API Checklist for Law Firms: Choosing the Right Legal Data Vendor
Law firms need access to external data sources for a host of activities – to proactively gather intelligence on their clients for business development, to build their own analytics and proprietary artificial intelligence (AI) models, and to streamline data-intensive internal operations.
Smart law firms know they can get external data from the growing number of APIs, or application programming interfaces, offered by legal data vendors. But with the rapid proliferation of APIs, how should you go about choosing the right ones for your firm? What questions should you ask when scoping out API solutions? What red flags should you look for? Do you understand the key issues and challenges your firm is facing? And what self-reflection is needed on your own technical and business readiness to integrate APIs?
Identifying the right API solution for the legal data you need requires understanding the range of options available to solve your problem in a way that drives value and where your firm is in your data journey.
This guide will provide a practical API checklist for choosing the right legal data vendor to ensure you select the best legal technology solution for your data needs, along with the questions you need to ask to get to the right answers. To get you started, here are the top 10 considerations of what to look for when choosing the right legal data API for your law firm.
1. API-First Approach
One of the first items law firms should consider when reviewing APIs is the overall approach the legal technology provider has taken in developing its APIs. This fundamentally shapes what data a law firm can access and the potential for future enhancements of the API in the years to come.
- Is the API provider offering “app-based” APIs tied exclusively to the functionality and the data currently available in its existing applications? Or does it have “API-first” APIs, with full access to underlying datasets that are not limited to any specific application?
- Are its APIs easy to integrate? Can you easily perform searches, downloads, and automated data pulls?
2. Data Coverage
In addition to the structure, a critical consideration for law firms is the actual data sets flowing through a provider’s APIs. Even the best structured APIs are not worth purchasing if the data you need is not available.
- How comprehensive is the API provider’s data coverage? Do they cover the specific courts, legislatures, agencies, or other data sources you need?
- Does the API provider have an active data roadmap? Is it looking to expand its coverage into new sources? Does it work with clients to gather feedback on what new data sources to add to its roadmap?
3. Use Case Alignment
One of the most critical topics for law firms to consider when choosing the right legal data vendor is the alignment of the available API solution with their unique business use cases. Though each of these considerations carry significant weight, determining whether the solution matches your law firm’s applicable use cases often sparks or ends the conversation on whether to move forward with an API provider.
- Can you leverage the API provider's data to solve your high-value problems? Have you already identified the problems your law firm is seeking to solve, and how data plays a part in solving those problems?
- Do the provider’s APIs align with your needs for business development, gathering specific intelligence or insights, or streamlining your data-intensive internal operations?
4. API Documentation
Often considered a bare minimum for a viable API product, the API documentation a provider holds out is a key indicator of the time and effort it has invested to make its APIs as easy as possible for your firm to integrate. For some providers, API docs may be an afterthought, designed by engineers for engineers, while others put considerable effort into designing the best possible user experience for learning about and integrating their APIs into your internal infrastructure.
- Is the API documentation publicly accessible for you to review? Do the API docs have a professional look and feel? Are they easy to read and understand for a non-developer?
- Are there sample code bases and walkthroughs available for how to use the APIs? Has the API provider given thought to the most common business use cases for their product, and developed step-by-step instructions to execute those use cases?
5. Data Normalization
Another important item for law firms to review is whether the API provider normalizes the data streaming out of its APIs. Just having the coverage you need is not enough. Without data normalization – the process of organizing, enriching, and standardizing data – your law firm is walking into a “bad data in, bad data out” situation that could corrupt internal reporting and disrupt law firm operations.
- Does the API provider normalize its data? Does it use best-in-class normalization on the entities included in its data sets.
- Does it use other data sources, such as bar data, Secretary of State data, EDGAR data, and other trusted, public data, to normalize the data from its APIs?
