Skylar Young talks with Eric Lundy, Principal Data Scientist at Oracle, about data science, legal tech, and the intersection of the two in the latest instalment of her regular Legal Technologist column. Enjoy!
SY: Eric, thanks so much for offering your time. I think it’s so valuable to hear perspectives from technical people about legal tech! Can you please tell me more about what you do?
EL: Yeah sure. I’m currently working for a company called Oracle in their cloud division. They are an international technology company known for their industry leading databases that focus on speed and security. Even though Oracle is known for their databases, they are becoming one of the leading cloud providers competing with companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft. My current title is principal data scientist but I am working more as a developmental operation engineer. My team and I are currently creating new cloud services for Oracle customers.
SY: Cool. I know that a lot of companies are looking for data scientists, but can you explain what data scientists do?
EL: Good question! Data scientists use data to create a model and use it to predict future events. Data science is at the intersection of statistics, computer science, and business. There are lots of different components of data science like machine learning, natural language processing, computer vision, big data, A/B testing, and a lot of others. But I think all people who consider themselves data scientists have a modeling and prediction aspect to their work.
SY: I feel like data science is a relatively new industry. Why the recent popularity in this field?
EL: Well, compared to the law, computers are relatively new. But to answer your question, I really think there are two drives behind the popularity of data science. Big data and cloud computing. Nowadays, people have multiple devices that are linked to the internet- like a cellphone, laptop, or any sort of “smart” device, from smartwatches to smart security home systems, to smart refrigerators, the list goes on and on. These devices all create data about the user which is usually collected by either the websites that they are visiting or devices they are using. These devices collect and track so much data about us- for instance, smartwatches collect data about an individual’s sleeping patterns, heart rate, or stress levels, while websites collect data about what an individual views, or buys, and their geolocation when they are viewing and buying things. The point is, the data collected from these devices is ubiquitous, and it’s kind of scary. This is what we mean when we say “big data.” Because of big data, businesses need a place to securely store it. Cloud providers, via the Cloud, now allow businesses, as well as individuals, ease of access to data as well as an easier way to store all of this data.
Combining big data with cloud computing allows for highly accurate machine learning models. Machine learning is really just a computer program that reads in data and predicts an outcome. In general, the more data you provide the program the more accurate your model becomes. So businesses combine the large amount of data that people are generating to create highly accurate models via cloud computing which could not be done 20 years ago. To do this, you need data scientists.
SY: Almost every industry, including the legal industry, collects more data about what they do and how they do it. What implications does this have for law firms?
EL: There can be some foreseen and unforeseen risks. The obvious one to me is hacking. If you are collecting data and storing it, then this data is obviously vulnerable to attacks. A more subtle risk is firms could be leaking non-sensitive information that could be used to figure out sensitive information about the firm or clients. There’s a really famous example of Netflix releasing a public dataset containing anonymized user data as part of a contest to see who could come up with the best movie recommendation model. The public dataset that was provided was reverse engineered and combined with other datasets to determine sensitive information about users that Netflix did not intend to reveal. Basically, I would advise all firms to treat any data they have as sensitive and confidential because there are some clever ways to reverse engineer any publicly available data.
On the other hand, law firms, like any other business, have the potential to leverage the data that they are collecting to deliver better service to their clients. For example, law firms could internally collect data on how long it takes paralegals and lawyers to complete certain tasks (i.e. drafting a simple contract or filing a document with a governmental entity) and use that data to price out their services. I have seen law firms diversify the way they bill their services. In addition to the billable hour model, some firms offer flat fees for services. Analyzing this type of data, (i.e. how long it takes your staff to complete certain projects) can help firms think about better ways to price their services, and in the long run, ensure they profit off each project.
The point here is that law firms are collecting a lot of different types of data and are missing out on opportunities to grow and scale their business if they aren’t analyzing it.
SY: What kind of data that law firms collect do you think, whether they know it or not, is really important to help grow their business?
