Vol. 81, No. 12, December
Fastcase and State Bar Partnership: Filling a Legal Research
Fastcase founders Phill Rosenthal
and Ed Walters haven’t looked back since leaving their law firm
positions to create the kind of low-cost legal research solution they
once sought for their own clients. Through a partnership, State Bar of
Wisconsin members now have free access to Fastcase legal research.
ne night in 1999, Edward Walters, a
young associate at Covington & Burling, a prominent Washington, D.C.
law firm, was burning the midnight oil. He was trying to figure out how
to please a client, a large high-tech company that hired dozens of law
firms, all of which passed along charges for online legal research
expenses. The bills added up to enormous sums, and the client was weary
of paying them.
This time the client gave Walters a daunting assignment: Research
a particular legal issue (which was too new to be covered in print
research tools). Find what we need online, but don’t use the large
legal research database services because we won’t pay for them.
And, oh, we want the results first thing in the morning.
That evening, Walters spent hours searching the Web in efforts to
dig out the information he needed, to no avail. Finally, as the clock
ticked past midnight, he gave up and did a LexisNexis®
search that took 20 minutes.
“At 1 a.m., I’m in my office, punching the printer
button,” Walters recalls, “and I’m thinking now
everyone is going to be mad at me. The client is going to see LexisNexis
on every page of this printout. And the firm is going to be upset
because we’ll have to eat the $1,500 in online research
The experience left Walters convinced there ought to be a
solution. “I thought, I have half a mind to go out and start the
kind of research service I’ve been looking for in the last five
hours,” he says.
Soon the other half of his mind got on board with the idea, as
did a fellow Covington & Burling associate, Philip Rosenthal. The
two men left their law firm jobs and launched Fastcase©,
affordable, Web-based legal research tool that today has 320,000
As the company began its 10th year this November, the State Bar
of Wisconsin became the 13th state bar association to contract with
Fastcase, offering Fastcase access as a membership benefit.
That means all State Bar members now can do research in Fastcase
– for free – by logging onto WisBar. Fastcase includes
nationwide case law, covering state courts in all 50 states; the U.S.
Supreme Court; and federal appellate, bankruptcy, and tax courts.
Additional Wisconsin-specific resources included are statutes, supreme
court rules, the state constitution, attorney general opinions, and
more. (See “A Few FAQs About Fastcase.”)
Will Fastcase be sufficient to fulfill every lawyer’s
online legal research needs? “For many lawyers, Fastcase will be
everything they need,” says Nerino Petro, practice management
advisor for Practice411©, the State Bar’s Law
Management Assistance Program. “But for those for whom it’s
not sufficient, they may be able to reduce the depth and breadth of
their Westlaw® or LexisNexis®
No matter how individual lawyers end up fitting Fastcase into
their daily research routines, all stand to benefit, Petro emphasizes.
“There’s no cost to members to use this,” he says.
“And who knows? You may be able to save money by reducing or
eliminating your subscription to other legal research
An Evolving Scene
Westlaw and LexisNexis long have been – and still are –
the heavyweights on the legal research scene. But in the last decade or
so, several smaller players have appeared that offer services at much
lower costs, or even for free. Among them are Fastcase, Casemaker,
VersusLaw, PreCydent, and AltLaw.com.
“I think any legal information professional would say that
Westlaw and LexisNexis reign supreme in this area, in terms of the depth
of their databases and the features they’ve added over the
years,” says Robert Ambrogi, a Rockport, Mass., attorney and legal
technology expert. “But when you look at that next tier of
Internet competitors, Fastcase is one of the better options out there,
by a couple of measures. One is the scope of what it covers. And the
other is that it has a good interface that makes it easy to
The emergence of several little guys on the research landscape
may have a minor impact on bigger law firms, notes David Curle, director
and lead analyst for Burlingame, Calif.-based Outsell Inc., a research
and advisory firm for the publishing, information, and education
“The larger firms have been the bread and butter for
Westlaw and LexisNexis,” Curle observes, “and those firms
will continue to use these sophisticated systems that have a lot of
bells and whistles. But the smaller companies will be more and more
appealing to small law firms and solo lawyers who have been shut out by
the pricing of the big players.”
