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What are APIs and how can law firms use them?

You may not be a software developer, but you have probably been to a restaurant. An application programming interface (API) is like a waiter. You go to a restaurant, call your waiter over to make an order—and a little while later the waiter brings that order to you. Similarly, a software developer can call an API to get features or data from another application.

An API is a snippet of software code that lets one application access and use the features or data of another application. A good API makes it easier for software developers to create new software applications by using the features or data of another application, without having to rewrite that code themselves.

A real-world example of the power of APIs can be found in a ride-sharing app like Uber. When you open that app, you see a map with your location. Developing and maintaining an accurate map of a city takes a lot of work. You need to keep track of every road, building, city, and shoreline. You need a fleet of cars to drive around the city endlessly to take pictures and make measurements. You would also need to design an easy-to-use interface. This is a daunting task. For example, Google employs more than 7,000 people to work on their Google Maps app, according to a Business Insider report: ‘To Do What Google Does In Maps, Apple Would Have To Hire 7,000 People’.

Luckily, Uber didn’t have to hire 7,000-plus people to launch their app because they didn’t develop their own map. Instead, Uber used the Google Maps API. Google makes a small snippet of code, or an API, available to developers so they can leverage Google Maps when developing new apps. This is a big win for developers—they can leverage APIs like Google Maps to save the time and resources needed to build a foundational piece of their application.

How law firms can use APIs

But what about the legal industry? Law firms and legal tech companies probably don’t need a Google Maps API, but there are other APIs that could provide value. Here are a few examples of how they can be used in legal tech:

Software interoperability and integration

There are a lot of legal tech software solutions out there. Law firms and corporations are adopting many of these solutions because they help improve different aspects of the business and practice of law. This means that a lawyer might need to access several different applications with different logins and user interfaces for a single project or matter. Just looking at the contract review process, for example, a lawyer might use Microsoft Outlook to get instructions from the client; HighQ to share information with the client; Practical Law for know-how; Kira for contract review and analysis; and iManage to store the documents.

APIs help improve software interoperability and integration between these different applications by integrating key parts of a lawyer’s workflow via API. One example is the Contract Express integration with iManage. The iManage integration makes it easy for end users to export their documents from Contract Express into the correct location in iManage.

Client-facing solutions

Law firms and corporations are increasing building their own applications, including client-facing applications. APIs help them do that faster and cheaper by letting them use the features of another application without having to rebuild those features themselves. For example, the law firm Cooley® developed an online client-facing document automation tool called Cooley Go. Instead of building their own document automation software they leveraged Contract Express to build this client-facing application, similar to the way Uber used Google Maps in its application.

Likewise, law firms that are developing their own applications can use APIs to access features of other legal tech applications to build their own tools without having to rewrite all that code themselves.

Enterprise search

Enterprise search solutions enable law firms to create one internal search application (usually on their intranet) that can deliver relevant information from different data repositories—including documents from the firm’s document management system, information from the firm’s experience database and matter management system, as well as external data sources.

Typically, these information sources are siloed in different applications at and outside the firm, which means lawyers must go to a bunch of different sites or applications to access all the information they need. Enterprise search solutions bring all that information into one search by using APIs from the different data sources (for example, the Practical Law API) that let firms search the metadata of those resources and return them in the enterprise search results.

Data-driven practice

We’ve all heard the phrase ‘data is the new oil’. Indeed, data-driven decision making—both in the practice of law and in the business of law—is increasing at law firms and corporate legal departments. Firms are relying on data analytics to inform case strategy, improve business development, understand past results, price projects, and more. One example is litigation analytics, in which analytics products mine, structure, and visualise the millions of data points in case documents. In turn, this information enables lawyers to answer questions like: ‘how long will it take this judge to rule on a motion for summary judgment’ and ‘based on prior decisions, how likely is it that this judge will grant my motion for summary judgment’.

Firms are also increasingly focused on structuring and analysing their own data. Indeed, as firms embark on their data analytics work, they are increasingly using APIs to deliver structured data from suppliers into their own systems, so they can combine it with the firms’ internal data to deliver new data-driven insights for a variety of use cases.

Meredith Williams-Range, Chief Knowledge and Client Value Officer of Shearman & Sterling, described this process, saying: “If we are able to understand internal data around our documents, emails, time narratives, contextual data points, and then combine that with external data from sources like Thomson Reuters and public records, we can actually look at that data for insights and predictions for staffing, for pricing, for risk issues, and for predictive analysis around possible outcomes”.

More to Come…

These are just a few examples of how APIs are being used in legal tech. As more legal tech providers embrace the trends and encourage collaboration, data sharing, and software interoperability and integration, API development will continue to flourish. And we will no doubt see some new and exciting use-cases emerge.


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