Legal Research Blog


Fastcase Tips: Constructing a Broad Keyword Search

Get your week started off right with a Fastcase Research Tip. Today, we have tips for creating a broad search query. When you are getting started on a new research project, it is usually a good idea to start with a broad search query and then narrow your query until you get an acceptable number of results. Use these tips to make sure you are not inadvertently excluding decisions that address your topic.

  1. Use synonyms. Try including common synonyms for the keywords in your query. For example, if one of your search terms is car, include automobile and vehicle in your search as well.

Instead of: “fourth amendment” & car

Try: “fourth amendment” & car or “fourth amendment” & vehicle or “fourth amendment” & automobile

  1. Use the wildcard operator. By truncating a search term down to the root of the word and adding an asterisk at the end, your search with automatically pick-up multiple forms of the word including plurals. For example, a search for contract* will pick-up all of the following terms:

Contractor, contracting, contracts, contracting, contracted, etc.

  1. Avoid quotation marks. Rather than putting a phrase in quotation marks, try constructing a query using keywords in the phrase connected with the within operator. This will reduce the chances that you are excluding cases that use slightly different words.

Instead of: breach of contract

Try: breach w/3 contract because this picks up phrases like breached its contract, breach of the contract, etc.

Facebook: The Perfect Alibi

In the past, we have blogged about how social-networking can get lawyers and defendants in to hot water. Well, there are two-sides to every coin, and today The New York Times reports how 19 year-old Rodney Bradford’s Facebook status updates kept him out of jail. Bradford’s defense lawyer persuaded a prosecutor to drop robbery charges against his client for a robbery in Brooklyn by demonstrating that Bradford had an alibi — he had updated his status in Manhattan at the time of the incident proving that he couldn’t have been in Brooklyn at the time.

Free Wi-Fi for the Holidays Courtesy of Google!

Traveling during the holidays is always a harrowing, but Google is taking the edge off this year by providing free wi-fi at 47 participating airports (and on Virgin America flights). The program (which honestly sounds a little too good to be true) starts next Monday November 16, 2009 and runs through January 15, 2010. Check out whether your local airport is participating: here.

Can You Patent a Method for Speed Dating?

We’ve been on sort of an intellectual-property law roll here on the Fastcase blog, and today we have another IP news flash for you — and this one is a doozie. The amicus count (70!) on this one blows McDonald v. Chicago out of the water.

On Monday the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Bilski v. Kappos, No. 08-964. The issue at bar was two-fold:

1) Did the Federal Circuit err by using the machine-or-transformation test in determining patentable subject matter?

2) Does the machine-or-transformation test prevent patent protection for many business methods and thus contradict congressional intent that patents protect “methods of doing or conducting business.”

At the center of Bilski is a business-method patent application — a patent for a method for trading commodities — that was denied by the PTO. Business-method patents have been viewed with skepticism by many practioners and it is starting to look like the high court shares this view. According to media coverage of the oral argument, here, here, and here, the Justices were in rare form, each suggesting ludicrous patents that might also be enforceable if the Bilski patent could pass muster:

Justice Sotomayor reportedly suggested “method of speed dating” while Justice Breyer drew laughs by “great, wonderful, really original method of teaching antitrust law”. Which ever way this one goes, you have to love a case that turns Supreme Court Justices into comedians.

Sources: Oyez; The New York Times; Am Law Daily

Innovation and Unbundling in Legal Research

In a recent post on Westlaw’s (and Thomson Reuters’s) Legal Current Blog, one of the elder statesmen of legal information theory, Professor Bob Berring discusses free legal information, and why he believes that it does not pose a threat to traditional legal publishers.
The topic raised quite a kerfuffle (see posts in the comments, as well as here, here, here, and here) among legal research services, both paid and free, perhaps especially over Prof. Berring’s description of free law’s pioneers as “volunteers” whose services his law students “play with” in his advanced legal research and writing glass. The criticism led to Prof. Berring’s reply on slaw, in which he reiterated that he did not think that free services would replace the editorial services of the traditional publishers.
This is a very thought-provoking topic. Since my earlier offer on Legal Current to host a beer summit in Washington, many more people have asked to participate, so this may be a better topic for an unconference instead. Again, happy to host in DC, or perhaps in Denver during AALL 2010?
Fastcase is in a somewhat unique position on both sides of this discussion. We are a commercial publisher with more than 380,000 subscribers — but we are also the publishers of one of the largest free law libraries online, the Public Library of Law (PLoL), and we collaborated with (and Justia) on liberating U.S. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals decisions online in bulk. With that perspective, we offer two observations:
1) The question of whether free services will replace commercial ones is a bit of a strawman. To me, the bigger issue is whether the bundling strategy of traditional publishers — to wit, bundling services like headnotes, key numbers, or citators with primary law — can long survive.

Because Westlaw and LexisNexis have traditionally bundled these “editorial” services with primary law, consumers who only needed access to primary law had to pay premium prices for access. When we democratize primary law, new competitors (like us) will innovate and build smarter services, perhaps even bettering the older editorial services — just like Google’s search algorithm replaced Yahoo’s “editorial” taxonomy of the Web. (As a self-serving example, many people prefer Fastcase’s citation analysis and data visualization tools to the older taxonomic tools.)
Free law makes this innovation possible. Some users need the traditional “editorial” services. But many do not — they buy the editorial enhancements because they have to — editorial services they don’t need are bundled with the primary law. As Bob notes, there will always be a market for the editorial services — but it’s likely much smaller than the existing market, and inflated by bundling.
So a better question might be: If the law is democratized by the government, universities, and public-spirited companies; and if innovators build smarter tools to search primary law, won’t that cut deeply into (or end?) the bundling business model of traditional publishers?
Or more concisely: Isn’t free law the end of duopoly profits in legal research?

2) I love Bob’s Tinkerbell analogy in his slaw post: Legal services have authority not because of some exogenous metric, but because people put their faith in them, like the belief of children and their clapping hands saved Tinkerbell in Peter Pan.
It’s exactly right. The clapping sound in this market is money, and as long as everyone keeps clapping (or paying) for bundled research, Tinkerbell is going to be just fine. But what happens if people stop clapping?

Superb topics for an unconference! Denver 2010?