Legal Research Blog


How I got lazy as an attorney and how you can avoid it

I often wonder whether the Googleification of legal research isn’t a terrible thing for the profession (at least in this stage of the technology’s development). In law school, I was a master of Boolean searching. I thought about my research question, figured out which words probably appeared closest to other words, and crafted a narrow and specific search.

Somehow, when I became an appellate attorney and had access to WestlawNext through my firm, all of that training went out the window. I think it seemed easier to just type what I wanted into a single search box and hope it returned a useful case (motion to start calling this the “click and pray?”). I got into the habit of assuming the algorithm was better than I was at crafting a search, but the truth is that right now, they’re not. Consider this: if a natural language search was as effective as a keyword search, it would be superfluous to pay an attorney for legal research. Most issues requiring us to do research implicate our ability to access information we’ve stored on relevant subject areas either in law school or in practice. Good algorithms can mimic this behavior to some degree — if you type “motion in limine procedure” into a natural language search on a legal platform, it’s conceivable that a such an algorithm might recognize that either based on your previous searches, or based on the aggregated knowledge of all searches, you’re probably looking for criminal cases (even though you didn’t mention it). Then it might recognize that you’re looking for some instructions on how to file such a motion and suggest some synonyms for the search. If this is my starting point for research though, I’m putting a lot of stock into an algorithm I can’t see (aside: I’d love to show our users the search query produced from a natural language search — I’m talking to our developers about making that a reality). I can sort of bypass most of this uncertainty by playing with a search like: defend! (“motion in limine” or MIL) /10 (procedure! or protocol! or formula! or method!) not methodolog!

That search looks complex but it’s probably going to give me results a lot closer to what I’m actually looking for than any natural language search is going to return.

I’m not at all saying we shouldn’t be using and improving natural language searching. In a pinch it can be useful. What I am saying is that as it stands right now natural language searching is not a replacement for a well-crafted Boolean search. And that’s a disconcerting revelation because out of my previous three law clerks, not a single one was well-versed in Boolean searching. I don’t know whether natural language searching has become the de facto LRAW teaching method or whether my sample is just skewed, but it’s worrisome. I would pay a lot of money for the ability to use a proximity operator in a Google search, but at this time they don’t offer that feature. Why, then, should we be taking a step backward? Yes, the ultimate dream solution would be telling a Watson-like computer the facts of our case, having it issue-spot, and then suggest a relevant search, but at the moment such a solution doesn’t exist. The problem isn’t so much that it doesn’t exist, but that I used to assume that it did. I don’t do that anymore and the time I spend researching has declined fairly dramatically.

Incidentally, I teach an introduction to Boolean searching webinar for Fastcase about once a month (to start again in January). If you’re interested in picking up the basics, I highly recommend you go ahead and like our Facebook page so that you are the first to know when we announce the dates for the 2014 year.

Happy /3 research!

Image by Clockready (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Fastcase named for 4th consecutive year to EContent’s 100 Companies that Matter Most in the Digital Content Industry

The 2013-2014 EContent 100 list also includes Google, Apple, Amazon, LinkedIn, Facebook, and others who are important players the digital content industry.

“This is great for the industry, and exciting for those of us who cover the space,” Theresa Cramer, editor of EContent.

The EContent 100 List can be seen online at and in the December 2013 issue of EContent.

Fastcase Teams Up with Box

As a former security-conscious appellate attorney with seemingly 15 mobile devices requiring constant synchronizationI’m including laptops in my hyperbolic tabulation because I carry those around all the time tooI’m very excited to announce that Fastcase is partnering with Box to offer secure, cloud-based storage of Fastcase documents for our users.

What does that mean for you as a researcher using Fastcase? As soon as the integration is complete, you’ll have an option to store your documents to Box and access them on any device or app implementing the secure Box technology. Today, Box is also announcing partnerships with 20 additional legal technology partners (Amicus Attorney, Avvo, Chrometa, and iJuror, just t name drop a few) meaning the possibilities for what you can do with the documents you save from Fastcase are limited only by how those partners implement this technology. At some point you may even be able to sync your case management system with the research you perform on Fastcase as a result of these partnerships.

We look forward to sharing more information with you as it becomes available. For now, check out the full announcement over at the Box blog.

Fastcase of the Week: DC Metro’s Zero Tolerance French Fry Policy

As some of you know, I moved to DC recently to join the Fastcase team. Having lived in New York for a while, I don’t look twice when I see someone eating on the train. When I first moved here I may or may not even have even eaten a Chop’t salad on a hypothetically empty train ride to Maryland late one busy Friday afternoon.

I was recently riding the train to work and noticed a sign informing me that playing music out loud and eating or drinking on the train were both illegal. And then today I noticed the above-pictured sign. I assume this must be part of some awareness campaign, or perhaps these PSAs are always around and I’m just exceptionally unperceptive. Either way, I thought to myself, “Surely this is an unenforceable law.” And further, “Surely too, this is an offense punishable by a minor fine.” Since I’m a huge nerd, and I happen to work for a legal research company, I decided to look into both of these assumptions.

DC Code § 35-251 (Fastcase 2013) legislates:

It is unlawful for any person either while aboard a public passenger vehicle . . . or while within a rail transit station owned and/or operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority which is located within the corporate limits of the District of Columbia to . . . (2) Consume food or drink . . . .

Helpfully, the Fastcase algorithm that automatically aggregates and annotates statutes with subsequently-citing cases answered my second question for me. Hedgepeth v. Washington Metro. Area Transit Auth., 386 F.3d 1148 (D.C. Cir., 2004), a case that made it all the way to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, told the story of a twelve year old middle-school student who purchased a small bag of french fries on her way home from school, ate a single french fry while waiting for her friend to purchase a metro card, and was immediately detained, handcuffed, and escorted (sans shoelaces, which were clearly taken from her as she cried in fright and/or embarrassment) to a juvenile detention facility where she was fingerprinted and processed.

The case is sort of a perfect storm of weird facts: the Metropolitan Police Department was in the middle of a zero-tolerance for quality of life offenses week, and Hedgepeth was under sixteen. While the above statute does not allow for the arrest of an adult for a first offense violation, the oddity arises because D.C. law labels such a violation a “delinquent act” requiring arrest and not explicitly allowing for citation.

The case was a Section 1983 claim that was ultimately dismissed in both the district and circuit courts. The upshot in the Court’s own words though was that “the policies were changed after those responsible endured the sort of publicity reserved for adults who make young girls cry.” Id. at 1150. After negative publicity from this case, the WMATA adopted a new policy allowing citations for violating this statute. More reasonable still, they implemented a written warning policy allowing for a letter to be sent to the child’s school and guardians in lieu of citation or arrest.

So yeah, I was apparently wrong on both counts, but that’s why we research, no?

Have you ever defended a ridiculous case based on seemingly unenforceable or weird laws? We’d love to hear about it.

Who knew ?: the single-letter wildcard operator

You already know that the asterisk (*) acts as a multi-letter wildcard operator, meaning it will look for multiple substitute letters.  You can use it to expand a root “word” such as “testa.” If you search for testa*, your results may include words like testamentary, testator, testable, etc.

If you need just need to substitute one letter, use the question mark (?) as a single-letter wildcard operator.

Not sure whether the game Pokémon is spelled with an “o” or an “a”? Try Pokem?n.  You may be surprised at the variations that come up!