A Benchmark for the Bench: Q&A with Dirk Olin

Law Practice Today introduces “New Law,” a column profiling innovators in the legal industry whose projects or ideas have already changed the way law is practiced and who continue to seek ways to improve the profession. These trailblazers will answer questions on topics that keep our readers awake at night as they plan how to develop their practices in a rapidly changing world. Our goal in spotlighting these thought leaders is to help our readers predict the future of law and become first adopters of visionary ideas and techniques that will set them apart from their competitors.

Dirk Olin is the Director of Judicial Intelligence for ALM (formerly American Lawyer Media), where he has just launched a new platform for analysing members of the bench. Previously, he served as Director of the Institute for Judicial Studies and as National Editor for The American Lawyer magazine. A onetime fellow at the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, Olin also is co-author of Rebuilding Justice and has contributed frequently to the New York Times opinion pages and magazine. He is a recipient of the National Education Writer’s Award.


Q: What is the new project you’ve been focusing on recently.

A: Well, my title is Director of Judicial Intelligence, but we’re not flying drones over courthouses. We are building a variety of tools to evaluate judicial performance. Firms have only so many resources at their disposal. When a litigator is assigned a judge, she’ll typically email her partners and network, then delegate a researcher to scour a database and liaise with the law librarian or chief knowledge officer. But it’s often pretty haphazard. And in the public sphere, interest groups with agendas will cherry pick individual rulings or controversial cases to caricature a jurist. If hard cases make bad law, they can also make bad judge judging.

Q:How will this help lawyers see things in a new way that would benefit their clients?

A: We have studied the literature of judicial performance evaluation closely and talked to scores of litigators around the country. In addition to covering the biographical information and professional background of a given judge, we provide caseload analysis, sortable case histories, links to firms and attorneys who have practiced before the judge, a feed of relevant news from ALM’s regional and national publications, reversal records, court rules and judge rules, a rundown of ex-clerks, and human intelligence gleaned from practitioners who have been sourced because the record verifies they’ve had recent experience before the judge in question. In sum, we’re combining big data with small data to give a full, three-dimensional view of a given judge.

Q: What one thing about the practice of law would you change if you could?

A: One thing? What we’re providing is a disruptive app with a commercial value but a larger mission. The law generally would benefit from greater transparency, which would advance essential values that underpin our system of government—sunlight being the best disinfectant and all of that. So, while this will improve judicial accountability, it will also strengthen a healthy judicial independence. How? By helping extricate judicial performance evaluation from the axe grinders.

Q: What is the most exciting development you have seen recently in the practice of law?

A: A greater receptivity to openness and interactivity among practitioners—bearing in mind, of course, that they must keep their clients’ interests at the forefront.

Q: What technologies, business models, and trends do you think will have the biggest impact on the practice of law over the next two years?

A: Data crunching and crowd sourcing. So you’ll see litigators looking for new tools to plan their strategy and tactics—when or if to file certain motions, how plainly or subtly to craft their arguments, where to lay the groundwork for appeals, whether to tell a joke, which jurists to cite, or when to reference the judge’s own history. While the majority are well informed and supremely able, they all want as many arrows in their quivers as they can get. But also librarians, both at firms and law schools. Students seeking clerkships will want more granular information than they’ve been able to find in the past. We’ve also heard from U.S. Senate staffs, whose judicial screening committees want as much insight as possible.

Q: Where can they find Judicial Profiles?

A: For access, folks can go to: Judicial.almintel.com, call 888.256.6656, or they can email me at Dolin@alm.com.

About the Author

Nicholas Gaffney is the director of Infinite PR in San Francisco, and is a member of the Law Practice Today Editorial Board.

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