Ed Walters started as a lawyer in a big law firm in Washington D.C. In the late 1990’s, he was approached by a client asking him to research a relatively new legal issue without using LexisNexis or WestLaw, as they were trying to reduce online legal research costs. His inability to do this set off a chain of events leading him to create the company Fastcase. His story begs the question, are lawyers simply paying too much for online legal research sources? What are some ways particularly solo and small firm attorneys can reduce research overheads in their practice? And when is it necessary to pay for LexisNexis or WestLaw?
In this episode of New Solo, Adriana Linares interviews Ed Walters about his experience starting Fastcase, how it interacts with the bigger legal research companies and smaller startups, and the right steps for solo practitioners to take in choosing an online research source. Linares and Walters begin by discussing the differences between a free resource like Google Scholar, a mid-range company like Fastcase, and a larger company like LexisNexis. If an attorney has a boutique practice and needs treatises or specialized databases, Walters says, they will need a big online research company. Otherwise, the lawyer might be paying too much. He urges practitioners to check their local bar, state bar, and other associations or organizations for member benefits that often include research and even practice management tools. There are three startup companies that Walters encourages lawyers to research: Casetext, which focuses on crowdsourcing, Ravel Law, which uses data visualization, and Judicata, which uses semantic analysis to find relationships based on meanings. He encourages all lawyers, but especially those in small firms, to research different options and find the one that fits their practice best.
Ed Walters is the CEO and co-founder of Fastcase, an online legal research software company based in Washington D.C. Before founding Fastcase, Ed worked at Covington & Burling where his practice focused on corporate advisory work for software companies and sports leagues, and intellectual property litigation. He has written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The University of Chicago Law Review, The Green Bag, and Legal Times, and has spoken extensively on legal publishing around the country. He is an adjunct professor of law at the Georgetown University Law Center, where he teaches The Law of Robots.
Special thanks to our sponsor, Solo Practice University.
Mentioned in This Episode
New Solo: Legal Research Tools and Tips – 1/21/2015
Advertiser: So you’re an attorney, and you’ve decided to go out on your own. Now what? You need a plan and you’re not alone. Join expert host, Adriana Linares, and her distinguished guests on New Solo. Tune in to the lively conversation, as they share insights and information about how to successfully run your law firm, here on Legal Talk Network.
Adriana Linares: Hello and welcome to Legal Talk Network. This is Adriana Linares, today I’m coming to you from Orlando, Florida. I’m a legal technology trainer and consultant. I like to think that I move about the country saving lawyers and legal professionals from down time. Today I’m very excited to have Ed Walters from Fastcase on the show. He’s going to be talking to us about research, legal research. Of course if you’re a new solo, whether you’re fresh out of law school or just decided to make a mass exodus from a mid-size or a large firm and going out of your own ,having the right access to legal research is going to be very important, so he’s going to help us figure out how to get that done. Before we do that though, I want to make sure to thank our sponsors, Solo Practice University. If you’re looking for some augmented information and education and in a very professional and informative way, make sure to check out Solo Practice University. On our last episode, we had Lee Rosen on, he talked to us about referral networks and creating a network of attorneys and or others to help us grow our practice. That was a great discussion and I have a feeling this one is going to be just as exciting and lively with Ed on the show. Ed thanks for coming on.
Ed Walters: It’s my pleasure, Adriana.
Adriana Linares: It’s so nice to talk to you, you’re absolutely one of my favorite people in legaltech, I’m so happy that you took some time out of what I know is a very busy schedule to come talk to us. I wanted to start by just asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself, you know, how you came about into legal and make sure you also throw in a little part about that robot class you’re teaching, because that’s pretty cool. And then I’m going to ask you about how Fastcase got started.
