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Legal Research Software: Mapping Data to Save Time and Improve Access
It is an exciting time for legal research. The text-based searches of yesterday are giving way to the interactive visualization of data. What this means is that lawyers will have more control over and increased awareness of their research projects. The visual ability to map out information empowers researchers to understand when enough is enough, thus saving time and reducing the cost of providing legal services
In this episode of Law Technology Now, host Bob Ambrogi talks shop with Fastcase founder and CEO Ed Walters. Together, they share exciting new developments in legal software and how it’s developed as well as how it can create jobs for lawyers rather than take them away. With the majority of people doing their computing through mobile devices, there is enormous opportunity to provide valuable legal services in new ways.
Ed Walters is the CEO and co-founder of Fastcase and currently teaches Law of Robots at Georgetown University Law Center. Prior to that, he worked at Covington & Burling in Washington D.C. and Brussels, where he advised clients such as Microsoft, Merck, SmithKline, the National Football League, and the National Hockey League. From 1991-1993, Ed worked in the White House for the Office of Media Affairs and the Office of Presidential Speechwriting. Walters also clerked for the Hon. Emilio M. Garza on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He is licensed to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Fourth and Fifth Circuits.View transcript
Law Technology Now
Legal Research Software_ Mapping Data to Save Time and Improve Access (Rebroadcast)
Male Speaker: Hello listeners, this episode originally aired in February of 2016 and we are rebroadcasting it because it’s about the future of legal research and its evolution towards visualization over simple text. Enjoy the episode.
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Bob Ambrogi: Welcome to Law Technology Now. This is Bob Ambrogi. I am the co-host of this show along with Monica Bay. And if you are new to the show, let me just tell you this is a relaunch of a podcast that Monica Bay did on her own for many years, and then the podcast went into a brief period of hibernation, where we have relaunched the show recently with Monica and I sharing hosting duties. We will alternate month to month talking about legal technology issues.
This is my first show going solo. Monica and I recorded the first episode of our relaunched show and now I am beginning this. This is my first episode alone, and I guess what I am hoping to do with this show is to have conversations with some of the people who I think are interesting to talk to in this industry, and there are a lot of them out there.
For my first show I wanted to have on somebody who I have had a lot of conversations with over the years and I always find very interesting to talk to, and that’s Ed Walters, the CEO of Fastcase.
So Ed Walters, welcome to Law Technology Now.
Ed Walters: Thank you Bob. Fun to be here.
Bob Ambrogi: So Ed, perhaps a little known fact about you, that I think a lot of the people listening to this program probably have heard of you, probably some of them are going to know you, but I am willing to bet that a lot of them don’t know that you started your career as a speechwriter for George H. W. Bush.
Ed Walters: Yeah, that’s true. My first job out of college, which I really stumbled into, I cold called the White House, I told him I was a Democrat. They said, look kid, you are coming in here as an intern. You are going to be making copies. We don’t care if you are a communist, it’s not like we are going to ask you set foreign policy. But I was able to parlay that summer internship into a full-time job when I graduated and worked in the Office of Presidential Speechwriting. It was a joy. It was so much fun. I got into a lot of fights. Man, just bounded up the steps every single morning, what a blast.
Bob Ambrogi: So here is my question, is there anything that you have learned in that job that’s proven useful to you in running a legal research company?
Ed Walters: Wow. That’s a great question. I think maybe the most important thing I learned there was how to disagree without being disagreeable.
Bob Ambrogi: Being a Democrat I guess you would have to.
Ed Walters: That’s right. That’s right. And I guess I really learned there that people who disagree with you can often be very well-intentioned and very smart and still disagree. And that has come in handy throughout my life, but certainly running a business where people have strong opinions and they disagree about very important things, knowing that you can still disagree with someone and respect them and respect their opinion, that’s a lesson I have carried for my whole life.
Bob Ambrogi: Well, I have talked to you a number of times over the years, but a conversation I had with you in 2010 always stood out to me, and one of the things you said during that conversation was that you believe that legal publishing should be based not on — that competition in legal publishing should be based not on who owns the data, meaning the cases and statutes and whatever, but on who provides the best features, services and prices. And I wonder if that’s something you still believe, and if so, could you explain what you mean by that?