The arrival of new entities also brings another benefit to the
legal research field, according to Curle. “There’s more to
choose from,” he notes, “and there’s a certain level
of competition. That, in the long run, can only be good for
To zero in on the State Bar’s final choice for a research
partner, the State Bar conducted a yearlong evaluation of several
prospects. The process looked at compatibility with Bar technology now
and into the future, innovativeness, reputation for customer service and
support, and other state bars’ experiences.
One in the latter group was the Iowa State Bar Association, now
in its third year with Fastcase and one of the earliest state bar
subscribers, according to Harry Shipley, assistant executive director.
Members’ responses have been “very positive,” he
notes. “And we’ve seen enhancements in the product as other
bars have come on board” – an indication, in his view, that
Fastcase is responsive to users’ needs and suggestions.
A final critical component of the State Bar of Wisconsin’s
yearlong due diligence process involved a panel of Wisconsin attorneys,
from diverse practice settings, who tested the two finalists’
products. These attorneys assessed ease of use, depth of information,
accuracy of results, and so on.
“When the smoke settled,” Petro reports,
“Fastcase came out of the evaluation as the company we thought
could best meet our current and future needs.”
One of the attorneys invited to evaluate the two finalists was Nancy
Trueblood, a Wauwatosa solo practitioner and chair of the State
Bar’s Solo and Small Firm Practice Committee. Conducting numerous
tests, she ran the same searches sequentially in both databases so she
could immediately compare the ease of searching and quality of results.
After a month of such testing, Fastcase emerged as her favorite.
“I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was to navigate
around in Fastcase,” she says. “I had no trouble figuring it
out, even before looking at the manual or taking a tutorial.”
(Fastcase offers several online tutorials to orient users.)
At this point, Trueblood still has a LexisNexis subscription, and
she views Fastcase as a useful addition. She reduces the cost of her
LexisNexis plan by limiting it to state court case law from Wisconsin.
“If I want to see what a court is saying in Oklahoma, for
instance, there’s a cost with LexisNexis,” she explains.
“But it’s free in Fastcase. So now I can find out
what’s going on in states outside Wisconsin at no cost.”
Another lawyer on the testing panel was Terry Dunst, from the
15-attorney firm of Bakke Norman S.C., New Richmond, Wis., who also
found Fastcase extremely user friendly. “I just logged on, without
any instruction whatsoever, and started using it,” he reports.
Still, he predicts he’ll continue to rely on Westlaw,
especially for more advanced searches. “Westlaw has briefs,
KeyCite©, and many other features that Fastcase does not
have,” Dunst notes. “At this stage of the game, Fastcase is
not – and it doesn’t claim to be – a full replacement
for Westlaw or LexisNexis.”
Fastcase’s Walters couldn’t agree more. “Using
Fastcase doesn’t mean you have to break up with Westlaw or
LexisNexis if you already have them,” he says. “You can
still be friends.”
Firms may save money, he points out, by paring down their Westlaw
or LexisNexis subscriptions, as Trueblood does in her geographic
coverage. And those lawyers who need specialized information only
occasionally “can use Fastcase as their primary service,”
Walters says, “and then they can buy [specialized services] from
Westlaw or LexisNexis on a transactional basis.” Fastcase offers
links on its site to access resources in Westlaw and LexisNexis this
Besides the evaluation panel, other attorneys in Wisconsin had
experience with Fastcase before the State Bar’s Nov. 1 launch. The
eight-attorney firm of Nelson, Connell, Conrad, Tallmadge & Slein
S.C., Waukesha, has been a Fastcase subscriber for three years, ever
since partner Mark Nelson discovered it at a seminar. Sarah Ponath says
she’s been using Fastcase regularly since she joined the firm last
“Fastcase is the primary tool I use for legal
research,” she says, “as opposed to Westlaw or LexisNexis,
because we try to keep down the legal research costs for our clients.
