Legal Research Blog


Episode 1: The [Sometimes Creepy] Future is Now

Cover of Fastcase Album

For our first official The Law Review podcast, I’m joined by Fastcase CEO Ed Walters. These are the headlines we discuss:

1. While we typically embrace technology being the tech geeks we are, it’s always good to step back and think about how we’re using that technology. In a headline that sounds more like the introduction to a creepy dystopian sci-fi book, thousands of Ukranian protesters received a text message yesterday while protesting that read, “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” The overreaching future is creepy.
2. Former VA governor Bob McDonnell and his wife were indicted yesterday for allegedly accepting gifts valued at over $140,000 from a dietary supplement company. The couple claim they never accepted money with the intent of giving a government benefit, and instead allege the money was a personal gift (even though it’s since been paid back with interest).
3. Can emoji count as a death threat? A reporter recently wondered this after he initiated a drug deal, you know, for a story, and then backed out. It turns out drug dealers aren’t a fan of that. So the drug dealer tracked down the reporter’s real Instagram account and posted a threatening emoji on it. There’s no case pending, but it’s an interesting question – is it easier or harder for emoji to count as harassment.
4. Are more states going to start ticketing people for driving while wearing Google Glass? At least one person is looking at a ticket for driving while wearing the device. We’re going to talk a bit later on about whether or not these kinds of laws should exist, and when they might be appropriate.
5. The 9th Circuit held yesterday that a peremptory strike of a potential juror, just because he mentioned his same-sex lover in a case involving HIV medication pricing, was a violation of the equal protection clause. Striking counsel claimed he was unaware of the juror’s sexual orientation, but the authoring 9th Circuit judge rebutted, claiming that the attorney never asked him a substantive question about his ability to remain impartial.
6. The DC circuit isn’t giving any love to Common Clause’s attorneys seeking to overturn the filibuster rule. While their argument revolves around the majority rule language codified by the Constitution. It looks like this is going to a ripeness or lack of standing issue, especially given that it turns out none of the parties sued – including Vice-President Biden – has the ability to change the rules.

Please also take note of our subreddit at Feel free to submit stories there or vote on the stories you’d like to hear us discuss that day. You can also email us at podcast /at\ fastcase /dot\ com.

Thanks for listening!

Episode 0: Get Us On iTunes!

Fastcase Podcast Album Art

So, amusingly, we made this podcast episode as a placeholder so that we could get placed onto the iTunes store, but before we could get it active, Apple already approved our podcast. Click here to subscribe on your various iOS devices and/or computers!

While we polish up the podcast and get ready for Episode 1, this one will give you an idea of what you can expect from us going forward.


Thanks for 15 years!

We’re really proud of all we’ve accomplished in the past 15 years and every subscriber gives us motivation (and financial backing) to build smarter and better tools to find the cases you want, when you want them. If you’re not already a member of the Smarter, Faster, Better legal research movement, consider joining or coming back to Fastcase now with the discount code 15YEARS to receive 15% off your total subscription price.*

In the meantime, check out the infographic we’ve made to commemorate our 15th year in business:

* Coupon code is good until the end of January, 2014.

Announcing New Features to Facilitate Mass Printing on Fastcase

We often hear that our customers want a better option to print a lot of cases or statutes at once. Some of you love our traditional method of compiling all your cases and statutes into a single file while others wanted an option to save everything separately; as of yesterday, we’re helping you do both.

After adding documents to your print queue, you’ll now be met with the above window. From here, you can select all the print options you’re accustomed to seeing, plus you can choose whether your documents will be served as a zip file containing separate files for every document (all properly labeled) or a single, combined file as you may be accustomed to downloading from Fastcase. In addition to the the myriad reasons you might want to save your files separately, one bonus is that this method allows us to increase the number of documents you can print (using the separated method) from 50 documents to 500 documents. (Note: you may notice from this screenshot that we’ve also added the ability to save in .docx format for those of you with newer versions of Word.)

In the above example, I added 11 U.S.C. § 101 et seq. (Fastcase 2013) to the print queue. Title 11 contains 264 documents which were all given to me in the zip file shown above.

I should also mention that while the print queue was previously limited to 50 documents, it is now completely unlimited (although you will still be limited to saving 500 documents from it at a time if saving in separate files, or 50 if printing in a combined file).

But wait: there’s more. We figured that since we’re giving you the ability to print a lot of cases and statutes at once, why not make it even easier to add the documents you need?  Now, when in statute browse mode, you have the option of adding the entire title you’re browsing without having to “step up” a level in the document hierarchy. This will make it much easier for you to add the titles and sections you want without having to jump around the index.

(Note the add to printer queue button next to Title 11, which was not previously there.)

These are the first of a long series of changes coming in 2014 designed to greatly improve the Fastcase experience. Stay tuned to our blog and Facebook page to stay abreast of these changes as we push them out.

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