Interview (Part 2) | Getting personal with Chief Innovation Officer of Premonition, Toby Unwin

Premonition is an ‘Artificial Intelligence system that mines Big Data to find out which Attorneys win before which Judges.’ 

Toby Unwin, a Florida-based Brit,  is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Premonition. Toby is a fascinating guy who has undertaken a myriad of roles and adventures in his life (for example, he was inaugurated as the Republic of Austria’s Honorary Consul in Orlando in 2006 and once attempted to finish 3 years of law school in 90 days).

See Part 1 of our interview here.

Q&A with Toby Unwin (Premonition)

Toby, what is something you believe that other people think is insane? 

How long do you have?

I believe that many of the things we do in life are based on false or incomplete information. Many of the things that the majority of people accept as “true” are simply because they’re too lazy or scared to question their assumptions.

Some examples:

  • People put milk in tea because they believe it makes it taste better – the actual reason was to prevent the tannins in the tea staining fine china. Milk actually masks the taste of the tea.
  • “Aftershave” is an astrigent, one of the worst things you should put on your skin after shaving. The French failed to sell Eau de Parfum(perfume) in the UK, so watered it down and called it “aftershave”.  It was a hit despite being an inferior product to the original and worthless for the purpose it was marketed for.
  • Some of the rules of physics are at odds with established experimental findings. At a higher level it has more to do with religion than hard science. I believe that 98%+ of theoretical physics will be proven to be nonsense.

Unfortunately most “experts” in a field get to be there by not questioning the accepted dogma and espousing theories that evolve it in conforming increments. Evolution is easy, revolution is hard.

Do you have a quote you live your life by or think of often? 

I have many and am a big collector of quotes.

At Premonition we have a quote on the wall – “It’s quicker to do it than to talk about it.” (see photo below).

A client had asked for a lengthy proposal for a document downloader(which we lacked at the time). I realized it would be quicker to write the program than the proposal, so we just did it.

This quote has many lessons in it:

  • It’s better to act than waste time planning.
  • We’ll likely be wrong in our assumptions, or find difficulties/opportunities we hadn’t considered. Why spend time guessing at the unknowable?
  • When we first started adding the 3,124 completely different US court we had no idea how many there were. Our technology at the time couldn’t handle many of them. Many were paid and we had no idea how to handle the expense or solve many of the problems that we knew about, let along the harder ones we discovered later. If we knew then what we knew now, we would never have done it. Most of the industry considered it to be “impossible” and a professional corporate entity could never start a project with so many unknowns. I think this is why we’ve been able to grow to have more coverage than all the major database combined in just 2 years. It’s a completely different attitude to the problems.
  • There’s little point in making plans, the project will evolve as we start tackling it

Premonition Quote

 

 

 

 

 

What advice would you give your 20-year old self? 

Start reading obsessively.

I started when I was 23 and have probably read over 5,000 books. I started to fill the gaps while I had to wait for people to do things. People would come into my library and see the walls of books saying “It’s amazing you’ve had the time to read all this.”, “Not really”, I’d say, “It’s a monument to frustration. This represents all the time I’ve spent on hold or waiting for people to do something.” It’s been a good habit and I wish I’d started sooner. I’m not a big fan of formal education, if I want to learn something, I prefer to get a book on it.  There’s a massive gap in the educational market because there’s no accreditation for auto-didacts.

What have you changed your mind about in the last few years? Why? 

I change my mind often. Finding out you’re wrong is a good thing, it means you learned something and often saves you money. Law wise, I underestimated the reluctance of law firms to improve. It’s only been recently that law firm innovation officers explained that making their partners more efficient reduces hourly billing, so a more efficient solution simply won’t get used again. It’s a great shame because law lags other industries by decades because of it. The billable hour breeds inefficiency.

Interview | ‘Speak with Scout’ (legal chatbot) | winners of Disrupting Law 2016

Speak with Scout

Tell us about Speak with Scout and how it all came about?