Ed Walters: Yeah. So this is something that we have seen over and over again. We have baked this into our DNA at Fastcase, the idea that the law itself is or should be a commodity.
If you think about, when we started Fastcase in 1999, legal publishing and legal research were in kind of an AOL world, where you paid for access. The kind of incumbent traditional publishers; Westlaw, LexisNexis were charging for access to the law, because that was the only way you can get it. And when we started Fastcase we said, look, in the Internet age there is going to be lots of ways of getting the underlying stuff, getting the law itself, and so if you are really going to be successful, you have to provide something more than just access to the law. The winners in this market are going to be the ones who provide the best software. And today this idea is referred to as software is eating the world in the parlance of Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, and you see this across industries.
It’s not really the underlying content that wins the day, it’s the most compelling software and experience that does, and this was sort of the undoing of AOL. AOL was kind of a mere access service and what became important was much more than that.
So that’s what we try to do at Fastcase. We try to say both that the underlying law itself should be available to everybody, it should be a commodity, it should be universally accessible, it should be very useful and it should be relatively inexpensive like any commodity.
And then what you add on top of that is what you can really charge for. That’s where legal publisher should add value. And we have sort of played this out in a couple of ways. One of those ways is to say that the underlying law can and should be free. We were the first ones to launch a free mobile app for this that made it available for free. We pioneered the Public Library of Law. We actually worked with Google before there was a Google Scholar to put a bunch of the law available inside the Google search engine.
And every time we do this people say, oh my gosh, that’s crazy, you are going to undermine your paid legal research service, and every time we see over and over again it doesn’t. In fact, we are bringing more people into the legal research by making more of the law available for free.
And I think this has sort of played out. If you look at the kind of innovation cycle for law, Westlaw Next and Lexis Advance, and new versions of Bloomberg Law have all followed our work to pioneer the law. I mean, obviously we didn’t do this all ourselves, but I think the world is sort of moving in this direction where you have to add compelling software on top of the data itself.
The last thing I will say about this is that you can sort of hear echoes of this even in the biggest publishing companies. I think everyone sort of recognizes this is true. Thomson Reuters Legal or Westlaw has said for a couple of years now, we are no longer a content publishing company; we are a software solutions company.
And so I think that legal publishing market is — as the underlying law becomes more democratized, as more people have access to it, the real competition comes in who can build the best software on top of it, who can make that experience the most useful. So this is a competition we have been geared up to win for years.
Bob Ambrogi: So do you view yourself as a legal research company or as a legal technology company or it doesn’t really matter?
Ed Walters: I think of us as a legal publishing company, and the publishing business in 2016 is all about software. So the underlying law itself is provided by courts and legislators and regulators and agencies and so we aggregate it and standardize it and really build software on top of it that makes it universally usable and understandable and beautiful.
Bob Ambrogi: Ed, Fastcase over the years has sometimes been portrayed in the media as a sort of David going up against the two Goliaths of legal research, Westlaw and LexisNexis. You just alluded to the fact that in some ways they have followed your lead, whether intentionally or not, who knows, in some respects.
But you have recently acquired Loislaw, one of the original sort of lower cost, mid-market I guess legal research services. I am wondering at this point that you have been doing this now, as you said, for a long time, if you’re David against Goliath, how is the battle going, where do you stand right now?
Ed Walters: Well, I don’t like that David and Goliath metaphor necessarily, because I think David and Goliath is kind of zero sum. You can’t have David and Goliath coexist, one of them has to win. And I think that there is a place for a company like Fastcase without having to take anybody down with a rock.
Ed Walters: I have been thinking recently about Fastcase more like Starbucks. When Starbucks came around, there were plenty of coffee shops in the world and the coffee was really uneven. There was a lot of really bad coffee out there and one thing that Starbucks did was, it said, look, we can elevate the level of coffee. We can have like a very high standard of coffee and have it be ubiquitous and create kind of a middle market for coffee. And not a middle market that’s bad, actually a middle market that’s going to rival some of the best coffee shops there are, and coffee won’t necessarily all be about coffee, it will be about ambience and music and places to be and to drink coffee comfortably and lifestyle in some sense.