6. Data Interoperability
Law firms looking for external data sources most often are not seeking to ingest legal data to be used in a silo – they want to be able to weave the external data they collect with other internal data sources, such as financial data, operational data, experience data, and client data, for developing actionable insights. Reviewing whether an API provider has incorporated data classifications and industry standards into API outputs, and whether it offers an easy-to-use data dictionary, can either make your life easier or add significant layers of additional work before that data can be connected to your other data sets and systems.
- Does the API provider use common classifications and a uniform data structure for the data sets served up through its APIs?
- Does the provider leverage industry standards, such as the Standards Advancement for the Legal Industry (SALI), to ensure data interoperability?
7. API Integrations
Few law firms, outside of the most forward-thinking Am Law firms and technology enabled, more agile boutique law firms, have the engineering bench required for resource-intensive API integrations. This makes the ease of API integrations vital for the vast number of law firms, and the provider’s existing integrations a key element in choosing the right API solution for your firm.
- Can you start pulling data immediately and get quick wins without intensive front-end development and engineering work? What’s the lead time and resource requirement on being able to pull out usable data and integrate it into your systems?
- How do the provider’s existing API integrations align with your current tech stack? Does it have a roadmap for building out future integrations? Is it willing to work with you to integrate its APIs into your mission critical applications?
8. API Maturity
Regardless of the type of API provider your law firm is reviewing, the maturity of its offering is an inherently important, distinguishing factor when selecting the right API for your firm. Just as most tech-conscious people will look at the release notes and versions of an app in Google Play or the Apple App Store to confirm the veracity of an app before downloading it onto their phone, tablet, or computer, you should also take a serious look at the evolution of a provider’s offering and be cautious of APIs developed without user feedback and input.
- Does the API provider have next-generation APIs developed from enterprise client feedback? Or are its APIs first generation, still in beta, or an early-stage alpha release?
- Does it have an active API development roadmap with regular release updates? Can it develop new API endpoints to fit your business use cases and data needs?
9. Support Services
Outside of the technical specs your law firm should review when deciding on the right API provider, a pivotal and often overlooked item to consider is the level of support services the provider makes available. The most well-designed APIs with the best data sets can still prove difficult to use without the right support services to help you navigate the solution. As your firm considers which APIs fit your needs, make sure to directly ask the provider about its support options and whether it requires paying any additional, potentially hidden fees.
- Does the API provider offer on-demand support services? Does it provide you with a white glove service or more of a hands-off, self-service approach?
- Does it have solutions engineers to assist with developing API queries, automating data pulls, and exploring data sets? What other types of support staff are available for handling account management issues?
10. Data Readiness
The last, and likely most important, consideration from our top 10 list requires some candid self-reflection on where you are in your own data journey. Your firm’s data readiness, in addition to your corresponding business readiness to ultimately leverage data, greatly impacts whether you’re ready to integrate APIs and whether you need to look to external partners to help move your firm to the finish line.
- Are you ready to integrate APIs into your data infrastructure? Do you have any existing internal or external API integrations? If you don’t have internal engineering capabilities, are you willing to engage managed service providers (MSPs) to develop integrations?
- Do you have a data strategy? Have you invested in cleaning up your own data? Are you in the cloud? Do you have a data lake? Do you have the right teams and budgeted resources in place?
If you know your firm needs to work on upgrading your existing data infrastructure before you begin integrating APIs, here’s an insightful article from the LawNext Legal Technology Directory on best practices for building a modern law firm data infrastructure that can help you along in your data journey.
Choosing the Right Legal Data Vendor
The continued expansion of the legal technology ecosystem presents law firms with a growing number of legal data vendors and API solutions to choose from. That leads to a good, but difficult, problem of having to sift between providers to find the right API solution to fit your needs.
This API checklist is not meant to be exhaustive, as there are other items to account for, such as data security, as well as a company’s stability and reputation. However, these top 10 considerations can help your law firm more confidently choose the right legal data vendor to solve your high-value problems.