Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fastcase: Legal Research Enters the 4th Dimension or The Little Engine That Could ...

...Come up with some Interesting New Tools for Legal Research.

Phil Rosenthal and Ed Walters both former associates from Covington & Burling began developing what they refer to as a smarter alternative to Westlaw and Lexis in the late 1990’s. After a modest amount of angel funding and a decade of development,  Fastcase now has  more than 500,000 paid subscribers, and partnerships with 20 state bar associations (including DC Bar, Virginia State Bar, and Maryland State Bar Association, and dozens of voluntary bar associations). Their iPhone and iPad app was the 2010 AALL New Product of the Year.

Fastcase has gone beyond caselaw and now includes, news, regulations, statutes and forms. But what caught my attention, was two unique features “Forecite” and “Interactive Timelines” which appear to offer completely fresh approaches to legal research analysis. Both features provide new visual cues for assessing research results.  The cost of a subscription to Fastcase  is several orders of magnitude below  the prices charged by Lexis or Westlaw for comparable primary source material.

But don’t let the low price tag fool you. Phil and Ed have developed some remarkably sophisticated new tools for research analysis which may give them an advantage with the younger generation of lawyers who are more graphically oriented and less textually oriented than prior generations. Some larger firms have also decided it is time to reassess the long term sustainability of maintaining two expensive contracts with Lexis and Westlaw. The ongoing recalibrations in the legal marketplace have created an opening for upstarts like Fastcase and Bloomberg Law to “make their case” that they deserve a serious look.

Phil Rosenthal attributes the inspiration for the Fastcase timeline display to his study of physics and the law.  Phil started out as a rocket scientist and entered Harvard Law School because he was interested in space policy. Ed Walters jokes that his practice at Covington & Burling focused on beer and softball. But he also admits to spending some of his time globetrotting between Washington and Brussels at the dawn of the Web, counseling software companies how to stay out of legal trouble in a newly Internet-connected world.

According to Ed "In good software design, one size fits none. We’re big into customization – research history, private libraries, settings, preferences, and views of search results."

Forecite: Seeing the results your search terms don’t retrieve.

This new search feature “Forecite” now in beta, retrieves cases that are heavily cited in the search results but which do not match your keyword search criteria or which fall outside your date restrictions. They are basically running a citation analysis on the retrieved cases and identifying cases that you probably want to look at even though they don’t match your search parameters.

The Interactive Timeline: Thinking Outside the List!

For the past 30 years the dominant way to review search results has been “the list” of relevant cases. A list from a traditional legal research vendor can be sorted in a variety of ways, relevance, date, court hierarchy, but these variables must be assessed sequentially, one at a time. There is also a limit on the size of a list that can display on a screen. The Fastcase timeline can display ALL cases in one visual snapshot.  All of these results can be resorted, modified and redisplayed on the fly.

Phil articulates the goal this way. “ It is hard to know if you want to read the full text of a case. Traditional search results are only sorted in one way at a time, so it is hard to determine if you need to look at a case and too often important cases are missed. We make it easy to see four pieces of information about each search result, all at the same time. You can find that critical case right away. You can see trends."

The chart below shows the interactive timeline for court opinions on the topic of  “campaign finance.” The 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision Buckley v Valeo, 424 US 1,  which upheld campaign finance contribution limits stands out as the largest circle, i.e., the most cited case...cited 2,328 times. I performed special sort on the graph below showing the trends in campaign finance litigation by multiple jurisdictions: Supreme Court, Federal Courts and at the state level. Each circle represents a case, and the size of the circle indicates how often that case has been cited. If you hover over the circle you see the name of the case, the citation, a summary and the number of times cited.

The second timeline at the bottom allows you to readjust the time period displayed in the main chart. The results can be continually refined on the fly.


The Interactive Timeline, although plotted as a two-dimensional graph, actually shows four different pieces of information: 1) Decision date; 2) How many times the case has ever been cited; 3) How many times each case in the list has been cited by the other super-relevant cases in the search result (“cited within results”); and 4) Relevance, based on your specific keyword search. You can customize the view and switch out #4 to display the level of court that issued the opinion (U.S. Supreme Court at the top, lower state courts at the bottom.)You also get an overarching context and trend analysis for the history of campaign finance litigation.

Statutes the Next Frontier: Since Fastcase is pulling statutes from free state websites which are not universally reliable or current (even though published on the states official Websites),  I don’t see Fastcase as ready for ‘prime time” in statutory research arena.  When I asked Phil about this he responded with knowing grin and said “we’re working on it and we have some really new ideas.” This should be interesting… stay tuned.

 Fastcase Phil and Ed in a Fast Car!
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A digression on the Fastcase Tesla Roadster VIP  Event

In what is surely one of the most unusual marketing tie-in’s I have seen, Fastcase hosted an event at the Tesla Motors sale room in downtown DC this week.

I don’t run in the $100K electric roadster circles and I don’t usually get a chance to zoom around downtown DC with my hair blowing in the wind. And I am not even much of a fast car person but I have to admit: this car rocks. What I learned: Testa's carbon fiber body is hard like steel and flexible like plastic. Zero gasoline.  It runs 245 miles per charge and it bolts from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds. (And I had the whiplash to prove it).

So what is the Fastcase and Tesla nexus? I don't know but here is my guess:

• Both offer innovative engines (search and automotive)

• Both are entering a mature market place with game changing assumptions (low cost search and no carbon emissions engine)

Maybe we can get Phil and Ed to raffle that Tesla at their AALL booth in Philadelphia this July.

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