Speak with Scout provides free, fast and personalised legal guidance and referrals via Facebook messenger. The principle of Scout is simple: you message Scout through Facebook messenger with your issue and Scout guides you to the assistance you need. Our service helps you access the right lawyer for your situation so that you can understand your legal rights and how to protect them.

Speak with Scout came about after we won the Disrupting Law competition run by QUT Starters and The Legal Forecast in August last year. We were tasked with the challenge of creating a concept that disrupted the legal industry within a 52 hour timeframe.

See http://speakwithscout.com/

Tell us about Disrupting Law and your success there. What was the event like and how did it assist you to get where you are?

In August of last year QUT Starters and The Legal Forecast hosted a competition that we took part in called Disrupting Law. The competition was designed  to disrupt the legal industry and increase access to justice through technology.  Students from a wide range of degrees formed groups and were allocated a mentoring law firm for the 52-hour duration.

Disrupting Law is a fantastic experience for anyone interested in the future of the legal industry. It demonstrated to us that students from a wide range of disciplines can collaborate towards a common goal. It also gives students an insight into the substantial and supportive network of people in Brisbane and beyond that are eager to assist startups.

Why the name Speak with Scout?

The definition of a scout is generally accepted to be a person that is sent out to find information or things. We therefore felt that the name Scout was fitting for our chatbot. We also wanted to convey that our service is personal and not a generic search result, hence the inclusion of ‘speak’ in the name.

Where are you guys at right now?

We are developing our MVP.

What has been the biggest hurdle getting to where you are today?

The large amount of data required to create a reliable service has made defining our scope a continuous challenge. We’ve finally defined our scope and are now in the process of testing the market.

Biggest achievement?

Our biggest achievement so far has been our move to Melbourne to take part in an Accelerator Program run by Mills Oakley and Collective Campus. It has given us the opportunity to intensively work on our business with guidance, funding and support from professionals with both legal and entrepreneurial experience.

Tells us more about the Mills Oakley Accelerator we understand the team has relocated?

The Mills Oakley Accelerator program is run by Mills Oakley, a law firm, and Collective Campus, a disruptive innovation consultancy. The 13-week program is specifically designed for legal start-ups and offers funding, knowledge, tools and support.

What are your goals for 2017? And then beyond?

Our immediate goal is to roll out our MVP. Following this, we will expand our service into more in-depth legal guidance for users.

Bio about the team:

Screenshot 2017-02-21 21.13.04

The Speak with Scout team is comprised of three enterprising individuals. Raph leads our tech, Emma loves all things law and Annabel is enthusiastic about business development. Our aim is to use technology to make legal guidance fast and easy to access.

Blog post by TLF Executive Member and start-up fiend Sam Sheehan.

Interview (Part 1) | Chief Innovation Officer of Premonition, Toby Unwin

Premonition is an ‘Artificial Intelligence system that mines Big Data to find out which Attorneys win before which Judges.’ 

Toby Unwin, a Florida-based Brit,  is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Premonition. Toby is a fascinating guy who has undertaken a myriad of roles and adventures in his life (for example, he was inaugurated as the Republic of Austria’s Honorary Consul in Orlando in 2006 and once attempted to finish 3 years of law school in 90 days).

Like Milan (who interviewed Toby on behalf of The Legal Forecast), Toby is a big fan of Tim Ferriss, the prolific US author, entrepreneur and “life-hacker”. 

Q&A with Toby Unwin (Premonition)

Toby, what is your background?

I’ve had what’s politely called a “portfolio career”. This means I’m decent at quite a few things, but expert at nothing. I know more about tech than most lawyers and more about law than most technical people. Throw in a lot of entrepreneurial ventures and the kind of mind that always asks “Why not?”. I came up with a question that’s now obvious and much copied – “How often do lawyers win?”. At the time it was heretical.

Please tell us about your time at the University of Southern Queensland! 

When I decided to go to law school (around the time I was 40), I decided I didn’t want to take 3 years doing it. I did a lot of research into how to pass a course with the minimum amount of effort. Then enrolled in 5 schools and took the classes concurrently. I passed 3 years of law school in a year with only 90 days of study. I got dropped from a course at Open University in the UK because an admin decided my workload was too high(despite my protestations that I’d already finished).

