Early Case Assessments for Corporate Legal Departments: Start Small and Build Your Barometer

By Jeff Cox posted 10-02-2023 11:09


Over the last year, we’ve seen considerable advances in the way the legal industry thinks about and approaches technology with the barrage of new and exciting developments brought forth by the advent of Generative AI. This seismic shift has opened the door for corporate legal departments to more seriously consider and implement once daunting, bleeding-edge ideas, such as building early case assessment barometers to predict and achieve better litigation outcomes. 

In this article, we’ll cover how you can build your own early case assessment barometer and focus on how and why you should leverage data around case complaints, dockets, settlements, and external information to build strategies that resolve litigation more efficiently and quickly.

Uncovering Intelligence from Case Complaints and Docket Data

Before getting too excited and diving headfirst into churning through case complaints and docket data to gather intelligence on your company’s litigation, you first need to carefully and intentionally carve out the scope of what exactly your early case assessment barometer will be measuring. Three core parameters to consider when determining your initial scope are the types of cases you’re including, the jurisdictions where they occur, and the judges overseeing those cases.  

1. Case Types

Limit your scope to a single type of case that has a significant value to and/or volume for your legal department. But don’t just go with your gut here. Look at your own internal case counts and any data analytics you have on the legal spend connected to the different types of litigation your legal team has handled over the past 3-5 years. This is a crucial step and will help you later down the road with showing ROI for these efforts to other stakeholders within your legal department and your business counterparts. 

2. Jurisdictions

Focus your scope to a specific jurisdiction and be as narrow as possible. The vast majority of trial court litigation takes place at the state level, and different states, different counties within the same state, and even different courts within the same county may operate with their own local rules and idiosyncrasies. To build out an accurate early case assessment barometer that can give you the trustworthy intelligence you need to resolve cases more efficiently and quickly, limit your jurisdictional variables as much as possible. 

3. Judges

Depending on the volume of litigation your legal department handles for particular case types and jurisdictions, you may also want to consider limiting your initial scope to a specific judge or handful of judges overseeing the vast majority of your caseload. This will give you even more precise forecasting from your barometer and could uncover critical, judge-specific patterns that have significant bearing on how you approach your overall litigation strategy. 

Once you’ve adequately defined your scope, then think about the types of questions you want to answer that are important to your legal department. Here are some of the most common questions you can start with:

  • How long do these cases take to reach an outcome?
  • How often are these cases resolved with a summary judgment motion or motion to dismiss? How often do they settle?
  • Are there specific outside counsel who perform better or worse on these cases?
  • Is there particular opposing counsel who you fare better or worse against in court?
  • Are there certain arguments that tend to achieve better outcomes with specific judges?

There are numerous other questions that you can ask and answer by looking at your case complaints and docket data. However, take it one bite at a time. Identify the most salient questions you need to answer to uncover helpful litigation intelligence and start there. Trying to boil the ocean is the most common reason these efforts have historically failed.

Using Settlement Data as Your Secret Weapon
It’s natural to want to focus on extrapolating insights from case complaints and docket data connected to litigation that your company is involved in. However, one of the real advantages that legal departments with sizeable volumes of litigation have is historical case settlement data, which is often sealed and inaccessible to opposing counsel. 
Settlement data and the underlying documents detailing settlement agreements offer corporate legal departments a treasure trove of mostly untapped insights. Contrasted with case complaints and docket data, settlement data allows your legal department to answer important questions connected to the true financial value or exposure that a certain piece of litigation represents for your company. 
But just as with intentionally carving out a narrow focus for leveraging case complaints and docket data for a specific case type, jurisdiction, and judge, the same should be done for using your settlement data. Stick to a narrow scope and prove out that leveraging settlement data and documents is practical and valuable, with the end goal of expanding your scope once you’ve uncovered the underlying ROI. 
And, if you are fortunate enough to be a corporate counsel or legal operations professional within a well-resourced business with data scientists and AI experts, consider the possibility of leveraging Generative AI on top of your settlement data.
Building your own internal, proprietary LLM--or large language model--to extract insights from your historical case settlements can prove to be a secret weapon that your legal team can continuously sharpen to produce better and better intelligence for your early case assessment barometer. 

Leveraging External Data to Understand the Larger Environment

Just as you wouldn’t measure if it’s hot or cold outside by taking your own body temperature, a real barometer for early case assessments to forecast risks and openings for settlements should take into account the larger, external legal environment you find yourself in. Instead of looking only in the mirror, take a look outside of the proverbial window. For corporate legal departments, this means looking at outside litigation data to develop more complete early case assessments, so you can better understand the outcomes your peers are achieving and gain a competitive advantage.

In line with how you should look at your case complaint data and settlement data, make sure you initially limit the scope of what types of and how much external data you’re looking at. And, in addition to narrowing your scope to a specific case type, jurisdiction, and judge, consider also limiting your focus to litigation involving a handful of peer companies in your industry, that face similar legal issues in and outside of the courtroom.

When it comes to gathering the external litigation data you need, unless you have an army of data aggregators, analysts, and scientists, think twice before spending your precious time and resources attempting to collect, clean, and structure the outside data you need to develop your early case assessment barometer.

There are now a number of mature legal technology companies and legal research providers who can help you access the data you need in a structured format through APIs (application programming interfaces), including companies such as Bloomberg, LexisNexis, Thomson Reuters, UniCourt, vLex, and many more. 
Not sure how to identify the right provider to partner with? Here’s a practical checklist for choosing the right legal data vendor for your legal department.
Start Small and Find Your Footing 
The core takeaway here for corporate legal departments, and especially the legal operations professionals making the magic happen behind the scenes, is to start small with a larger goal in mind. Even the simplest barometer, which only needs mercury and glass to function, can provide the type of directional forecasting you need to understand weather patterns and decide between donning an umbrella or aviators.
When you’re determining where to start with your early case assessment barometer, keep your focus narrow and vigilantly protect your initially defined scope. That’s true whether you’re looking at case complaint data, settlement data, external data, or a combination of all three.
Starting small, keeping it simple, and layering in complexity as you find your footing will not only help you build the barometer you need to immediately resolve cases much more efficiently and quickly--it will also help you chart a path forward for future, even greater successes.