Ed Walters: I’m a Leo, I like strong coffee, strong whiskey, long, moonlit walks on the beach. I came to legaltech quite naturally, so my background is I was a lawyer in a big firm in Washington D.C, and I’m not the kind of person who says I practiced law, it was never for me, or big firms weren’t my bag. I loved it, I had a great practice. I was trying to figure out in the early days of the internet how the rest of the world was going to regulate electronic commerce, and privacy, and things like that. It was a relatively exotic practice, I was living half the year in Washington and half the year in Brussels, and trying to figure things out that were very unfigured out. They were very wide open at the time, it was 1997 or ‘98 when I was in practice and it was fantastic. It was wonderful, it was great. And then tragedy struck. One day one of our biggest clients, a Fortune 5 client of our law firm – I won’t say who it is but let’s say it was a software company that specialized in making PC operating systems – and they called by one day and said, “Ed, we have a question. It had a kind of straightforward case law answer, but because the law is so new, you can’t find the answer in the books. It probably won’t be in the digest yet, so you’ll have to do online legal research, but don’t use WestLaw or LexisNexis.” And I said, “Okay guys, what’s your hangup with WestLaw and Lexis?” Because those are the tools we used at my firm, we had both. So they said, “Well look, we have 300 outside counsel, and they all passed through their subscription research cost to us, and last year we payed an ungodly amount for their subscription research cost.” You hear this a lot more today but it was very novel in 1998 when they said, “We don’t pay for your carpeting or your electricity or the books on your shelf, we’re not going to pay to put the books on your computer either, that’s your overhead. So I don’t care how you do it, but don’t use those two.” So it was 1998, 1999, and I was trying to be an optimist-
Adriana Linares: You were scratching your head.
Ed Walters: Yes. And I said, well I’ll just go find a big alternative to those services that must exist somewhere and I’ll use that. So for four hours, I looked for the big alternative for four hours that was out there, and I couldn’t find one. So at one o’clock in the morning, I am punching the printer in my office suite, and my next-door neighbor at the firm comes in and says, “Ed, have you lost your mind?” and I said no. I was looking for the big alternative, I couldn’t find one, so I broke down and I used LexisNexis; and it took me 45 minutes to do something that should’ve taken 5 minutes. We just paid $1500 for something that should’ve been free or cost $50 or something, and all I was searching was judicial opinions. This wasn’t like a treatise like those guys had written, it was a judicial opinion that we had sort of pre paid with taxpayer dollars. We paid judges and law clerks to get the law right to write it down for us. We had given it away for free to then-foreign and publishing conglomerates who sold it back to us for hundreds of dollars an hour, or more than $100 per search at the time. So in my 1:00 AM tirade, I said I’ve got half a mind to start the thing I’m looking for all night. My nextdoor neighbor at the firm said that’s actually a pretty good idea, let’s go take a look at it.
Adriana Linares: Was that Phil?
Ed Walters: That was Phil Rosenthal, my co-founder.
Adriana Linares: Fastcase Phil!
Ed Walters: And it turned out my nextdoor neighbor was also a PhD in physics in addition to graduating at the top of his class at Harvard law school. Parenthetically at one o’clock in the morning, you would frequently find Phil in the office, like one of the hardest working guys in show business. I can assure you there were night many nights at one o’clock in the morning where I was lingering around the halls of a comfortable law firm.
Adriana Linares: But there was Fastcase Phil, working his butt off with that big giant brain of his.
Ed Walters: Truly, one of the great minds of our time. He can’t say this about himself, and never would, but I can say it about him. The guy’s like a certified genius, PhD from CalTech, taught with Stephen Hawking, like an actual rocket scientist. He worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratory; just a genius. And who just happened to be next door to me and I think without Phil’s encouragement, brains, and everything else, it would’ve been a 1:00 AM rant and that would’ve been the end of it. But with a genius and a great business partner like Phil, the two of us together were able to start that alternative that we were looking for that night. 15 years ago, just this past November. It’s pretty funny, the two of us spent about five or six months of nights and weekends in our law firm trying to put together a prototype and trying to do some business planning and business modeling and it led to some unusual situations. So one afternoon at the firm, Phil comes rushing breathlessly into my office and says, “They’re throwing away the books! They’re throwing away the books!” And I said “Phil, what are you talking about?” He said, “Come on, quickly!” So we run to the library, I’m sure he can’t be right, they’re not throwing away the books. We get to the library of our big law firm and there’s literally an industrial dumpster in the back. And they’re pulling two handfuls at a time, reporters off the shelf and into the dumpster. So we said, “Stop, what are you doing?” And they said, “We’re throwing these away, no one really uses the books.” And we said, “Before you throw them away, can we have them?” And they looked at us and said, “What do two second-year associates of the firm want with 3 thousand reporter volumes?” And we said-
Adriana Linares: Nothing, nothing at all, and you sort of looked away and-
Ed Walters: Nothing to see here.
