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Illinois Bar Journal

The Magazine of Illinois Lawyers

April 2009Volume 97Number 4Page 178

April 2009 Illinois Bar Journal Cover Image

Legal Research

Should You Use Fastcase and How?

By
Helen W. Gunnarsson

Whether you make it your primary online research tool or use it to supplement Westlaw or Lexis, Fastcase can save you money if you're an ISBA member. Lots of it. Here's how.

What kind of bang do you expect for your bar membership buck?

How about this: free online legal research on supreme and appellate court case law, statutes, regulations, constitutions, and court rules, not just for Illinois, but for all 50 states. Add to that case law for the U.S. Supreme Court, all of the federal circuit courts of appeal, and all Illinois federal district courts.

Let's include free webinars on how to use the service effectively - and while we're at it, let's provide that those webinars, which you can view in the comfort of your office, home or wherever else you happen to be, will also give you MCLE credit - for free. How about free online or telephone support in case you have a question or a problem? Let's include that, too.

Oh, and did we mention it's all free? All of these great services are included in ISBA's Fastcase national appellate plan, sold to nonmember lawyers for $695 per year but available to all ISBA members at no cost beyond your basic membership dues.

"[N]o regrets"

Since ISBA brought Fastcase to members, many have become devoted followers. Among the most vocal is Huntley solo practitioner and ISBA Assembly member T.J. Thurston, who frequently participates in the lively discussions on ISBA's electronic discussion groups.

"I'm a long-time Westlaw guy," Thurston acknowledges up front. "For most of my years of private practice, and up until recently, I've had a Westlaw contract. But when I learned of the availability of Fastcase through ISBA, I figured I might as well get used to it. So, I went to the Fastcase training at the Solo/Small Firm Conference last September. Ever since then, I've used Fastcase almost exclusively."

When Thurston's three-year contract with Westlaw recently expired, he didn't renew it - and says he's never looked back. "I have no regrets."

Thurston notes that his is a general practice, including considerable civil litigation and requiring him to research both case and statutory law in a variety of areas. "Fastcase has all of the features that I would use on Westlaw. Its search engine is pretty intuitive, and is really good on key words. I also use natural language searches and find that it's good for that as well."

He's also fond of Fastcase's interactive timeline. "Its graphic depiction of the cases that are most on point on the issue you're looking at is a really useful tool. Sometimes you have to weed through dozens of cases on Westlaw to find the seminal case. The interactive timeline is a tool that makes that a lot faster and quicker."

Thurston also likes Fast-case's print queue capability. "You're not locked into printing cases out one at a time. On Fastcase, you can put 30 cases into your print queue and then do them all at once. There's no waiting. It's a huge timesaver."

Thurston does miss one or two Westlaw features.Chief among those are West's headnotes. "I don't typically rely on headnotes, but they are sometimes an easy way to get to the part of the decision that you want to focus on."

But, he notes, it's possible to get around the lack of headnotes by using Fastcase's capability to go directly to the search term in a decision. Furthermore, he points out, "Occasionally the head-notes are wrong. You still have to read the decision for yourself."

Thurston also sometimes misses West's annotations to statutes. But, as with the lack of headnotes, there's a way to get around that issue as well: "You can write down the statutory citation and then do a search [in the case database] for that."

None of those features, he says, would make him change his mind about saving the $200 or so per month that he was paying for his Westlaw package. "I now get access through Fastcase to all 50 states, which is fantastic. In my practice, one of my clients may have a contract that says another state's law applies. I can now use Fastcase to research that for free."

He adds, "I like the access to federal court cases as well. I had to pay a lot more to Westlaw for federal cases. Since I had a three-year contract, I would have to pay for three years' access to Delaware law or what have you if that was what I wanted to review for one client."

And if he does feel the need to use West's or other services, such as Shepard's, he'll pay for it on a transactional basis. "At a few dollars a pop, that's far less expensive than paying for a subscription."

A cost-saving supplement, if not replacement

Many, though not all, ISBA members share Thurston's views. Nerino Petro, a longtime ISBA member who is law practice management advisor for the State Bar of Wisconsin, zeroes in on Fastcase's interactive timeline (see the "Using Fast-case" sidebar).