The Fastcase database is wide ranging. I’m not finding I’m
missing out on any case law that’s out there.” The firm
subscribes to Westlaw, but Ponath says she uses that primarily for
The librarians at Marquette University Law Library began a trial
subscription to Fastcase this past summer, and in early November
Fastcase became available to all Marquette law school students and
faculty. Searching is fairly intuitive, says associate law librarian
Leslie Behroozi. “The same types of terms and connectors people
are used to seeing in other databases are used in Fastcase,
All around, she rates Fastcase as “a
great research tool. It will definitely fill a gap for many small
practitioners who might not have access to more expensive legal
databases. Many will find it to be a wonderful [Bar] member
But, like any research tool, Fastcase has limitations, Behroozi
stresses, and she feels it’s best used in conjunction with other
tools. “Use it for what it’s good for,” she advises.
“But then use other tools such as digests and secondary sources.
People just need to be diligent about understanding the
The State Bar’s contract with Fastcase allows members unlimited
usage and unlimited printing, using any computer with Internet access.
Users can employ Boolean searching, natural language searching, and
searching by citation. “One of the benefits of Fastcase,”
Petro says, “is that it includes not only the official pagination
in its case results, but also the star pagination you find in the
Fastcase also has a feature it calls Authority Check, which lists
all the cases in the database that cite to a case that turns up in a
search. The Authority Check results page tells how often a case is cited
within an existing search, as well as in the entire database. But
Authority Check doesn’t tell the user if a case is still good law.
Unlike Westlaw and LexisNexis, “Fastcase doesn’t have
hundreds or thousands of staff attorneys who pore over decisions and
provide editorial content,” Petro explains. So Fastcase users have
two choices in determining if a case is still good law: Read through the
citing cases, or use the link Fastcase provides to access West’s
KeyCite or LexisNexis’ Shepards©on a
Another feature Fastcase offers is double-column printing in PDF,
Word, or Rich Text format. Printouts from the Web sometimes can look
“junky,” Walters points out. “A lawyer doesn’t
want to give that to the court, a client, or opposing counsel. With the
dual-column printing, the cases look like they do in the books, so
they’re easier to read.”
Batch printing is a new feature Fastcase recently introduced. A
user can click icons for several cases found in a search and print out
all of them at one time. This is a convenience and time-saver – no
need to tend the printer to print out cases one by one.
This past summer Fastcase introduced its interactive timeline
feature, a unique way to view search results. “One problem
we’ve been grappling with is how to find the needle in the
haystack when you run a search,” Walters says. “When you get
a bunch of results, how do you pull out the best, most authoritative
Typically, searchers can sort results in various ways, one at a
time – by date, for instance, or by relevance, the way a Google
search puts the best hits at the top of the list. The problem is that
this gives users separate, one-dimensional views of search results,
Walters points out.
Fastcase’s interactive timeline allows users to see results
in four dimensions, all at once. “We think a lot about the visual
representation of information,” Walters says, “and ways to
display information so that the user gets answers fast.”
Thus, in the interactive timeline, circles representing
individual cases appear on a visual graph, to show how the cases spread
out over time. The circle’s position on the vertical axis shows
how relevant the case is to the search term entered. The size of each
circle indicates how often the case has been cited. And a small circle
inside a larger one depicts how many times a case has been cited by the
super-relevant set of other search results. Clicking on a circle pulls
up the full text of a case, which has hypertext links to other cases
cited within it, making it easy to move from one document to another.
Many of these innovations are the result of
listening to current users, according to Walters. Users suggest how to
improve a feature, or mention one they’d like to see developed.
“That’s great for us,” Walters says.
“It’s like having a competent group of people who are
working with us to make the service better. We’re excited to
launch Fastcase with the State Bar of Wisconsin to make it available to
all Wisconsin lawyers.”