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On April 19th, Microsoft announced its new SQL 2017 server edition. While this product is, of course, not geared exclusively toward lawyers and law firms, there are implications for the legal profession based on what Microsoft says the new version of this product can do.

Microsoft has offered the SQL Server for several years. It is, in essence, a relational database management system. Since it is a database server, it is also a software product that can store and retrieve data requested by other software, which may run either on the same computer or on other computers across a network (including the internet).

Because of that, SQL can undertake analytics of data of various types. Over the years, Microsoft has developed and marketed at least a dozen different editions aimed at different audiences and workloads, although none of these have been specifically directed toward lawyers or the legal profession.

This year’s edition offered three new significant improvements:

  • In a growing trend for Microsoft to make its products more available and usable to iOS people, SQL can now be used with Linux-based platforms like iOS. This is good news for Apple users that want to use the product or who interact with hardware on which SQL runs.
  • SQL 2017 introduces a new and faster migration tool. It has reduced migration to five or six steps, which means you can quickly move large databases from one place to another. Microsoft also introduced elements that improve abilities to move databases to the cloud and back again.
  • SQL 2017 promises to offer such time-saving tools as face recognition and cognitive services, designed to make the platform easier and faster.

However, it is what Microsoft promises SQL 2017 will now do on the analytics front that’s intriguing, and which may ultimately affect legal tech. Microsoft has provided new and improved data analytic tools that will enable analysis of all sorts of data in all sorts of ways across all sorts of different platforms. This will extend SQL Server’s use in analytics: Microsoft is touting that SQL 2017 will offer artificial intelligence tools and deep and adaptive learning systems to provide even more in-depth and tailored analysis. This will allow the system to do such things as make predictions and calculate probabilities of events based on data. According to Microsoft, SQL 2017 is the first commercial database that has built-in deep learning and artificial intelligence.

The analytics and AI functions in SQL 2017 could enable law firms and in-house departments to make improved decisions and perform better analysis. Industries that use and depend on legal services can make both quantitative and qualitative assessments about such things as the value added by outside counsel. Insurance companies, for example, have for many years collected and tried to use and compare data about the time spent by lawyers to review and analyze legal bills. Whether SQL 2017 might be a better and easier to use tool for these functions remains to be seen. But since this is the year that many firms, in-house departments and legally related businesses are reviewing their Microsoft products and moving to such things as Office365 and Azure, SQL 2017, with its improved AI and deep learning capabilities, may be attractive.

But the really intriguing thing about SQL 2017 is the potential use of the software to analyze data and make predictions in law. Could SQL 2017, with the right data, predict such things as the chances of a jury verdict or court ruling? Could it better examine billing rates and trends and success rates of lawyers? Or perhaps it could help do a deep dive on the proclivities of appellate judges to predict opinions better.

Given the vast amount of businesses and governmental systems using Microsoft in one form or another, including SQL Server, the potential data stream housed on Microsoft servers and available to be analyzed could be huge. And the opportunity for combining data from various sources into a super-database that allows the application of AI and analysis promised by Microsoft could be quite significant to the legal profession.

Microsoft has always been a player in document storage and cloud computing, which indirectly affect the practice of law. Granted, Microsoft has not previously participated directly in the legal space in a significant way. But in the past year, Microsoft has been injecting itself more and more in legal tech, such as committing money to Legal Services Corporation to help build out legal service portals for low-income individuals. So, while not directed toward the legal profession, SQL 2017—if it does what Microsoft says—could open up increased data analytics and AI for lawyers and those who use lawyers.

This alone won’t allow Microsoft to move into the legal space in a big way. To do that, it would likely need to acquire a legal analytics startup or even a more mature company to increase its role. And it would likely need to invest in a team of lawyers and technologists to make it happen. It must also get lawyers to move more data into Azure, its cloud platform, than what it has managed so far. Whether Microsoft wants to make this kind of investment remains to be seen, but the advances in SQL 2017 could be a good start.

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