April 2016 Bar Bulletin
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Visualizing Legal Trends

By Robert WM Zierman


While at a recent seminar about data visualization, I was introduced to Anscombe’s Quartet. Anscombe’s Quartet is four (two-dimensional) data sets that all have the same properties with respect to their mean, variance, correlation, linear regression and quite a bit more. In essence, they all seem to be statistically similar.

Dissimilarity becomes apparent when these data sets of 11 points each are plotted on respective graphs. Only then does it become clear that each data set has completely different graphical features.1

While at first blush this may appear to have nothing to do with law, fact is that it may be completely “on point.”

To clarify, this may become applicable if each appellate case were to be considered an aggregation of facts, which in turn creates a dispositional point. If so, just as with the Anscombe’s Quartet, failure to plot cases may become tantamount to a failure to “see” the overall contours of how these points array with respect to the particular question of law subject to review.

Two adjustments ought to be made. First, report all appellate cases. Second, create means of depicting the law so that it can be graphically viewed. These are taken up sequentially below.

In relevant part, RCW § 2.06.040 states: “[A]ll decisions of the [appellate] court having precedential value shall be published as opinions of the court. Each panel shall determine whether a decision of the court has sufficient precedential value to be published as an opinion of the court. Decisions determined not to have precedential value shall not be published.”

But given that every case is slightly different as to its facts and as to time of decision, isn’t it reasonable to think that the repeated application of the law to fairly similar facts at the appellate level in such a way as to reinforce a precedent is itself precedential?

At present, lawyers deal with a fairly small “data set” of appellate cases. Even so, the lawyers involved in litigating a point of law often each need to do extensive case law research in an effort to identify which cases are and are not applicable.

Then, barring the unlikely circumstance in which the reported facts and preferred disposition of a reported case match up with the facts of the matter being contemplated, a game of seeking to demonstrate and distinguish the application of similar cases each by their own merits becomes the goal.

At least for matters that are commonly litigated, that just isn’t an efficient process.

The knee-jerk thought that may come to mind is that the process would mean even more wasteful work if there are more cases for multiple attorneys to mull over before winnowing down to the two or three cases that may be applicable to demonstrate a particular legal point. I would argue the opposite.

If case facts and disposition are well organized — admittedly a very high qualifier to presently satisfy — the greater data set comprised of all appellate cases, when then analyzed using data visualization techniques, would allow judges and attorneys to better view the law.

That view in turn would increase both efficiency and accuracy of decisions. Further, it would allow lawyers to more quickly focus on those cases that closely relate to their matters and disregard those that do not.

But how would such a large project be undertaken? Simple — start off with the most basic questions and build in complexity as the kinks are worked out step by step.

More specifically, identify a few of the overall factors that commonly drive disposition in the area of law under contemplation. Certainly there are some facts that are much more recurrent and as such assist to drive results in one direction or the other, whereas other facts may be almost incidental.

Set up a questionnaire that seeks to identify the presence or absence of the most common facts and exclude those that have little impact. The result, perhaps after fiddling with the questionnaire, is likely to be a fairly highly predictive model that will help gauge prospects’ cases before they are even accepted as clients.

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