And so I think that there is room to do that in legal publishing as well to raise the floor to say that everyone should have good access to law, with search that uses really great science to make legal research smart. So it shouldn’t be like a kind of barebones thing, through your Bar Association or through your mobile app or through your iPad, you can get very good legal research everywhere.
And I don’t think that knocks out necessarily Thomson Reuters Legal or Reed Elsevier and LexisNexis. I think there’s always going to be room for them maybe in the secondary market or in workflow or things like that, but I do think that there is that — in the same way that Starbucks made coffee a lot more accessible to people and created a lot more coffee drinkers and made the experience more enjoyable and really kind of raised the floor for coffee in America, I think there’s room for a company like Fastcase to raise the floor for everybody to make legal research something that isn’t intimidating, that partners can do and young associates can do and law students can do in a compelling, powerful way and without being afraid.
And so I think that David and Goliath is not really a story that we tell a lot, but I think there is a way to raise the floor a little bit of what people can do with legal research software.
Bob Ambrogi: And what is your acquisition of Loislaw which happened last September mean to that? This was, as I understood, an assets only purchase that included the Loislaw brand and the domain name and the subscribers basically to Loislaw. So what does that mean for your position in the market?
Ed Walters: Well, I would like to think that it’s at some level a validation of how well our software is working, and I think of the approach we have taken as a company. So we have always viewed this as a long haul investment. We are not like a flameout.com, we are not raising a ton of money and spending a ton of money and going out of business. And our conjecture was that if you build a company for the long-term, you build a profitable, solid growing company that people love, over time everything will sort of fall in your direction.
And when it came time for Wolters Kluwer to close down Loislaw, they said let’s survey the market and let’s figure out where our customers are going to have the best home. And when they talked to us, when they saw the Fastcase software and they saw how much our customers loved Fastcase, they said, this is going to be a happy home. We know that we are being a good steward for the subscribers when we bring them over to Fastcase. And they had to say, like, whoever it is, is going to be a steward for these Loislaw libraries; the Aspen and CCH treatises that Loislaw subscribers get, and so we have to find someone who we can trust to be a steward for these going forward.
And so I take a lot of pride and validation in the fact that a global publishing company like Wolters Kluwer saw that in Fastcase, and we take it very seriously. We are working very hard to make their customers happy.
Bob Ambrogi: What’s been the response of the subscribers of Loislaw?
Ed Walters: They love it. Yeah, you know, it’s funny —
Bob Ambrogi: What are you going to tell me?
Ed Walters: I will tell you, if there was a major kind of cultural shock, you could imagine people who have used Loislaw since the 80s might say who moved my cheese? Whenever you switch software, it’s a disruptive thing. If you think about when you switch from Windows 7 to Windows 10 or Windows XP to Windows 7, everyone has a hard time with it and lawyers especially, and so we really, we added staff here. We were building out to deal with a lot of inbound customer service, and people who need a lot of training, and it hasn’t gone that way at all. A lot of Loislaw subscribers came in and breathed kind of a sigh of relief. They said, wow, this actually works great, it works better than I was worried it might. So it’s worked out really well.
Bob Ambrogi: Ed, here in my State of Massachusetts, the State Bar recently switched to offering Fastcase as a member benefit instead of Casemaker. There has been this long time, I think you have to call it a competition, between Fastcase and Casemaker against each other for these Bar Association affinity deals. I am wondering when you go to talk to bars, or when Phil, your co-founder, Phil Rosenthal goes out to talk to bars, what do you see as the most important distinguishing factor between Fastcase and Casemaker?
Ed Walters: Well, you know, it’s funny, we don’t really do a whole lot of comparative stuff anymore. I mean, I think that used to be the case but —
Bob Ambrogi: Well, that’s got to be the question though. They have got to be asking that.
Ed Walters: Hey, it’s a fine service. I mean, they were really pioneers of the Bar Association market. I think today, when you look at both software systems just as a software, we really are kind of competing with Westlaw Next and Lexis Advance, and I think quite favorably.
And so we go in and we say look, Fastcase has baked in integration with the most popular smartphone app for lawyers, even if you are a Casemaker state most of the lawyers in your state are probably using Fastcase on the iPhone or Android or Windows Phone or iPad, why not let them integrate?