“You can’t have finished, the course hasn’t started yet.”

“I got a book and read it, like Abraham Lincoln did. I’ll take the exam tomorrow, if you’d like.”

I’d run out of Universities in the UK that let me take individual course, so started looking further afield. University of South Queensland were flexible and good to deal with, so I did e-law there.

After all that effort, I couldn’t combine any credits, so had to do it all over again…. I’ve basically done law school twice.

Specifically, how did you come to be the Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of a legal analytics company that deploys data mining and analysis to determine individual lawyer win rates before judges? 

I got sued a lot and it really pissed me off. The United States has no “loser pays” rule, so frivolous lawsuits reign. For example, I got sued for not having an elevator in a 1 story shopping center I owned! The more I learned about law(I’d read over 18 feet of law books before I set foot in law school), the more I realized that many of the lawyers I’d hired weren’t that great and were basically going through the motions. I also noticed that the other side occasionally hired some very aggressive counsel, who were clearly better than my picks despite not having good law or facts on their side. I used to obsessively collect “Top Lawyer” lists, now, of course, I realize they’re total bullshit. There had to be a better way…

I got through law school without using LexisNexis or any of the citation systems. I’d look up a case in Wikipedia and if it wasn’t in there, it wasn’t an important case, so I wouldn’t bother learning it. I imagined these were massive systems that had “all” cases in them. I was shocked to find out there’s practically nothing there and the courts weren’t linked up. After talking to some really unhelpful clerks of court that struggled to understand the concept of the “public” record(I later found out that many courthouse staff have lucrative sidelines selling court data to structured settlement funds, private investigators, etc), I decided the best way to proceed was simply to scrape the courthouse website.

We scraped 1, then 2, then a few, then re-built the system from scratch probably 4-5 times to allow it to scale to thousands of courts rapidly. Court website scraping is standard industry practice that most legal information providers do, it’s just really hard to do at scale and normalize the data. We cracked that nut and left everyone else in our wake. Currently we’re downloading around 8,000 cases an hour from all round the globe. That’s bigger than many analytics firm’s entire databases.

When we got the data, I wrote some algorithms to assign winners and losers, then let the system run. The results blew our minds. Let’s just say justice isn’t blind.

What does a Chief Innovation Officer do? 

When Guy and I started Premonition I told him the company would be worth more if he was CEO. He’s an amazing businessman who’s been tremendously successful in a number of different industries. The fact that none of us came from law didn’t deter us, In many ways it’s been an advantage, but I think it probably took us a year more than it should for people to take us seriously. The other day a legal analytics CEO told us his standard counter to people asking about Premonition is that it’s all smoke and mirrors. We offered him a demo and he hasn’t returned our calls since. There’re still people that don’t want to believe, but data speaks for itself.

I like to come up with new ideas and turn them into reality, Guy is the expert on the business side, so I focus on the tech. Chief Innovation Officer reflects this, I think. In the future as we mature, I’d like to do innovation full time.

For those of us who don’t know, what exactly is “big data”, “data mining” and “data analytics”? What are the ramifications for the legal sector? 

In law many of the Emperors have no clothes. Big data brings transparency to an industry that’s traditionally had little. Kings will fall, heroes will rise. Nothing will ever be the same again. Neil deGrasse Tyson said “Science is true whether you believe in it or not.” It’s the same for legal data. You may not like it, but it’s here. There are huge opportunities for the first movers because law firms are very difficult to restructure due to all the industry restrictive practices. Those that bury their heads in the sand will wake up finding their clients have deserted them and they can’t afford to feed a hundred litigators “sitting on the bench” with no work to keep them busy. While a boutique firm with phenomenal litigators can now land major accounts because they have the stats to back them up and General Counsel can’t risk low stats of their own by giving “work to their mates”.

Do Premonition’s findings suggest that some advocates perform better in front of some judges? If so, are you able to give us an insight into what this advantage is attributable to? 

