Data Meets the Judicial System: Introducing PlainSite Motion Sensor and Attorney Finder
We're putting the law in plain sight. And the people behind it, too.

October 2, 2013


In April, 2013, Owen Byrd of Lex Machina wrote a short paper comparing the legal system to Moneyball, the movie starring Brad Pitt based on Michael Lewis's book of the same name. In Moneyball, a backwards baseball team beats the odds by betting on the power of statistics. In a world where managers and players are accustomed to reliance on "gut feelings" and personal experience, this unusual strategy seems to many to be a sure way to fail. Miraculously, (spoiler alert!) there's a happy ending.

Byrd's comparison to the legal system is more than apt. Almost a century ago, Franz Kafka portrayed a legal system in The Trial as a mysterious, byzantine labyrinth where the arbitrary whims and musings of self-appointed wise men could and did destroy the lives of others. Arguably, not much has changed. Many would advise that the best way to handle a tricky legal situation is to find someone who has been there before—but how does one really know for sure if the expertise professed by an attorney is genuine? And how could one really be certain that an attorney's personal opinion about a judge's likelihood of ruling one way or another is actually substantiated?

In short, for as long as there has been a legal system, one hasn't known much at all. There has never been clear and consistent data about particular lawyers or judges made available to the general public to analyze and act upon. Until now.

PlainSite is proud to announce Motion Sensor, the result of years of work systematically reducing more than 33 million federal docket entries (which started out with Aaron Swartz's PACER data dump) to useful data about the behavior of our federal courts. Motion Sensor accomplishes three main things:

  1. Attorneys can be analyzed according to their motion success rates, broken down by the type of motion submitted.
  2. Judges can be analyzed according to their past actions ruling upon motions, again according to motion type.
  3. Macro-level trends can be deduced from data analysis on district or wider levels. For example, we could analyze the success rates of pro se litigants attempting to amend complaints when compared with Fortune 1000 companies or small businesses, broken down by federal district. Or we could take a look at whether politically liberal judges are really more liberal in the courtroom.

We have already updated attorney profiles on PlainSite with their motion success rates where applicable. And that's not all.

We're also introducing our own Attorney Finder, which uses the data in our system to actually find the best attorney for a given litigation need. Do you want someone who specializes in trademark disputes? Traditionally, prospective clients have had to rely upon advertising. Now, they can find the attorneys who have been most successful in the courts already. Pro and Pro Se subscribers can narrow their search to focus on those who have practiced before a certain judge.

There has been considerable talk lately about the numerous ways technology might change the legal system. It's a vast system, laden with opportunity of all kinds for technologists, but we believe that with Motion Sensor we can truly say that the hypothetical "change on the horizon" is finally here. Technology has breached the inner sanctum of law's castle. In the days ahead, it will be much harder for legal practitioners to hide the workings of their strange system from those it is intended to serve. And some may realize that they have been hiding it not just from their clients, but from themselves and from each other.

We look forward to seeing how people use PlainSite in the days ahead. We're just getting started.

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