Legal Research Alerts: More Money Doesn’t Mean Faster Results

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It is a popular but inaccurate belief that Westlaw and LexisNexis are the only options if you don’t want to get ripped apart at every court hearing because you missed the latest controlling appellate decision. In fact, Westlaw is one of the slowest ways to get federal court decisions, and LexisNexis is not the only place to check for up-to-the-minute court decisions, either.

The most-quickly-updated case law is free, and the next-most-quickly-updated case law may be on FastCase, which costs much less than Westlaw or LexisNexis.


It’s a popular law school horror story told to law students before they begin their legal research and writing classes, and to new lawyers by older, more-experienced lawyers who either have a similar war story or “know someone” who it happened to:

Imagine you are in court, making your argument, when the judge asks you about a case you have never heard of. You ask for clarification. The judge replies that she got the case only that morning, and it is both controlling and directly on point. She rips you apart in open court for your ineptitude, and sanctions you for your legal research negligence.

Or something like that. So let’s assume this actually happens (it does, more or less). How would you beat the judge to that relevant, controlling decision? I asked Ed Walters from Fastcase, since he knows all about how legal research services get court decisions.

The origin of the cases

First of all, every major legal research service gets court decisions from the same places: the courts. You can, too. Ed says the fastest way to learn about new cases is to go to the courts’ websites. None of the research services can beat that. Of course, this may impractical depending on what constitutes controlling authority in your case, or how frequently you want to check for new decisions.

So what really matters is how quickly the legal research service turns around those decisions once they get them. Fastcase scrapes court websites a few times a day, and I think we can safely assume Westlaw and LexisNexis do, too.

Turnaround time

It turns out Ed and his team have been doing tests recently to compare Fastcase to the competition. Based on the preliminary results of these tests, he says that, in general, Fastcase, Westlaw, and LexisNexis are close—they all get new decisions up within about 12 hours. Ed says Fastcase appears to be slightly quicker than the competition, but I’m taking that with a grain of salt since Fastcase is the one providing the information. (If Westlaw and LexisNexis read Lawyerist, I’m sure they will stop in with their own results soon enough.)

However, when it comes to federal district court cases, Ed says the general proposition falls apart. Fastcase still delivers in about 12 hours, but LexisNexis is consistently slower, and Westlaw takes its time—sometimes days—to add headnotes before publishing the decisions.

If Ed is right, that means Westlaw and LexisNexis are not the only way to get court decisions quickly, and may not be the best way.

It also matters how you get notified of new authority, and here is where Fastcase and LexisNexis and Westlaw take slightly different approaches.

Notifications: push vs. pull

Westlaw and LexisNexis let lawyers set alerts, so that any time a new case comes out, you get an email alerting you to its existence. This should be no surprise to anyone, since both services have been offering alerts for years. Ed calls this “push” technology, similar to the alerts that pop up on your Blackberry or iPhone when you get a new message.

Fastcase takes a slightly different approach. You can bookmark any search results page, and come back to see anything new that falls under that search string. Just sort it by date, bookmark it, and check back before your court hearing. You don’t get email alerts, but you still get convenient access to updates. It also goes beyond court decisions; Fastcase is working on a joint project with Justia to let you search PACER across jurisdictions in the same way—currently a giant pain in the ass, since each jurisdiction is like a silo within PACER.

You don’t necessarily get more when you pay more

There are a lot of reasons why some people prefer Westlaw to LexisNexis, or either service to Fastcase. Speed is not—and should not be—the only consideration. However, when it comes to avoiding the outdated legal research nightmare, you may not need an expensive legal research service.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyberuly/3240991428/)

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  • I’ve never heard of any attorney ever getting “ripped a new one” a sanctioned by a court for not knowing about a case published only hours earlier. In fact, you’d almost certainly be able to get the judge herself sanctioned for that.

    Model Code of Judicial Conduct: Canon 3(B)(4):
    A judge shall be patient, dignified and courteous to litigants, jurors, witnesses, lawyers and others with whom the judge deals in an official capacity, and shall require similar conduct of lawyers, and of staff, court officials and others subject to the judge’s direction and control.

    • Agreed. That’s bullshit and a war story that never happened or, if it did happen, was so far from the norm that, well, it’s far from the norm. Normally with a decision like this, the judge informs counsel (both counsel) of a decision he or she received on point that morning and asks if they read it. If not, the judge will give them time to read it (not a lot of time mind you, likely taking a recess to do so) and then get counsel’s take on it. A judge wants to know what BOTH counsel think.

      We’re reasonable professionals. We take our kids to daycare in the morning. We luckily don’t stare at Fastcase to see what came around in the morning paperboy’s delivery of opinions.

      • My guess is this war story is just inspired by the episode of The Paper Chase TV series where this precise situation comes up, although it’s because Hart spends too much time partying instead of researching and only finds out about the case from Ford too late to warn Kingsfield.

    • Really? It’s not only a popular war story, but frequently used to explain why relying on free or low-cost legal research services is basically the same thing as malpractice.

  • Speed is not the reason that most lawyers prefer lexis or westlaw. The ability to keycite (or its lexis equivalent) is, and Fastcase doesn’t offer that at all. Without that feature, you have to read every new case handed down to see what affect it has on your case. No thanks.

    • Fair critique. The citator or citation flags, as well as Shepards, are very useful tools, but I’ve found that a lot of attorneys still read at least the syllabus of each “new” case, distrusting that the flag that editors supply is correct or accurate. That said, unless you are deeply enmeshed in appellate work and need cite checking on nearly every case, simply purchasing a Keycite search or a Shepard’s citation search on a single transaction basis is often more cost effective than subscribing wholesale to Westlaw or Lexis-Nexis. After all, there are few “killer cases” realistically. When you do have one, it’s worth spending $10-15 on a cite check outside of Fastcase or Casemaker to make sure it really has the power you are about to represent to the court.

      • I wasn’t aware that you could purchase a citecheck outside of the subscription package. That’s really useful intel. Thanks.

        • For Lexis-Nexis, it is something available in my case through Fastcase, which is available through the bar (in my case the Minnesota State Bar). Though when I look around to try to find general access, I came across a message saying Lexis-Nexis suspended its Lexis-Nexis by Credit Card service as of April 6, 2011. So, not sure of its status outside of using the Fastcase system.

          For Westlaw, it’s available here: http://creditcard.westlaw.com/welcome/creditcard/default.aspx

  • I would be pretty surprised to hear about a judge going ballistic on a lawyer for failing to spot an opinion that has only been issued since the filing of motion papers, unless it were an extremely high profile issue/case (or a judge with significant anger/patience issues). And where are most judges going to get the cases they find? From their computer research on services like Westlaw or Lexis.

    Now, ballistic for missing controlling authority that was published well before the motion papers were filed? That I could see. Of course, that kind of authority may be spotted by opposing counsel and included in opposition papers anyway.

    The bigger concern I think is that opposing counsel is going to spring a new case on you at the hearing, and because you weren’t paying attention, you simply don’t have proper time to formulate a way to distinguish the case. How do you explain to your client that you lost on a motion because opposing counsel was better prepared? Part of prep for a motion hearing the day before should include making sure you are as updated as reasonably possible on any important and relevant caselaw developments since you filed your last brief.

    • The even bigger problem is going to be letting fictitious horror stories dictate your research practices and how you spend client money.

      • Agree with BL1Y.
        You don’t necessarily get more when you pay more – whether it is an attorney or the legal research. Quality is not defined on the name or the cost.