"To be able to look at the case law in this way when you're trying to decide what has a bearing on your research is really helpful," he said. "If a case is being cited a lot, it will be represented by a much bigger circle. It may or may not be on point, but chances are that it's a seminal decision that you need to review."

And, though Petro notes that many members may find that Fastcase alone meets their needs for online research, "If you need access to special databases, treatises, forms [that aren't available on Fastcase], Fastcase may allow you to reduce the scope of your Westlaw or Lexis subscription. You could get a paid subscription from another service to Illinois only and then use Fastcase as a supplement for out of state or federal materials."

That's exactly what Champaign lawyer John Phipps, whose firm pays for two other commercial research packages, does. Phipps lauds Fastcase's access to cases and statutes from all 50 states, say ing he's found it invaluable for some of his probate and divorce matters as well as for issues involving business regulation, long-arm statutes, and the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act.

"Most lawyers need online research for other states at least a couple of times solos and small firms who don't want to spend the money for online research, or for whom it doesn't make economic sense to upgrade from an Illinois-only service."

Like Phipps, Chicago lawyer Mike Maslanka's firm pays for an online re search service. He, too, finds Fastcase a valuable supplement. Maslanka notes that he's had the disquieting experience of searching for a case that he knows exists but doesn't appear in his search results, whether he's searching using Fast-case, Westlaw, or Lexis.

In his view, "You can't rely on any one service and be a hundred percent sure that you're getting all the cases with the terms you're searching for. But if you use two or more services, your chances are greatly improved. So, Fastcase is a nice benefit even for those who can afford one or even two online subscription services."

Some ISBA members point out, however, that Fastcase's database of Illinois case law extends back only to 1950. Phipps doesn't view that as a significant problem.

"Most of what we lawyers do involves more recently decided cases," says Phipps. Agreeing, Petro says the ISBA special committee that selected Fast-case held the same opinion (see the "How ISBA chose Fastcase" sidebar). Petro remarks that in 16 years of practice, he relied only once on a case decided before 1950.

As Urbana lawyer Thomas Bruno recognizes, "The reality is that lawyers with different practices have widely varying needs for practice tools." Bruno, who, like Petro and Phipps, served on the ISBA special committee that chose Fast-case, responds to member criticisms that Fastcase lacks the bells and whistles of the more expensive services.

"Fastcase is more than adequate for many practitioners, and the cost savings more than outweighs even the top tier of ISBA dues. It may not meet the needs of those who have the need or habit for the cream of the crop in research tools, but let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Bruno points out that even those who never use Fastcase nevertheless benefit from its availability through ISBA. "Think of Fastcase as a tool that brings or keeps in hundreds, if not thousands, more members to ISBA and thereby adds value to your ISBA membership by making it more diverse, more robust, and, thus, a more powerful organization."

Others point out that the presence in the market of Fastcase and other competitors helps keep down the cost of the gold-standard research services.

"I see things from your perspective"

For his part, Fastcase CEO Ed Walters says, "We view ourselves as a partnership with ISBA." Walters urges users not to suffer in silence if they happen to come across a case that, for example, appears only in slip opinion form.

"Contact our customer service team by telephone, 866-77-FASTCASE, from
7 AM to 7 PM central time Monday through Friday. After business hours, you can send an e-mail to support@fastcase.com. We will get you the official citation, probably while you're still on the phone, and we'll make sure the slip opinion is replaced by the official version by the first thing next morning." Walters also notes that his staff includes some night owls, who may even reply to e-mails that evening or overnight.

Commenting on his company's philoso phy, Walters adds, "We're not a global publishing conglomerate - we're lawyers who wanted a better alternative to the other commercial research services, so we work in partnership with our members. I see things from your perspective because not long ago I was a practicing lawyer myself. If you have an idea for us to make things better, tell us about it." ■


Helen W. Gunnarsson, a lawyer in Highland Park, is an Illinois Bar Journal contributing writer.