Adriana Linares: Held your hands behind your back and moved your toe left to right slowly in front of you and said, “Nothing, we just thought we shouldn’t throw these books out.”
Ed Walters: Shuffling of the feet.
Adriana Linares: Yeah
Ed Walters: I can assure you, Phil and I are many things, casual is not among them. Geeky, shuffley, yes. So anyway, they said, “I have no idea why you want these books, but there are 3,000 of them. If you can have them out of here by Sunday afternoon, you can have them. Monday morning we pull the dumpster out.” So we got some friends together and moved 3,000 books from the Covington Library into storage in Northern Virginia, and those are kind of the foundation of Fastcase.
Adriana Linares: That’s awesome, you had to call your buddies that had trucks and say, “Hey, can you help me move this weekend? And it’s 3,000 books, it’s not a sofa sofa bed.”
Ed Walters: Exactly, I can assure you we had fewer friends after that weekend than we did before that weekend.
Adriana Linares: That was great, I loved that story. And so that was the birth of Fastcase, so to say, which has become one of the leading alternative – I mean, do you like being called an alternative research tool? Or is that kind of insulting because you feel you’re just as good as whatever is considered non-alternative?
Ed Walters: I’m happy to be called an alternative, and I want to be one of the big alternatives. In the same way that Apple was the alternative in the PC industry for years. I don’t think there’s anything insulting about that, we’re not trying to put anyone out of business. The mission of Fastcase is really simple; we want to democratize the law, we want to make more law available to more people at lower prices, or for free where possible, and we want to make legal research smarter. We want to use better tools to help people find answers faster and with more confidence, and find stuff they wouldn’t find otherwise.
Adriana Linares: Very noble goals.
Ed Walters: Thank you, I hope it doesn’t sound too pollyannaish, but that’s really what we’re all about. And I’m really happy to say that even fifteen years in, if you had asked us on day 1 of the enterprise, we would have said those are the two goals. And to this very day, you could track every single thing we do against those two things. We weren’t trying to be like a cheaper version of a traditional legal research service. We weren’t trying to be like a poor man’s WestLaw. The idea wasn’t to be like a Yugo of legal research, it was to be a Tesla of legal research.
Adriana Linares: I like that!
Ed Walters: Though it might not have the heated cup holders of your Rolls Royce, but it also goes 0 to 100 in 3 seconds and doesn’t use gasoline. So that’s the big idea here, we’re not trying to do the same thing in the same way, we’re really trying to use smarter technology to make legal research easier and more comfortable, dare I say it, even fun sometimes.
Adriana Linares: Fun, that’s what we’re looking for. So answer a few questions for me then based on the premise and which is, if I’m a new solo, again whether I’m someone that just got out of law school or I get to leave the comfort of a big firm that has big massive subscriptions. It almost seems like they don’t care what we’re charging or paying for research. I know that they do, but leaving the comfort of being able to research your way to death and going out there; if I’m a solo and I’m looking for a new or different resource, what’s the difference or what’s going to be my benefit between free research and then paid-for research? So let’s start like this. Can I start with having something like Google Scholar as a first layer of research and then from there where do I go?
Ed Walters: Well I like Scholar, I think you could probably get by with scholar if you really had to. I would say in most cases, you probably don’t, 26 State Bar Associations now offer fast cases of free benefit of membership. So something like 800,000 lawyers in the country get free access to Fastcase. So out of 1.1 million lawyers in the country, already something like 75% of the lawyers country don’t have to settle for Scholar. You can use Fastcase for free. I would say that for just getting started, there’s no reason why you should start with the most expensive legal research software you could possibly find.
Adriana Linares: So do I want to start with the low-cost research service?
