If Data is the New Gold, then Law Libraries are a Goldmine: Panning for Gold with APIs
Published on Mon, August 15 byJean O'Grady

Move over algorithms and analytics… API was the hot buzzword at this year’s AALL Meeting and Conference in Denver.  It seemed that every vendor had an API to pitch. I attended a “Standing Room Only” program, The Law Library’s Role in Data Integration, APIs and Attorney Workflow Initiatives, which provided a goldmine of practical tips, experience and wisdom. The program was moderated by Dave DiCicco, Sr. Director Product Management LexisNexis. The panelists included: Erik Adams, Manager of Library Digital Initiatives. Sidley Austin; Pam Noyd, Information Resources Manager, Foley & Lardner LLP; Emily Rushing, Director Competitive Intelligence, Haynes & Boone LLP; Keli Whitnell, Senior Experience Database Mgr. Troutman Sanders.

The  law library has been in a process of deconstruction. Over the past decades codes, cases and commentary have been untethered from print. Now algorithms and analytics surface patterns of data extracted from commercial and internal sources.

Even before COVID-19 accelerated the death of the print library, law librarians had begun developing portals using APIs to deliver widgets, single purpose solutions for pulling data. But a new generation of API tools and market forces have driven APIs into the spotlight.

Moderator Dave DiCicco positioned APIs in the context of law firms now having to compete with the Big Four consulting firms as well as alternative legal service providers (ALSPs). The Big Four have been in the business of managing and exploiting their experience and internal intelligence for decades. It is a matter of urgency for law firms to be able to compete with the efficiencies and streamlined services that those organizations offer.

What is an API?  An API is an application program interface that allows the automatic transfer of data from one program to another. We use them every day in commercial apps on our phone such as weather, PayPal, Netflix, and Expedia. Dave DiCicco compared APIs to LEGO. They allow firms to creatively reorder data extracted from a variety of sources in order to create new insights and workflows.

Which Vendors Provide APIs? The short answer is – just about everyone. The list includes LexisNexis, Thomson Reuters, Wolters Kluwer, Fastcase/Docket Alarm, Bloomberg Law, Foundation, Trellis, Boardex, GovHawk, IBISWorld, Dun & Bradstreet, Smartsheet, UniCourt, Pitchbook, iManage, Capital IQ, Clio, Lex Machina, Statescape, Courtroom Insight and even government agencies such as the SEC…. The list will continue to grow.

How Can APIs Benefit Law Firms? Law firms are notoriously siloed organizations. These data silos include accounting, HR, marketing, professional development, conflicts, docketing and the library or Information Center. It is clear that using APIs to integrate internal and external silos can offer benefits in terms of risk management, business development, strategic planning productivity, and competitive intelligence.

Why legal information and KM professionals are critical to maximizing the value of APIs.

  • Librarians know how to evaluate the quality of information.
  • They are trained in taxonomy and can identify differences between internal and external taxonomies.
  • They are trained to conduct research interviews and are thus able to assess what information an organization needs to make discoverable to its key users.
  • They have relationships with major content providers.
  • They know how to negotiate contracts for digital content and can identify issues which could impact the cost, quality and usability of the data.

Getting Started
The panel provided some basic advice for getting started on an API project:

  • Identify use cases with internal and external stakeholders. 
  • Evaluate both the data and the potential vendor. 
  • Gather requirements and define the problem you want to solve or the process you want to improve. 
  • Collect current data sources including taxonomies and vocabularies.
  • Consult subject matter experts regarding content and technology.

No one is better positioned to be the facilitator of a firm-wide API project than the professional researchers also known as law librarians. They have excellent knowledge of the commercial data already available at the firm and can easily understand how that data can add value to workflow and insights needed by administrative departments and practice groups across the firm. They hold a goldmine of data which is ready to be exploited for the business and practice of law.

This article is the first in a series of reports on data APIs produced by LTH, culminating in a panel on the subject at the inaugural LTH Conference on Friday, October 21 in New York. The second installment of this article, including a checklist for evaluating APIs, will be published on Friday, August 19.

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