How ISBA chose Fastcase

As the Internet has become ubiquitous in homes and law offices alike, wouldn't it be nice, ISBA lawyers started thinking some years ago, if members could get free online legal research as a benefit of ISBA membership? As early as 2002, the ISBA Committee on Bar Services and Activities reviewed online research services with a view toward making a recommendation for a legal research provider as a member benefit, says Chicago lawyer Mike Maslanka, at the time a committee member. But at that time, Maslanka says, the committee regretfully concluded that the service was prohibitively expensive.

With the passage of time, however, as with other developments in technology, competition among service providers increased, service capabilities expanded, and prices came down. Though lawyers still acknowledge Westlaw and Lexis as the gold standards for legal research, due in large part to their proprietary features such as Shepards and KeyCite, other legal research companies are looking for a piece of those behemoths' market share. Among them are Loislaw, Versuslaw, Casemaker, and Fastcase.

Fastcase cofounder and CEO Ed Walters said his company was born in his suburban Washington, D.C. living room on November 10, 1999. Walters and fellow D.C. attorney Phil Rosenthal, now president of Fastcase, said they realized that clients of their BigLaw firm, Covington and Burling had grown tired of the pass-through cost structure
of traditional legal research. They decided to quit their jobs and see whether they could make a living offering lawyers an affordable alternative or supplement to other commercial legal research services.

Walters and Rosenthal made their dream come true. Fastcase now serves almost 340,000 lawyers and has partnerships with bar associations in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, among other states.

In late 2004, ISBA president Ole Bly Pace appointed a Special Committee on Electronic Research and charged it with the mission of reviewing the services and costs from an array of online legal research providers and making a recommendation to ISBA's Assembly. A year later, the committee had completed its work and had a recommendation for ISBA.

Committee chair John Phipps of Champaign said the lawyers on the committee came from diverse practices, including larger firms as well as small firms, solo practitioners, and government lawyers from across the state. "We had a broad perspective from legal consumers, including several lawyers who were just starting out in practice."

And, Phipps notes, the committee included some particularly technologically savvy lawyers, such as Winnebago sole practitioner Nerino Petro, who now serves as advisor to the State Bar of Wisconsin Law Office Management Assistance Program (Practice411TM) and whom Phipps describes as a "certified technology guru."

Says Phipps, "We wanted a useful member benefit that would allow ISBA members to have access to free legal research that was workable and usable." The committee solicited and received proposals from five research firms,
he says. Committee members spent the time it took to educate themselves and extensively questioned the company representatives about their firms' products.

"You cannot believe the grilling we gave these people. Everyone on the committee went out and played with these things." Some of the company reps, members felt, were less than responsive to their questions, and some companies had unsatisfactory search engines or provided more limited services than committee members felt bar members should receive.

Fastcase, Phipps says, emerged as the clear winner on all points. "Fastcase was very user-friendly, had a good search engine, and its company representatives were very responsive to our questions and concerns."

Furthermore, Phipps notes, Fastcase was willing to enter into a shorter-term contract than the other finalist. "The committee felt that technology was changing so fast that a shorter term was appropriate. And then, as it turned out, Fastcase was making significant advances in its services and ultimately was able to provide ISBA with some extra features for very little additional cost."

By the time Phipps's committee was ready with its recommendation, Irene Bahr had become president of ISBA. Says Phipps, "Irene saw the value of a nationwide service for members, especially for those practicing in areas bordering on other states, and worked very closely with our committee. She championed Fastcase when we presented our recommendation to the Board of Governors and also brought the idea to ISBA Mutual, which partnered with ISBA in funding Fastcase for members."

In addition to Phipps and Petro, the selection committee included Adrienne Albrecht, Maria Berger, Tom Bruno, Susan Dawson-Tibbetts, Kelly Gordon, Ross Levey, Jennifer Shaw, and Richard Wilson.

- Helen W. Gunnarsson

 

How to use Fastcase

Haven't used Fastcase, you say? What are you waiting for? If you're an ISBA member, you can explore and experiment as much as you like for as long as you like at no cost.

Boolean, natural language, and citation lookup

To get started, go to ISBA's home page at http://www.isba.org/index.html. Near the upper right-hand corner of the page you'll see the legend "Free Legal Research" next to a button saying "Fastcase." Click on the button and you'll find yourself at a login screen. (You'll also find an excellent user guide, a set of FAQs, and links to online training demos and free monthly Webinars.) Use your last name and ISBA member number to log in, and you'll be ready to begin searching.