Ed Walters: Well I would say the very first thing is, unless you have a very esoteric practice, if you are doing some boutique securities practice or air traffic controller law or something where you need treatises, or very specialized databases, if most of what you do with research is cases and statutes and things like that – which for most solos is the bulk of what they do – I’d start with the State Bar benefits. For the vast majority of states, you can get Fastcase for free, and there’s no reason not to start with that. The fact that it’s free is kind of a nice benefit but I often worry that people undervalue things that are free, even when they’re spectacular.
Adriana Linares: And I often worry that even though state bar associations are constantly, or hopefully constantly, reminding their members the benefits that they get, that they don’t know they have research as one of their benefits. I know that from the fact that I talk to a lot of lawyers and I give a lot of presentations and I go into a lot of law firms and I have to remind them a lot of times. You know, you get a lot of benefit for free just for being a member of insert-name-of-state-bar-here, and oftentimes they look at me and either 1 they don’t know or 2 they simply forgot that that was an option, so I think reminding them as a new solo to look to your state bar and figure out what sort of benefits, because while Fastcase is certainly in a lot of states, there might be other alternatives if they aren’t your state. So, definitely, step number 1 is look towards your state bar association. What about local bars? Do some of the local bars also have benefits like the state bars would offer?
Ed Walters: They do, so I totally agree. If you’re a member of a bar association, start there. There’s all kinds of benefits, Fastcase among them, but also Clio, there’s all kinds of benefits that state bars offer. If you’re not availing yourself of, that is always step one. When you’re going out on your own, look to see what someone has already bought for you. I think sometimes people think it’s just Hertz discounts and stuff like that; and although those are in there, there’s also a lot of really good legal tech bargains in there that the state bar and practice management advisors have negotiated for. So if you’re a member of the Illinois, Florida, New York, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, umpteen bars affiliated, you already have Fastcase as part of your benefit. You go to your state bar webpage, you log in, you click Fastcase, and you’re in.
Adriana Linares: Great. That’s very good advice, it’s a good place to get started. Before we move on to the next segment we’re going to take a quick break and hear a message from our sponsor. We’ll be right back.
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Adriana Linares: Welcome back to New Solo, I’m Adriana Linares and with me today is Ed from Fastcase, he’s one of the nicest guys in the business telling us a little bit about Fastcase and then giving us some good basic research tips. So before the break we talked; reminded everybody that one of the things you want to make sure and do is look towards your state bar, your local bar, any other organizations that might have some member benefits for you to make sure that you aren’t paying for something that you might already be paying for, through some sort of dues or memberships. Ed when it comes to researching what research I want, what are the main things that I’m looking for? What are the basic needs I should have in my legal research toolkit?
Ed Walters: Well I think of these things in terms of content and then tools. So from a content perspective, I would really want to see, at the very least: cases, statutes administrative regs, and probably law review articles. If you’re depending on your practice area, sometimes there’s good treatment of an issue on a law review article that really synthesizes the issue. So I think that’s my baseline assumption, I think it’s nice to have things like court rules and constitutions as well. I think that’s the basic starter set for most solo and small firm practitioners. You want to make sure you at least have your state, but where it’s available, getting the full country is also a benefit. Sometimes you’ll find a related or authoritative, if not binding precedence from similar jurisdictions. I think that this is where a lot of solos and small firms lose out. In a traditional research legal subscription, you might subscribe to your slice. You might get the Alabama-only subscription for WestLaw, and you get Alabama cases and codes. But everything else is a transactional subscription price, and every time you use something else, you pay. So people are ready to search outside the plan. But sometimes, the real winner is in Mississippi or Tennessee or California. I think it’s really important to have that full national subscription, and hopefully not in a way that rings the bell every time you search it. having a flat rate national subscription I think is a good thing to have.
Adriana Linares: And tell me, what should that flat rate cost me that is reasonable? I’m not sure what I’m paying, am I paying $50 a month, am I paying $100, am I paying $1,000 a month? What’s a good range to stay inside of that isn’t going to break the bank but is going to give me all the resources that I need, annotated code, site checker; that sort of stuff. Give me a range.
