The basics of APIs: What they are, why they matter, and how you can use them in your law practice to save time and money.
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When it comes to automating rote tasks from research to document review, APIs can save law firms time and money through real-time access to legal data. If you’ve never heard of an API before, you’re certainly not alone — but whether you know it or not, you’re likely benefitting from countless APIs interacting with apps on your smartphone and favorite websites.
This begs the question: How can you make use of APIs in your practice?
Here, we’ll review the basics of APIs — what they are, why they matter, and how you can use them in your practice to save time and money. We’ll also share two specific examples of how lawyers are using court records to automate data entry and boost business development efforts.
What Are APIs?
At their most basic level, application programming interfaces, or APIs, are a form of technology that allows different software programs (essentially, applications or machines) to communicate.
To illustrate how this works, consider an ATM machine. Worldwide, ATMs are interfaces to a service: a bank service that allows consumers to deposit and withdraw money. In this case, the service is the financial transaction that happens when you slide your card, and the individual machines are consumers of that service. But the machine isn’t what is ultimately powering the transaction — it’s the institution that authorized the machine’s existence.
APIs are similar. They are the interface — the access point — to powerful software resources. Of course, APIs are different in that they involve communication between applications — there is no human-to-machine interaction. But through the use of an API, one system or service can easily access the computing power and resources of another system. One application gathers data, then outsources it to another service through an API. For instance, on the Zillow app, you can see a map of a particular home’s location and navigate to it. This is possible because the Zillow app outsources functionality to Google Maps by way of a request to one of Google’s APIs. The two apps would know little about each other, but the API would provide a set of standards (like a “contract” between the two applications) that would enable them to make requests.
As a real-world example, think about ordering a pizza online.
The pizza shop’s website uses an API to send your credit card information to a remote service that verifies it. Then, the remote app sends a response to the pizza site confirming that it is OK to proceed with the order. You, the hungry consumer, only see one interface: the website. Nonetheless, many different applications are working together to process the transaction that will ultimately end with a pizza at your door. In other words, the API integration happens without you, the consumer, having to intervene at all.
This consumer benefit makes APIs incredibly useful. Since the technology does the communication for you, you only have to rely on one interface, rather than the several that are actually involved.
But this efficiency doesn’t just apply when you’re house hunting or ordering dinner. It can help you manage your practice, too.
Saving Time and Money Through Automation
When lawyers think about saving time and automating processes, an example of a basic, time-intensive but necessary task is accessing court records. No matter your practice area, accessing court records is necessary for critical tasks, from basic legal research (studying precedent in past cases), to case planning and strategy (making strategic decisions about where to file cases based on how similar cases have been decided), to checking the status of your pending cases by pulling recent filings.
But rather than burning valuable time combing court databases for the latest filings in your cases or paying a team of paralegals to do the same, you can automate the process by leveraging APIs for lawyers. (Full disclosure: My company, UniCourt, offers a SaaS solution that connects law firm applications to court data via APIs.)
Legal data APIs can help you automate and batch a variety of tasks, including:
- Searching for a particular case or issue within millions of court records
- Pulling structured datasets from certain jurisdictions
- Updating and tracking your ongoing cases
- Ordering court documents for specified cases
By plugging into a legal data API, you don’t have to continually return to each interface you are using — whether a government database or system like Westlaw — to gather information about cases. Instead, you can set up automatic notifications to alert you when a case you’re following has been updated or when documents you ordered are ready for download. In other words, APIs can help you obtain the structured data you need to manage ongoing cases.
A second way lawyers benefit from using APIs is by collecting court data for business development efforts. Collecting data from related cases in a jurisdiction can help you make informed decisions about which cases to take on, the likelihood of success in a given case in a certain jurisdiction, or even to gather intelligence on opposing counsel.
By automating and simplifying this information-gathering process, lawyers can funnel their resources into strategic, intentional case planning and business development efforts rather than data mining.
APIs for Lawyers: Why This Matters
Not only can the use of APIs help you save time — as you’ll no longer need to do the laborious work of combing that data yourself — but it can also save your firm thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars each year. In many cases, the data you extract by using APIs will make hiring assistants or paralegals unnecessary (or at least you will no longer need an army of them) for your daily workload.
But the benefits of APIs for lawyers go beyond saving time and money: They can actually help lawyers glean more accurate, structured datasets. Employing APIs to automate information-gathering tasks reduces the human error that’s inevitable in any manual research process. And we can all agree that strategic decisions built on reliable data are far more effective.
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