Absolutely. We’ve found the lawyer/judge pairing is worth 30.7% of the average case outcome. Even our detractors concede that some lawyers are better than others. There are numerous reasons why this might be the case – skill in advocacy, ability to construct a strong argument in law or equity, personality, good looks, who really knows? We try not to theorize as we’re so often wrong if we guess. We do know that these advantages are real. Whether they are fair is debatable. Why they exist?, we’ll leave for others to speculate on.

Some, particularly the public, may find it disturbing that lawyer/ judge pairings alter the outcome of a case – should they be disturbed? 

Probably. Justice isn’t blind and law isn’t fair. The only place where the good guy always wins is TV. We’ve found the general public are a lot more comfortable with the idea that some lawyers are “winners” and some aren’t, much more so than lawyers themselves, though most privately concede that relationships matter and “facts and law have lost too many times.”

Eventually, I believe every great change in law will come from transparency. The Heisenberg Observer Theory states that people behave themselves better when they know they’re being watched. As Peter Diamandis says “Most evil is done in the dark.” I’m not saying that the profession is evil, but its incentives are not well aligned with clients. There are few areas that are not improved by transparency and measurement.

Do you think publishing results like this will negatively affect public confidence in the courts and if so what do think the solution to that may be?   

In the short term this is quite likely. Many lay people say “I knew it”, or give me a knowing smile when I tell them that we know which lawyers win before which judges. Many general counsel, people who pick lawyers for a living, have told me they’re surprised the personality effect is only 30%. In the long term, I believe that transparency and measurement will increase trust in the courts. Finding your judge decides in line with his peers, doesn’t play favorites and is rarely over-ruled on appeal would be a comforting thing for litigants to know and believe.

Further, does it risk creating a kind of cycle, where clients / solicitors continually select ‘pairings’ with good results and thereby reinforce biases that might exist? 

This is a very valid point. I believe it is likely to lead to The Matthew Effect – “He that hath shall be given more”. The flip side is not over paying for poor performing lawyers. After a while market forces begin to take hold though. The top guy isn’t available because he’s too busy, or takes on too much work, so his win rate suffers. This is where other lawyers compete on factors such as case duration and cost. Flat fee litigation, or flat fee per case phase, first filings, discovery, depositions, etc? You’ll see that when the market becomes transparent and competitive. Studies have shown that clients are willing to pay 20% more for flat fee services due to higher certainty on costs. Are lawyers really that incapable of figuring out how long a typical lawsuit will take? I think not.

We read an article about Premonition that described a study which “revealed that the correlation between pricing and performance is weak, and that a law firm’s choice of barrister was 38% worse than random”.  Are you able to unpack this for us? How was the figure of “38%” arrived at? 38% worse than random seems nuts!

I agree, 38% worse than random is totally nuts.

That was the win rate: re-hire rate in the United Kingdom. The main reason for a barrister to not be re-hired is failing to get along with the instructing solicitor. Over time this leads to a “hire your mates” system where poor performance is ignored. “Winning isn’t important” is something we’ve heard from more lawyers than we’d like. Guess what? Clients like it – it’s what they pay for. “Charles is a good chap, we were at school together. We always use him for this type of case and he’s got a lovely wife” is the kind of nonsense that clients won’t be tolerating when they discover that the 2nd, 3rd and 5th most hired counsel in the UK Court of Appeals have win rates in the 20s%. The days of “hire your mates” are numbered…

What is the future for Premonition in Australia?

We’ve added the Australian Courts and are interested in finding people to partner with there. We’re firm believers in strong partnerships and having people with the right contacts in the local markets. The insurance companies drive litigation, so we like to find people with strong relationships with insurance claims managers and general counsel.

Will you be hiring and how do people apply? 

We’re certainly looking for partners. Most of the people we wind up doing business with were “fans” who reached out and asked how we could work together.

Finally, what is your “legal forecast” i.e. what will the legal sector look like in 10 – 20 years from now? 