Ed Walters: Well I’m biased about this, I can tell you what Fastcase costs, it’s $95 a month flat rate, all-you-can-eat, wall-to-wall, nationwide, cases, codes, statutes, regs, no transactional charges, no turnstiles or anything like that. I think that’s a great price for it, I think that traditionally that subscription has run anywhere from $300-$500 a month, sometimes more per seat. So that’s for a solo, if your firm is bigger, you could pay even more than that.
Adriana Linares: So what I get asked a lot when I remind attorneys that they’ve got alternative services like Fastcase, those asked me, “What don’t I get?” So for $95 a month, what don’t I get?
Ed Walters: I would say the biggest thing that you would get in a traditional legal research center that you don’t get in Fastcase is treatises. So if you really use Wright and Miller in your practice, you really have to subscribe to West, or get the books and put them on your shelf. If Collier’s On Bankruptcy is really the central part of your practice and you need that treatise, you won’t get that on a Fastcase subscription if they won’t license it to us. So you really have to subscribe to LexisNexis.
Adriana Linares: And that’s very specific like you said earlier.
Ed Walters: Right. If you practice the law of air traffic controllers, you might need to have a special DNA publication or something. But I would say that for most solo practioners, your practice area is something like civil litigation or you have a bankruptcy practice, or a divorce/family law practice. For the vast majority of solo practitioners, you are taking a little bit of whatever comes in the door. And for that, it really is a cases and codes practice. In the past I would’ve answered that question by saying, you really want annotated codes. When you look up a code section, you want to see the cases besides that code section. And that was a place that WestLaw and Lexis really had an advantage over us; not so much anymore because now we have annotated codes for all fifty states. So if you look up a code section in Fastcase and there’s cases beside it, you’ll see the annotations at the bottom and it’s complete.
Adriana Linares: That’s great.
Ed Walters: The other thing is the big question, is my case still good law. And for years, that was an advantage that we really couldn’t cross. If you had to find out if your case was still good law, you would use Shephard’s or KeyCite. And by the way, you might use both, because they disagree with each other all the time. But now Fastcase has this feature called Bad Law Bot. And what we’ve done is we’ve creator the first big data citator. We’ve gone through all 75 million citations in the Fastcase database and every time a case is cited as reversed, or aggravated, or overturned, we will put a flag into that case and you’ll see negative treatment indicated when you’re reading the case. Is it today a full-stop, more comprehensive than Shepherd’s solution? No. But it does take up cases that Shepherd’s doesn’t sometimes, and it’s really a great first step. So I think it’s a decreasing advantage for traditional legal research providers.
Adriana Linares: No, that’s great, and we all know that Fastcase’s best-kept secret is that Phil actually just sits in the basement going through those 75 million resources and making sure that any bad law is marked, and we know that his coffee cup says, “I’m the bad law bot.”
Ed Walters: Our secret is out!
Adriana Linares: Fastcase Phil and his big brain! Question for you, outside of what has been going on, I’m just curious if you’ve identified any startups that have interesting or promising technologies in the field that you’re looking toward and going, “Hey, that’s the next Ed and Phil, and it’s something everyone should know about.” Has anything caught your eye out there?
Ed Walters: Sure, there’s a lot of very promising companies right now, especially startups. I think it’s a really fantastic time for starting a new legal tech company and I think there’s a lot of promise in the new companies out there. Marking with Fastcase has tried to work with these guys as much as possible, in part because we don’t believe it’s a zero-sum market, we really believe that a high-tide kind of floats all boats. So I would say for legal research, the three companies out there that really stand out for me are Judicata, Casetext, and Ravel Law. Those three companies are each taking a slightly different approach to finding more beyond keyword search. So Casetext used crowdsourcing. You can annotate passages in there and write about them and contribute to them in a way that’s really cool. If you have a lot of experts who are reading judicial opinions, I think they could add a lot of value to it just like KeyNote or headnote editors do at West and Lexis. But hopefully better, because they’re as expert as you could possibly be. And I’m proud to say we’ve worked with Casetext for years; we are very invested in their success, I think they’re wonderful, very smart people. Ravel Law has done some great work with data visualization. I hope building on some things we built with the interactive timeline as early as 2008 and I think that if you look at their visual approach to law, it’s like we’ve really shared DNA with those guys. I really think they’re on to something there, and I think that there’s so much-
Adriana Linares: Yeah, it’s a pretty amazing tool.
