our court system.


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