Fastcase enables users to search using three different methods: a keyword (or "Boolean") search using industry standard search terms and connectors such as "and", "or," and quotation marks " "; natural language search; and citation lookup. You can pick which database you wish to search - case law, statutes, regulations, constitutions, court rules, and federal filings, all for one or more state or federal courts.

If you'd like to search filings in the nation's federal courts, Fastcase gives you the option of narrowing your search by district, by judge, by case type, and by date; you can also limit your search to cases having downloadable opinions or orders. (Though this search will give you case names, numbers, types, filing dates, and the judges to which the cases have been assigned, you'll have to use a PACER account to view or download the filings themselves.)

The site also contains links to Fastcase partners such as ChoicePoint and NewsLibrary.com for searches of public documents, newspapers, and legal forms. You'll have to pay additional fees for the use of these services.

Don't remember how to do a search with terms and connectors? The right-hand side of the initial search page, as well as the "Help" link at the top of every page on the Fastcase website, provides options. Users with questions may check the list of frequently asked questions (FAQ), view any or all of a series of brief online tutorials, read the user guide, participate in live chat with a Fastcase customer service representative, e-mail a question to the company, or telephone Fastcase's toll-free number.

You can also click on the "Resources" header and find links to a Fastcase blog with posts relating to law practice and technology, a Fastcase forum for asking questions and viewing answers on how to get the most out of Fastcase, and articles on searching, printing, saving, and using other Fastcase features. That page also contains a link enabling you to add a button to your computer's toolbar to make it even easier to access Fastcase.

There's even a free Fastcase podcast to which you can subscribe by visiting http://fastcase.blogspot.com/2009/02/subscribe-to-fastcase-podcasts-on.html. And you can receive free e-mails that will let you know when new news has been added to Fastcase's blog.

Put in your search terms for cases and hit the "Search" button and instantly you'll get a screen showing the first twenty results, including case names, citations, and the first few sentences of either the most relevant paragraph or the first paragraph, whichever suits your pleasure. You can sort the results by relevance, by decision date, by court hierarchy, by name, or by the number of times cases are cited in Fastcase's entire database. Click on a case to read the entire text or send it to the print queue; you can also add the case to "My Favorites," save it to your hard drive, into the word processing program of your choice, or perform other functions.

Shepards and KeyCite ala carte

Lawyers who are understandably attached to services such as Shepards and KeyCite may feel some disappointment that those proprietary services are not included in Fastcase. Fastcase does provide Authority Check, an automated
tool that searches for other cases that cite the case you're looking at and displays the results as a list of hyperlinked names.

You can then go to those cases and figure out for yourself to what extent the case remains precedential. Use Authority Check on your page of results and you can sort them in order of authority, so that the most frequently cited cases are at the top of your list.

But there's no question that Shepards and KeyCite are the most powerful tools for determining the subsequent treatment of a case. "We do not hold Authority Check out as a complete replacement for services such as Shepards or KeyCite - both of which we like very much," the company says.

Fastcase therefore provides links to each of those services so that you can pay for using them on a transactional basis - generally around $5 apiece - which, ISBA Fastcase aficionados point out, is likely to be far less than the monthly subscription fee.

New on Fastcase is the Interactive Timeline feature, which you can access on your results page by clicking on the tab helpfully labeled as such. Once you do, you'll see a graph with circles of various sizes placed between a vertical axis with relevance values ranging from zero to 100 percent and a horizontal axis showing dates. You can change the vertical axis from relevance to show the court level if you'd prefer.

Each circle represents one case from your search results; you can also tell the timeline how many cases from your search to display at a time. Hover your mouse over the circle without clicking to see which case, some relevant language from its text, and the number of times it's cited in the Fastcase database.

The circle's size corresponds to that number. And if a case has a yellow dot inside its circle, it's been cited by other cases within the search you've just done. The larger the yellow dot, the more times other cases within your search result set have cited it. See the main article for lawyers' comments about the value of the Interactive Timeline.

- Helen W. Gunnarsson


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