Thursday, June 29, 2006

Fastcase: A Preliminary Assessment

On May 22, the MSBA announced that it had partnered with Fastcase to provide MSBA members with free access to state and federal case law. In doing so, the MSBA follows a number of other bar associations around the country that have made a similar move. So…what’s to like and what’s not to like? After using Fastcase for almost a month now, allow me a few preliminary reactions. The greatest selling point about Fastcase is that it’s free and easy to use. Like Westlaw and Lexis, Fastcase provides an intuitive interface. Like Wexis (as some have dubbed the two main legal information providers), it provides Boolean, natural language, and citation searching. And, like Wexis, it provides a results list with your terms in bold and the option to print the case in two-column format. But, UNlike Wexis, which comes with a hefty price tag, assuming you’re an MSBA member, Fastcase is free. That’s right: FREE. So now that we have Fastcase, should we all cancel our Wexis accounts? Not quite, and here’s why. First, the scope of the content Fastcase provides is limited. Although it provides access to all Supreme Court cases back to 1754 and all Federal Circuit court cases back to 1924, unless you opt for the fee-based upgrade, it doesn’t provide access to Federal District court cases outside of Maryland. Furthermore, its state appellate court cases go back only to 1950. Furthermore, Fastcase provides just the cases and nothing more: no headnotes, no Key Numbers, and no Sheppards or Keycite. Finally, in my own use of the system, I’ve encountered a number of errors. For example, I’ve clicked on a number of links that don’t go where they’re supposed to go. A number of the more recent Maryland cases also don’t include the official citation in the text of the case. As a result, when you search by citation, nothing comes up. One search I ran in the Supreme Courts database brought up state Supreme Court cases. When I called Fastcase to query this, I was told that they had wrongly coded a number of cases and were working to rectify the matter. As a result, at this point Fastcase appears, at least in some ways, to still be in Beta. (Granted: as time proceeds most of these issues will likely be ironed out). Notwithstanding these drawbacks, Fastcase can be a powerful research tool. Although perhaps not a substitute for Wexis, Fastcase can provide a very useful supplement to the larger online legal research providers. Fastcase can particularly benefit solo practitioners with limited accesses to Wexis. Larger organizations can also benefit from Fastcase by using it to reduce their monthly Wexis bill. Particularly for non-billable research and to find “a few good recent cases,” Fastcase can be highly effective. To access Fastcase, go to the MSBA site and select “Fastcase” from the menu on the left. Your account number is your MSBA number. To receive your password you’ll need to activate your account.