Big Data Hits a Wall c. J O’Grady

The disruption of access to court dockets through Pacer has implications beyond the retrieval of dockets and documents.

The  Administrative Office of the US Courts announced on August 11th that archival dockets from 5 federal courts would no longer be available through Pacer. I contacted the Office of the US Courts and they explained that the problem was in fact the courts themselves. The courts including the Second Circuit had failed to upgrade their platforms and the older data was residing on a platform that was no longer compatible with Pacer.  The data which was no longer available from Pacer could be obtained directly from the courts.

The Big Data  Hits A Wall. The most shocking thing to me was the fact that a significant archive of federal court data was suddenly less available to the public for historical “big data” trend analysis.  Lexis, Westlaw and Blaw all have tools
for litigation analysis and trending which can be used to create charts and
analytics showing litigation trends by jurisdiction, judge, cause of action,
law firm. Big data is an increasingly valuable commodity. In law firms it is a valuable source of competitive intelligence. The federal government has recently recognized the value of “big data” in public administration. In this case the Pacer data should be useful for the analysis and judicial administration and workload. Why are the courts failing to recognize the importance of maintaining robust archives of litigation data?

 Pacer has just handed legal publishers  a marketing strategy.  Commercial online services will have the complete archive which Pacer can no longer offer. In other words – you get what you pay for.  I contacted representatives from Lexis, Westlaw and BloombergBNA. Each  vendor had previously created their own archives of Pacer data so they will be able to continue to make all the data available in one place. The one exception they cited was older cases which  are currently active– but this appears to be a small number of cases.
The more law firms focus more on efficiency, the less attractive the cobbling
together research results from “free resources” becomes. Yes
free research resources have a place in legal research but premium resources deliver robust and reliable access.The removal of Pacer data is a powerful illustration of the value of commercial publishers in maintaining access to data when public authorities fail to do so. Not only will the major vendors be able to provide access to the dockets and the documents, but they will have complete data archives for analysis of litigation trends. These comprehensive archives allow custom reports combining  data elements extracted from dockets: including judges rulings, company litigation, law firm representation, causes of action and jurisdiction.