And we have been for years kind of moving beyond the mere access model to things like data visualization with the Interactive Timeline or big data analytics with Bad Law Bot, and these are all things that are designed to, again, not just sort of give people access to the libraries, but to find things that you would miss or to help you understand the law at a deeper, more visual level. And I don’t think there’s really anything like it anymore.
When we compare it you can’t say like what’s the Interactive Timeline like on Westlaw? I think the only other company that does something like it is Ravel Law. And so when you talk about the best app for iPhone, I mean there’s not like a competing app that does that, so we are not really saying anymore like if you compare head-to-head Fastcase versus brand X, here’s the boxes you check; I think what we are saying is that over the last five years we have added a 100,000 new subscribers a year, in part because there’s really nothing like Fastcase.
So I think that’s really changed, we haven’t taken a comparative head-to-head approach in a number of years.
Bob Ambrogi: Speaking of that app, and I have written favorably about your app and I know that for the last three years of the ABA’s Legal Technology Survey Report your app has been rated by lawyers as the most popular legal app in that survey, but still, it’s what, five, six years old at this point. I am wondering do you have a new app in the works and when are we going to see that?
Ed Walters: Yeah, so Version 3 came out I guess last year in 2015 and it was really a response to iOS 8; it wasn’t much of a change for the app. But we are cooking a new one right now. Actually I have got the mock-up sitting here on my desk and I am pretty excited about it.
Bob Ambrogi: For iPhone and iPad?
Ed Walters: Yeah, that’s right, and Android and for Windows Phone. By the way, we launched the Windows Phone app. We didn’t make a whole lot of fanfare about it, but if you have Windows Phone, there’s an app for that. So, the new one actually is going to be a little bit different.
Right now Fastcase for iPhone or iPad or Android is really just cases and statutes, and in the future, if you have a full subscription to Fastcase on your desktop, with a lot more libraries and things like that, then you will have access to those on your iPhone as well. So if you don’t have a subscription, you continue to get cases and statutes for free. But if, for example, you have a subscription through the Mass Bar, then you will have access to all of the other libraries that you have available as a member on your mobile app as well, and I think that will be a really nice edition for Fastcase subscribers.
Bob Ambrogi: On the topic of things that might be coming down the pike, you were just talking about visualization, and I interviewed you on that also a couple of years ago; I think it was two years ago actually for an ABA Journal piece I did about the use of visualization tools and legal research. And from what I could find in researching that article, you were actually the first, if not one of the first, but I think the first US legal research company to incorporate any kind of a visualization tool into your research platform, the Interactive Timeline.
Ed Walters: 2008, yeah.
Bob Ambrogi: So what do you think visual tools bring to legal research and what new tools might you be developing?
Ed Walters: Well, I think that for a legal researcher text-based search results kind of lie. When you look at text-based search results on Google or on your traditional legal research services, they kind of all look the same, but they are not the same. There are some real winners in that group and then there are some dead losers, stuff that you don’t want to read, but in the old way of doing research you can’t tell them apart.
So in a list of text-based search results the only thing you can do is sort of skim them all and hope that you don’t miss something, and if you have a 150, 200, a 1,000 search results, that’s tedious, terrible waste for work, so the ability to visualize search results, to create a map allows you to see in an instant, visually, what’s really important and what’s not.
And as a practical matter, the most important thing about that is it tells you when to stop reading. In text-based search results, there’s nothing that tells you that you are done. You can keep reading until you get to the bottom and that can take days, or you can stop and worry the whole time that there’s something that you missed.
With a map of search results, like the Interactive Timeline, you can see right away, okay, here are the six germane cases that I care about, and I have read them, and now I am done, I can stop doing research. On Fastcase, we have kind of ingeniously hidden the Interactive Timeline away so that no one will ever find our coolest features; we are really smart about that.
But on the new version of Fastcase, Fastcase 7, it’s integrated right into the search results and we are really excited about that. I think it’s going to be a major step forward in legal research.
Bob Ambrogi: And a couple of years ago you licensed TopForm, bankruptcy case preparation feature, tell me a little bit more about what that is and what you see as significant about that as a product.
