The plumbing and pipes of law

AI is all the rage these days — but there are more fundamental issues. When you look at legal systems you realise things are far from pretty; legal information is a mess, and someone needs to fix it.

The plumbing and pipes of law
Photo by Sigmund / Unsplash

At Vizlegal we were very interested in two things recently: a podcast by A16z in which the co-founder of payments firm Stripe, John Collison, discussed payments systems; and a blog post by Daniel Hoadley about open access to English case law.

During the podcast discussion around payments, Andreessen Horowitz general partner Alex Rampell said to Collison:

Trialpayyou’re better off being the plumbing and the pipesif you build the boring layer

This observation struck us as not a million miles away from what needs to be done with law. There are lots of products and features being built on top of legal systems (‘AI’!), but very few are focussing on the “boring layer” — the plumbing and pipes of legal systems.

We think of much of the stuff we’re building as this layer. In particular, case law internationally is generally a mess. This brings us to Daniel Hoadley’s excellent posts on access to English case law as a case in point:

Gaps in coverage: there are too many gaps in the legacy case law archive and there are too many gaps in ongoing coverage of new judgments, especially those that are given extempore. There is still a vast amount of retrospective and prospective material that can only be accessed via paid subscription services.
User-friendliness: BAILII is simple enough to use if you’re used to researching the law online, but there is a considerable amount that could be done to improve the service for the benefit of lay users.
Sustainability: plenty of people use BAILII, but very few of them make donations to help BAILII raise enough financial resource to pursue product development projects.
No platform for experimentation or third-party development: unlike CanLII, BAILII doesn’t have a public API. Third-party innovation has stalled because it is incredibly difficult to acquire access to the text of the cases.

We couldn’t agree more. The problem is particularly bad in England.

There are two points we can make here.

First, everywhere we look in the world, legal information is fragmented, difficult to access or broken. This is a plumbing and pipes problem. The plumbing of law is broken. Even when things like judgments are published, it is often hard to search or track, and is text-oriented rather than data oriented. There are few, if any, APIs for case law.

This is a hard problem that needs to be fixed. The downstream benefits for the legal industry and for society at large could be immense.

Second, if we can get the ‘boring’ plumbing layer right (and we’re certainly trying with Vizlegal), what are some possible benefits — or as Rampell put it: once you’ve figured out plumbing, what ‘optionality’ exists? What does the operating system for legal information look like and what ‘applications’ will be built on it?

We think there are enormous opportunities — besides the usual mention of AI and Machine Learning — for how the legal industry functions. How, for example, could litigation processes be optimised? How can workflows for practitioners be streamlined? How can court forms be improved or automated? How can the number of clicks be reduced?

We are extremely interested in examining the workflows around common tasks — everything from how a lawyer knows what the rules of a given court are; to knowing who filed last in their case, to what court they have to be in and on what day, to what court form they need to have filled in and printed out, to knowing that a new judgment is out that discusses a relevant issue.

We’ve spoken to hundreds of lawyers, and they have described to us enormous problems in the plumbing of the legal system — not just in accessing legal information, but from all the tasks that flow from that legal information.

We’ve focussed our efforts on three main tasks: how to make it easy for lawyers to keep track of new judgments or filings relevant to them; to search many judgments quickly and easily; and to save the most important ones. But we know there are many, many more. Jobs To Be Done.

To us, the boring layer is not as boring as it sounds. If you can get the plumbing right and build an API for law, there are limitless applications.

If you’re a practitioner and are interested in what we’re building at Vizlegal, drop us an email:

If you’re interested in the underlying data and exploring litigation data further please contact us for consultancy inquiries.