Data Scientist, Esquire: The Rise of the Data Literate Lawyer

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Click to learn more about author Michael D. Shaw.

Despite its reputation for hidebound rules and obscure texts, the legal profession is in the midst of a transformation that will expand what law schools teach, bar examiners test, and lawyers must know. Fluency in contracts and civil procedure will no longer suffice, and expertise concerning torts and the tax code will be the stuff of memories from long ago, because data will be—it already is—the foundational text, alongside the U.S. Constitution, of not only the practice of law but of lawmaking itself.

I exaggerate not in the slightest, not when data informs how companies act and how citizens react to the information they consume. Not when doctors use data to customize care and healthcare organizations decide what care they will cover, based on the data at their disposal. Not when the outcome of an election depends on where a politician campaigns, and to whom he tailors his campaign to attract the most votes, in accordance with the data his aides tell him to follow. Not when Congress can pass a law that makes punishment for one crime more punitive, while it lessens the penalty for some other offense, due to how our legislators choose to interpret data.

According to Wayne R. Cohen, a professor at The George Washington University School of Law and a partner at Cohen & Cohen, P.C., data is a new and important language for lawyers of all practice areas. He says:

“Data can determinative if and when a witness or a lawyer can make it intelligible to a jury. In those instances, it can, and does, influence everything from jury selection and deliberation. Put simply, data is a dialect which lawyers must learn, and learn to master.”

I agree with that assessment, not because of what the data says (though it does in fact confirm what I believe), but because of what history proves—that changes in technology dictate whether an industry can survive rapid and permanent change. So, while there is no doubt about the need for a system of justice, and no question about the need for good lawyers to write and ensure the just enforcement of the law, skepticism exists about how many lawyers we need. Or: Supply creates its own demand, provided there is a steady supply of lawyers who are as comfortable with data as they are with any other subject within their comfort zone.

Lawyers can be trendsetters in this regard. Their use of data can make their profession more efficient and economical, heightening the quality of representation while broadening access to affordable—and effective—counsel. If nothing else, that is cause for celebration; because the promotion of justice is the measure of a decent and law-abiding society.

That is a standard we should aspire to achieve. It is the preamble to our most sacred contract and our most solemn compact. It is a document rich in the data of amendments, articles, and sections. It is our summons to do good for the common defense and the general welfare of America.

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