Ed Walters: Yeah, so TopForm is kind of like TurboTax for bankruptcy lawyers. A bankruptcy lawyer will sit down with their client and they will walk through an interview and at the end of the interview TopForm produces a fillable PDF that you can electronically file a bankruptcy petition into any bankruptcy court in the country, and it will be customized for the rules and local forms for that bankruptcy court.
We bought this from LexisNexis at the end of 2013, and this is an example of baking the law into software. So in the past, bankruptcy lawyers might need to know all of the different exemptions for all the districts that they are filing in, and now you can sort of bake this into software, much like TurboTax.
I am really convinced that this kind of document automation is going to be a major frontier for the practice of law. There’s so much that you can do to use software to both help more people and to create more jobs for lawyers, I think it’s an amazing frontier.
So we have sort of seen it here with TopForm, allowing lawyers to file more bankruptcy petitions, faster, makes them more effective as lawyers, makes them better business people.
If it takes you two days to prepare a bankruptcy petition, you are not going to make any money on it, there’s not going to be enough bankruptcy lawyers to help people. By definition, you don’t make a lot of money for each petition because your clients are by definition bankrupt, they are reorganizing their debts. But if you can do two a day, then you can very effectively make money as a lawyer, you can pay your overhead, you can run a very effective business.
And I think that if you look at the market generally, with 40,000 law school graduates for 20,000 law firm jobs in the US in 2014 and 2015, there’s a vast kind of oversupply of lawyers, but at the same token, there is a huge unmet legal need among middle class people especially for legal services.
I am thinking here of the ABA Access to Justice Survey from last year that said that some large number of people with legal problems weren’t going to lawyers. And the reason wasn’t because they thought they couldn’t afford legal services, it was because they didn’t even know that the problem they had was a legal problem. If they are being evicted from their house and can’t get their belongings, they don’t really think of that as a legal problem, they think of it as a social problem or a life problem.
But I think that this latent market for legal services presents huge opportunities for document automation. These are often repetitive problems. They come up over and over again. They are very form-based. And so I think that they are very amenable to document automation solutions.
Cam I tell you something I am really inspired by?
Bob Ambrogi: Sure.
Ed Walters: I think of the Iron Tech Lawyer Program at Georgetown Law, Tanina Rostain and before that Roger Skalbeck as well had law students draft apps for justice. And the idea was these aren’t coders, these are law students without a background in engineering or computer science and they would build with Neota Logic or A2J Author small apps that would answer recurring questions and help people with legal problems. And the results were amazing.
Every year there’s another crop of Iron Tech Lawyer apps that come out of Georgetown, written by students. If you look at the best law app, a student basically built a layer on top of Westlaw that improved some of the features in Westlaw Next.
We are coming to a time where the ability to code and the ability to create software applications is being democratized. I am super excited about what that means for access to justice, there’s a lot. People will be able to help with I think intelligent, legal informed coding. And I think TopForm, once it works for bankruptcy, we plan to extend it to other areas as well, you could imagine for immigration or no fault divorce. There’s a lot of very form-based parts of the practice of law where we could help a lot of people with software.
Bob Ambrogi: I think that’s an incredibly exciting area as well. As we are speaking, the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grants Conference is going on down in Texas this year. There’s a lot of innovation coming out of the legal services community in terms of using technology to bridge the access to justice gap and to provide legal services more efficiently and more effectively to people who can’t afford them and to make up for shortcomings in funding and staff.
You mentioned A2J Author, that’s something that’s been really important in developing guided questionnaires for self-help litigants and self-help — people with self-help problems to prepare legal forms and find their way to legal help. So it’s a really exciting area.
Ed Walters: This is a major problem. People have legal problems, but they don’t know how to get a lawyer, or they feel like they can’t afford a lawyer and software really can be a solution to some of these problems; not all of the problems, but some of the form filling problems, some of the recurring problems that require the same thing over and over again. There really is a hope that people will get more and better help, and again, not in a zero sum way. This doesn’t have to take lawyers’ jobs, it doesn’t have to replace associates with robots. It can serve a market that doesn’t get served well today at all, and that’s good for everybody.
