SAN JOSE, Calif. (CN) — A Silicon Valley startup aims to use lawsuit data to determine which civil cases are likely to succeed in an effort to help investors who want to fund such cases for a portion of the proceeds.
Legalist was founded by Harvard grads Eva Shang and Christian Haigh, who are developing an algorithm to scour legal databases and analyze and identify the likelihood of a given's case success.
"What we are trying to do is give an approximation of how a lawyer looks at a case," Shang said in an interview earlier this week.
Data in hand, the company will invest in selected lawsuits in hopes of reaping profits from the judgments.
Legalist already has invested $75,000 in a case with the potential for a $1 million judgment, Shang said. The company has 10 more cases it hopes to fund in the coming month, investing anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000 with the potential to earn up to 33 percent of the awarded damages.
It's a controversial business model, particularly in the wake of the former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against online new site Gawker.
A jury awarded Hogan $140 million in damages over Gawker's posting of his sex tape without his consent. The award bankrupted Gawker, which shut down its site for good last week.
Peter Thiel, a billionaire founder of PayPal founder and member of the Facebook board, bankrolled Hogan's lawsuit. Thiel, who was not personally involved in the case, is believed to have bankrolled it as payback for Gawker outing him as gay in 2007.
Thiel's involvement has spurred hand-wringing in the legal and media worlds, causing consternation over the degree to which people or corporations with deep pockets can use the legal system to drive enemies out of business.
Shang, who ironically used a Thiel Fellowship when developing Legalist's algorithm, acknowledged the controversy around third-party funding of lawsuits. But she said her company will not fund litigation brought by individuals, instead focusing on small businesses.
Specifically, Legalist hopes to fund cases where big corporations essentially refuse to pay small contractors, since they can afford to drag out litigation until the little guy drops because he can no longer keep up with attorney's fees and court costs.
"Our company levels the playing field," Shang said. "The need we're hoping to address, it doesn't exist in the market right now."
Eric Goldman, a professor of law at Santa Clara University, said that while Shang's point may be true, the implications of creating efficiencies in the emerging market of third-party funding and lawsuit investment carries broader implications for the administration of justice.
"I think you have to start with the goals and purposes of litigation," Goldman said. Goals include offering victims a chance at redress and reforming and deterring bad behavior.
"The question becomes, are those goals advanced when you have some 'Moneyball' statisticians looking to get a piece for themselves and make a quick buck?"
Goldman said there is a real concern that intermediaries' quest for profit may warp the legal system, spurring frivolous litigation and undermining the justice system's ostensible purpose.
Meanwhile, Legalist — with its 52 employees and all-important computer — is not the first or only game in town. Other companies, including LexShares and TrialFunder, offer similar investments in lawsuits, though the sector of civil law and the degree to which they rely on analytics differs.