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/)