Bob Ambrogi: Right. Lawyers aren’t doing that work and nobody is serving that market, especially in the low bono area, people who are sort of above the poverty line, but just can’t afford the cost of legal services. Probably a lot of lawyers are in that category.
Ed Walters: That’s such an interesting insight, Bob. If you are below the poverty line, you can qualify for legal aid, but nobody ever thinks about people who are just above the poverty line. If you are in the lower middle class or the middle class, access to legal services is really expensive. And if you think about all the other needs people have, saving for retirement or putting a kid through school or making a car note or paying off loans, if you have to choose between doing one of those things and paying for legal services, you are going to go without the legal services. And so if there’s a way to provide some of those legal services to people that doesn’t cut out legal jobs, I think that really is the opportunity for a win for everyone.
Bob Ambrogi: Yeah, I wish we could talk all day, and unfortunately, we are already running out of time. Just before we wrap up, I want to know what you are thinking going forward for Fastcase, what’s the plan for the next five years, how will Fastcase be different in 2020 from what it is today.
Ed Walters: Well, you know me Bob, I am an optimistic person by nature, but I have literally never been more excited and optimistic about Fastcase than I am in January of 2016. 16 years I have been doing this I have never been as excited about it as I am right now, which, if you are in the legal research business, that’s a very dangerous thing for everybody else.
If I am looking forward, now we are at a place where we have 28 State Bar Associations who work with us, most of the big Bar Associations have a Fastcase subscription, 800,000 subscribers. We have a big lead in mobile and a platform going forward in Fastcase 7 that’s going to be the best legal research system in the world. I am prone to overstatement, but I really believe that, I don’t think that there’s going to be a better legal research system in the world than Fastcase 7 is, with that platform, we can look to expand around the world. So I think global is a real frontier for us.
In the same way that in 1999, one of the biggest law firms had access to the law. In the world only the biggest countries do, and there’s no reason to think that 15 years from now, 10 years from now, there won’t be one global law library with access to all of the world’s law translatable from any country’s language to any country’s language. And if you look at kind of the history of legal publishing, if you do that top-down, if you start with the biggest countries, you never get to the smallest countries. You have to have a cost structure that allows you to do it in an inexpensive way.
And Fastcase’s algorithmic approach to legal research, which doesn’t involve tens of thousands of human editors, but involves intelligence software and good access to the law is built exactly for that.
So I think if you are looking forward, there has to be a global library of law, and I think we are in a really good place to be that library. Our position in mobile right now is really just in the US, but there’s no reason to think we couldn’t do that in the rest of the world either. For a lot of the world their computer is in their pocket, and so I think mobile really provides a platform to be the legal research application for the world. And so I would say look to see us extend our mobile platform everywhere.
And then finally, we really want to make TopForm a success, we really want document automation to be an important part of the world going forward, and so we will look to extend that into other areas of law.
The last frontier for us is data analytics. So one of the things we are really interested in right now is how you use math and science to solve these sorts of problems, on the same way we have done for legal research using citation analysis and data visualization. I think there’s a lot of questions in law that are unknown, but not unknowable and the rise of data analytics really gives us the opportunity to understand better.
As a one example, we have begun a kind of massive download of PACER information and there are insights in PACER that will allow law firms to do all kinds of stuff, from pricing fee agreements, and alternative legal fee arrangements, to predicting when their clients are going to have problems before they do, to treat things as a matter of kind of risk mitigation instead of litigation after the fact. And I think all of these solutions lie in data analytics.
I am actually working on a book right now about data analytics in law, probably scheduled to come out in 2017-2018, but I think there’s going to be a lot of insights in data analysis, like what we did with Bad Law Bot, where we said you can derive from the citations and figure out which cases have been overturned algorithmically. There’s all kinds of insights in the law just like that, super excited about that.
So those are some frontiers for us going forward.
Bob Ambrogi: Well, Ed Walters, thanks for being my inaugural guest on my first solo edition of Law Technology Now. It has been a real pleasure to talk to you.
Ed Walters: Thank you so much for having me. It has been a blast.
Bob Ambrogi: And thanks to all our listeners for listening to Law Technology Now. We hope you enjoyed the show and hope you will listen next time.
This is Bob Ambrogi. Thanks for listening.
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