I think we’ll see business as usual for about 4-6 years. Then there will be a grand shifting of major litigation accounts from firms with established GC/managing partner relationships to smaller firms with proven performers. Brand will suddenly be worthless. Law firms are difficult to restructure and not noted for their agility. Many will disappear. With stats driving litigator selection results, cost and efficiency will suddenly become vital. The first firms to roll out automated contracts, e-discovery types solutions to all areas of their operations, etc will be able to swipe accounts from laggards. This doesn’t happen now, because the legal market is opaque and inefficient. But that day will come.

See Part 2 of our interview with Toby here

Interview | Principal of virtual law firm Kuehn Law, Cliff Kuehn

Cliff Kuehn is a California-licensed attorney and registered European Trade Mark Attorney. He is the director of Kuehn Law, a virtual law firm based in California, and provides branding, media, internet and intellectual property law assistance in the U.S. and EU, especially for web or mobile-focused companies.

Cliff has shared his experience relating to starting up and successfully operating Kuehn Law whilst living in Berlin.

What has been your experience in setting up a digital law practice and what has been the most rewarding aspect of this process?

My experience is one I accidentally fell into, but can be reproduced by anyone intentionally. In a nutshell, the challenge in setting up a digital law practice is sorting through the massive amounts of information available on the subject. Whether it’s selecting an email service, digital signature SAAS, or learning about data security, there’s a mountain of information to sift through before arriving at a conclusion. Like the practice of law, knowing how to filter information and make decisions was key, because it’s impossible to review all the helpful information. Know what you want to achieve in a practice first, and that helps you know which tools fit your practice best.

That being said, there are wonderful digital tools available to anyone wanting to start a digital law practice, which I define as a law practice independent of a fixed office location.

Are there any disadvantages with operating a digital law practice?

I think communications are difficult if your practice area tends to benefit from human contact. To illustrate, I focus on trademark law and serve business clients, 50% of which are at the startup stage. My clients tend to like a “light touch” relationship when it comes to communication, meaning efficient phone calls or sometimes managing the relationship completely by email. Of course some clients like to be more involved in the process, and I like working closely with clients too, so I have face-to-face meetings at times but generally it’s not crucial.

On the other hand, if you work in criminal or family law, the quality of interpersonal communication more significantly affects the outcome of sales, negotiation strategy, trust, and trial results. In these types of practice areas, I assume attorneys benefit from more direct communication in a traditional office setting.

The recent and rapid increase in digital technologies has created dynamic legal issues – have you faced any issues with digitalised legal practice?

Personally no. There are some jurisdictions (both states in the U.S. and other countries) which require attorneys to have a fixed, brick and mortar location. I don’t see the necessity of this and am fortunate to be able to operate from California, a jurisdiction that doesn’t have this requirement. I can foresee that as my practice grows, data security/encryption measures which exceed normal standards will be demanded by larger clients (this seems to be the case for larger patent clients).

Does social media have a role in the application of justice?

Social media is a fantastic tool for drawing attention to issues which might not have gotten as much attention a decade, whether it’s the calorie count of a celebrity’s breakfast or a more serious issue such as corruption of government leadership. I personally credit social media for activating a whirlwind of awareness in the United States among members of all political stripes regarding use of force among police officers. Social media can bring attention to issues of justice, and further activate people to become engaged in the legislative process.

Should Law Schools focus on future-proofing legal skills with an increased focus on information technology skills?

Absolutely. Our daily lives are becoming more soaked with information technology and attorneys need to understand technology as they understand human nature itself. Imagine trying to prosecute a case with evidence gained by using a fake social media account to befriend the defendant and subsequently extract a confession. Is this evidence acceptable? What if the police demand a social media company to release location data for communications made by the defendant?

What would be the one piece of advice you would give to a law student commencing their first year of law school in 2017?

Dive into an area of the law that interests you (instead of the area calculated to be “safe” or “profitable”). If you want to get ahead, start thinking about the technologies that will change the world in the upcoming years: self-driving cars, virtual reality, limitless speed and bandwidth for wireless data, etc. Imagine if you were a law student in 1999 and dove into internet issues and the law; where would you be now and how interesting would your work be? Technology is fast. Law is slow. Take advantage of that.

Cliff can be contacted at cliff@kuehnlawip.com