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    Fastcase and State Bar Partnership: Filling a Legal Research Void

    This new membership benefit provides all State Bar members with free access to an alternative, comprehensive, easy-to-use legal research tool.

    Dianne Molvig

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    Wisconsin LawyerWisconsin Lawyer
    Vol. 81, No. 12, December 2008

    Fastcase and State Bar Partnership: Filling a Legal Research Void

    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.

    Fastcaseby Dianne Molvig

    Sidebar:

    One 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 costs.”

    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©, an affordable, Web-based legal research tool that today has 320,000 subscribers.

    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 Office 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® subscription.”

    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 providers.”

    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 use.”

    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 industries.

    “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 users.”

    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.”

    Users’ Reactions

    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 way.

    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 April.

    “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 KeyCite.

    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, too.” 

    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 benefit.”

    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 limitations.”

    Searching Fastcase

    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 reporter series.”

    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 per-transaction basis.

    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 cases?”

    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 active 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.”

    Dianne Molvig operates Access Information Service, a Madison writing and editing service. She is a frequent contributor to area and national publications.



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