Ed Walters: It is, and there’s so much that you could find in data visualization that you can’t find in keyword searches, so i think there’s a lot of promise to using data visualization as well. And finally, Judicata, I’ve seen some early prototypes of it, and the idea is to use really semantic analysis. Kind of a deep, natural language understanding of what’s going on in legal text, and to find relationships based on meaning. I think all three approaches, crowdsourcing, data visualization and semantic analysis hold a lot of promise. Is one of them going to break out of the pack? I don’t know. But I do feel pretty confident that if you fast-forward 20 years, legal research will be more visual, it will have more citation analysis. And it will move semantically way beyond keyword search. So I think that those are all really cool approaches to legal research. I’m really inspired by them, I think they’re great.
Adriana Linares: Yeah, I’ve been following all of them closely, and I think it really is so refreshing and interesting. It is a great time for startups and especially in research. So the last question I’ll ask you, just to bring the two thoughts together, is am I going to have – again, as a new solo trying to figure out what to do – my Fastcase subscription and then also a Ravel, and a Casetext, and a Judicata, do they all sort of work together and I kind of have to make a recipe for myself of what’s going to give me the best outcome?
Ed Walters: Well I think it might be a matter of taste. So it really depends on what you are looking for. If you really want a platform where you can advertise your expertise, you very well might use Fastcase and Casetext. And I think that there will be different uses for each one of those tools. What I really hope comes from this is that people really think about what the right tools for the job is. You don’t just thoughtlessly flip your browser open and open up LexisNexis. You really think, what is going to be the best tool to use for my client, and what is the tool that’s going to get me the most efficient answer. And by the way, I think when people do that, I hope that Fastcase is something they think of right away. I hope to be every bit as smart and powerful of a tool as the most expensive products in the market; but with things like citation analysis and data visualization and integrated mobile apps built in. So I’ve said for years though, if this is a competition on the merits, if it’s is a competition for who has the best tools and the smartest tools, then that’s the competition that we’re gearing up to win.
Adriana Linares: That’s great, it’s really just amazing and impressive what you all have done and how far the field in the industries come; and I, like you, hope that every lawyer out there is really taking this a lot more seriously and taking some time to decide what to use and what to invest in, not just running with the crowd or being sort of swept into mediocrisy because that’s what they’ve always used or that’s what they’re comfortably using. I think this is an opportunity like any other for an entrepreneur, as an attorney, to do some research and figure out what is the best bang for my buck and how am I going to serve my clients the best. So I’m glad to know that there’s a lot of tools out there like Fastcase and especially Fastcase was one of my favorites. I’m not even a local lawyer but, because of course I’m in Florida and it’s a member benefit, of course I know it very intimately and have always been happy to tell attorneys to make sure to look around before they just go spending a lot of money for something they might not necessarily need and use all the time. So it looks like we’ve reached the end of our show and I’m always sad to say that because I have such great conversations with everyone that comes on. Especially you, Ed, thank you so much. We do want to take a second and tell everyone who is listening how they can learn more about you and Fastcase out there on the internet. How can they stalk you?
Ed Walters: Stalk us at Fastcase.com. You can also find Fastcase’s apps, which the ADA says are the most popular apps for lawyers of any kind, and for two years in a row in the iTunes store under Fastcase or in the Android play marketplace by searching for Fastcase. Also in a couple of months, in Windows Phone as well, and version 3 of the app just hit stores two few days ago. So you can find us at Fastcase.com and iTunes,Android, and soon Windows Phone as well.
Adriana Linares: Well it’s great, thanks so much Ed. For all you listeners, who’d like more information about what you’ve heard today please visit New Solo at the Legal Talk Network where you can also follow us on iTunes, RSS, Twitter and Facebook. So that brings us to the end of her show. I’m Adriana Linares, thank you for listening. Join us next time for another episode and remember: you’re not alone, you’re a new solo.
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