EL: Not to contradict myself when it comes to storing data but there are some basic data science strategies that law firms are probably leveraging through their website to gain insight into customer behavior. So for example, law firms have the power to track who is visiting their websites. But every business that has a website can leverage that. I think what is unique is that, at least for a majority of U.S. law firms, they are based on the billable hours model. Law firms can collect lots of insightful data from billing clients every month. From this data, law firms could create client lifetime value models to help determine how much money they want to invest in a client to retain them long term. For example, I used to work in the cell-phone industry. We would look at a customer’s monthly bills and credit score, and various other data points to determine, for example, whether to offer a customer a promotion, or determine the value of that customer to the company. In essence, understanding a customer’s worth can help determine what efforts should be put in place to retain them. This approach could be used in a really powerful way for law firms with respect to their client base.
SY: In your opinion, is there a role for a legal data scientist? What does that role look like?
EL: This is a tough one for me. I want to say yes, but I don’t think there is a one size fits all to that role. For example, a legal data scientist could work at a law firm where they analyze document repositories, containing things like contracts, and discover efficiencies, patterns and ways to optimize the drafting of those contracts. The legal data scientist would have the ability to figure out what clauses in contracts are being used, or which ones are being changed. They could also discover vulnerabilities in contracts at scale. The legal data scientist doesn’t just look at one contract, but has the ability to look at an entire data set of contracts to discover these insights.
A legal data scientist could also be helpful when it comes to determining who is likely to go to trial and win. There are lots of public datasets available. It would be pretty easy to get a lot of variables together and create a model predicting the probability of going to trial and if you go to trial, the likelihood of winning. I think there are a few legal services that already do this kind of work but it would also be done by an in-house data scientist.
The more I think about it I think it would be better to have a legal cyber security expert than a data scientist. Someone who knows how to secure highly confidential information would be just as valuable if not more valuable to a law firm as a data scientist.
SY: Can you explain what data visualization is and how can that help law firms effectively manage work?
EL: Data visualization is like an interactive super Powerpoint. There are a few products out that are good at this: Tableau, Power BI, and even Oracle has a product called Data Visualization. Data visualization is an interactive way to view and filter your data set so you can look at your data from many different angles. This can help law firms effectively manage their workloads by giving them a visualization of who is doing what work, how long it is taking them to complete that work and compare that to other team members doing similar projects. Visuals are often easier to understand than words or excel tables. Creating images can really help law firms understand where their business is coming from and who are their top performers.
SY: Wow yes, I really love that! Delegating and managing attorneys’ work loads is a huge problem for firms and it sounds like data visualization would be a great tool to help with that! What are some of the fundamental tech skills you think all lawyers should have?
EL: Excel or an excel like product is found everywhere. Being able to perform and understand what is happening in a lookup and a pivot table are really important skills. It sounds basic but for a pivot table to be useful you have to be able to collect data, clean it so that you fix an errors or inconsistencies, reformat it to get it in the shape that is most desirable, then manipulate the pivot table to get across a message the most likely relies on many different data dimensions.
I would also say that lawyers should understand what security processes are in place at their firm and what data they are generating. Does your firm have VPN? Does the website you are viewing have SSL encryption? Does the website store information about you? These might not seem like fundamental questions, but I think just being more conscious of what you are doing and how it works is a great skill.
SY: Can you explain the role you have served as a consultant for law firms?
EL: Sure. I have not done much consultant work for law firms but I have done some. I’ve been working with technology for the past 10 years so I have a firm understanding of the terminology. I’ve been approached a few times to explain, in simpler terms, some of the more technical jargon in legal tech contracts. I’ve also been involved in consulting around the use case for smart contracts that use blockchain technology. Lastly, I’ve been asked to do things like make changes on the backend of websites so that firms can get more analytics around the people who visit their website.
SY: In your opinion, what is the definition of a legal tech lawyer?
EL: To me a legal tech lawyer is a lawyer who is a tech enthusiast. You don’t have to know the ins and outs of how every system works or how to write code but showing an interest in emerging technologies and being curious is all you really need.
SY: Eric, this has been super informative, and I appreciate your time and perspective. Where can people reach out to you if they have any questions or follow up?
EL: It’s been a pleasure; thanks for having me! LinkedIn is a great place to connect- feel free to reach out to me there!