Although bankruptcy software feels like a new direction for Fastcase, CEO Ed Walters was quick to point out that Fastcase is, first and foremost, a software company — one with a “maniacal focus on beautiful software.” But the acquisition is also part of his effort to meet the future of law halfway, if not to create it. When we spoke, Walters cited the huge access-to-justice gap and reiterated the theme of his talk at Clio’s conference last September. In short, Walters says that the only way to close the access-to-justice gap is to enable lawyers to do good legal work without doing a lot of work, and do it at lower cost. This also has the potential to expand the pool of potential clients for lawyers. According to Walters, it will take great software to do it.
Consumer bankruptcy may be the ideal testbed for Walters’s theory, because fees are already depressed, and the only way consumer bankruptcy lawyers can generate decent revenue seems to be by doing a lot of bankruptcies. Anecdotally, I used to share office space with someone who resembles the “artisanal” bankruptcy lawyer made up by Bitter Lawyer’s Greg Luce. But even though he believed in doing all the work himself, and treated each client like a client rather than a commodity, he could only charge so much. It wound up being — unintentionally — a low bono practice until he gave it up.
That’s the kind of lawyer I think Walters especially wants to help. By streamlining as much of the bankruptcy-filing process as possible, he hopes to make good client service, good lawyering, and low fees go hand-in-hand.
There are limits. As all bankruptcy lawyers know, one of the most time-consuming parts of practicing bankruptcy law is nagging clients for documents. I doubt there is much TopForm can do about that. But I did two pro-bono Chapter 7s using software that was clunky and unintuitive (but shall remain nameless because the company donated the licenses, for which I am very grateful). Even so, I am glad I had it.
Part of bankruptcy software is the embedded law that helps calculate eligibility, exemptions, and more. When the bankruptcy rules change, the software changes. If I had just used paper, I would have been free to royally screw up my clients’ bankruptcies. With the software, I did not, but I did need the help of my officemate — the “artisanal” bankruptcy lawyer — to do anything with the pretty-awful software I used. Good software would have saved me a ton of time and aggravation, as well as the need to have another lawyer hovering over my shoulder explaining which unintuitively-buried menu item to select to file the petition.
Lexis will continue to supply the legal know-how to keep the TopForm’s embedded bankruptcy law up-to-date through 2017. My educated guess is that Walters intends to replace that team of human “editors” with Fastcase itself, as much as possible. Fastcase is, after all, a big artificial legal brain. Basically. It doesn’t seem too far-fetched to predict that Fastcase could use its huge, constantly-updated research database to update TopForm (or suggest updates, at least).
Viewed this way, the acquisition of TopForm is less mysterious, and more connected to Fastcase’s existing business of legal research.
Currently, TopForm is available as a CD-ROM installation disc, for Windows PCs only (as part of the acquisition, Walters says Fastcase took delivery of a lot of boxes of TopForm, and is rushing to fill new orders). That will change when Fastcase releases the cloud-based version of TopForm in April 2014 — barely three months from now. That’s a very aggressive timeline for what must be a fairly complete overhaul of the software. But Walters sounds both excited and confident about his team’s ability to meet it. When finished, the new TopForm will be cloud-based software you use from your web browser, and compatible with all platforms, from Windows PCs to Macs to mobile devices. I am sure apps for phones and tablets will follow, as well.
TopForm may also be the first cloud-based bankruptcy software to market. Best Case Cloud exists, but it doesn’t really count as cloud-based. It just runs the software remotely through a third-party service. The only other cloud-based bankruptcy software I am aware of is NextChapter. NextChapter looks promising, but is not yet taking customers. Which leaves TopForm as, potentially, the first viable cloud-based bankruptcy software.
In the meantime, existing customers will continue to get regular updates, and Fastcase will continue to support the non-cloud version of TopForm through an unspecified phase-out period.
The price of the new TopForm will be “comparable” to the current version, although Walters did point out that the current pricing structure is pretty regressive. A single license costs $1,276, while a license for 100+ users costs just $3,917. That’s a great deal for big firms right now, but I got the sense Walters intends to level the pricing structure when the new TopForm is released.
If it all comes out as Walters plans, though, TopForm will not just be any old bankruptcy software package, cloud-based or otherwise. He said Fastcase is “pretty good at making kick-ass software,” and he plans to build a cloud-based version of TopForm that meets that standard. Which might make it the first bankruptcy software that actually does.