Legal Research Reimagined: Casetext Frees Up the Law
As part of our Legal Tech Low-Down series, we chatted with Jake Heller, Founder and CEO, and Laura Safdie, COO and General Counsel of Casetext. Casetext is a public legal research tool and online community. It allows attorneys to search millions of cases and statutes, and supplements primary legal documents with insights from the legal community. Best of all, it does it for free.
1. For many of today’s attorneys, LexisNexis, Westlaw and Bloomberg are all they know, and it’s been that way since law school. How is Casetext changing the game?
Imagine if when you have a legal research question you could easily tap the expertise of the entire legal community -- for free. That’s what Casetext is building with a growing community of practicing attorneys.
As litigators we relied on the traditional legal research tools, and we saw firsthand how badly lack of access to legal information warps the market. For one, accessing the law itself is often astronomically expensive. As importantly is the fact that to be a strong litigator you need to understand not just the text of the law, but the context surrounding statutes and judicial opinions. The old way of doing things misses the most valuable source of context: the knowledge in legal community itself
Casetext takes a new approach to legal knowledge by applying to the law the same open-source principles that made possible game-changing collective resources in other fields. We started by making the law itself free, on a platform that empowers a growing community of practicing lawyers to share insights based on their own experience and expertise. By building the best platform to write commentary on the law, we’re working with the legal community to create an insightful, free legal resource for lawyers and the public.
2. Law students and associates are subjected to hours of painful training on how to use research tools like LexisNexis, Westlaw and Bloomberg. What’s the onboarding process for busy lawyers who want to start using Casetext?
We’ve worked hard to make the site intuitive and easy to use without any training. You can run search queries using the search bar at the top of any page on the website and read community-added context annotated on the case, subscribe to legal topics relevant to your practice areas to access the best topical commentary in the field, and click the pencil at the top right of any page to start sharing your insights about the law.
3. Your mission is “to make all the world’s laws free and understandable.” In achieving this mission, how do you think the practice of law will change?
For one, we’re responding to what we see as a major social justice problem. Several of us clerked for federal judges, and we saw the impact that lack of access to information had on an attorney’s ability to zealously advocate on behalf of their clients. By making the law free, we hope to even the playing field, make it less challenging to go into the less lucrative practices, and generally make the law more accessible to ordinary people.
We’re also creating a resource that we think will transform the way attorneys build their own practices in a fast-changing legal market. Casetext empowers attorneys to build their reputations by sharing the substantive work they’re already doing with a growing community of over 300,000 monthly legal researchers on Casetext. Many thousands of lawyers already share insights about the law publicly to demonstrate thought leadership, but they struggle to get their commentary in the right hands, and end up focusing substantial effort trying to bring attention to their work – effort that should be spent directly serving their clients. Casetext tackles that problem by linking your commentary to the relevant cases and statutes, which means that lawyers and potential clients immediately discover your practice at the precise moment your expertise is most relevant to their work. This helps solo practitioners and other lawyers not associated with big firms build a reputation for themselves through the substance of their work with minimal effort.
4. Casetext doesn’t just provide legal research documents, it provides a community around that research. Why is it important that lawyers talk to each other about cases and legal research?
Legal research can be a major component of a litigator’s work--on average 30% of law firm associate time--which means that resources that make people more effective and more efficient can impact the core of their practices. So much of legal practice ends up being solitary work, struggling through an issue that almost always has been faced before. Even within a firm it’s often hard to know what your colleagues have worked on, so we find ourselves doing duplicate work and often missing helpful resources. It’s bad for lawyers, and it’s bad for clients. By collaborating with peers and consulting commentary shared by attorneys with different expertise, you can understand the law more deeply and move on to the most important work of representing your client.
5. Your platform taps into something that lawyers don’t always get from their firms, their practice or their clients - intellectual engagement and curiosity about the law. Why is that valuable, and how do firms and clients benefit from having engaged, connected lawyers?
It’s so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of representing clients and building your business, and forget to stay engaged in what’s happening in the field of law. Clients come to us to know the field, understand the trends, and help them see around the next corner to prepare for what’s to come. That means that even if you practice in a niche specialty, you still need to have strong roots in the broader community. We’ve designed Casetext to help you easily to stay up-to-date on major legal issues with the support of peers in the legal community. Attorneys subscribe to feeds of attorney-contributed commentary, organized by practice area, and curated by the legal community. In the process, you quickly see what the major issues are, who the major players are, and can tap these networks to understand how it all connects to your practice.
6. Do you have any great success stories about lawyers connecting via Casetext’s communities?
Our favorite stories come from attorneys who read an opinion or statute on Casetext and tell us that commentary contributed by other lawyers helped them better represent their clients. The most important takeaways from primary legal documents are often not self-evident from the text, so comprehensive research usually entails putting together puzzle pieces -- except imagine it’s a puzzle where you don’t know how many pieces there are to begin with, and the pieces you need are scattered across the internet. It means you’re usually duplicating work other people have already done. On Casetext we empower lawyers to share their insights about a case right on that case in our database, so that when you read an opinion on Casetext, you effortlessly discover what other lawyers familiar with the area of law have to say about the document.
“The most important takeaways from primary legal documents are often not self evident from the text, so comprehensive research usually entails putting together puzzle pieces.”
7. What other features can we hope to see from Casetext in a few more years?
In the short term, we’re working to build the very best place to discover and share commentary about the law. To do that, we’re developing a new way of writing about the law that allows lawyers to easily navigate between documents in our database of millions of judicial opinions, statutes, and regulations. Linking this writing platform to a research database and professional network will at long last allow lawyers to truly establish an online presence that reflects the substance of their work.
Beyond the public resource, we’ll also be launching premium features that rely on data science and natural language processing to extract insights from the millions of pages of law and thousands of contributions to enhance understanding of the law. We’ll also offer firms and other institutions the ability to integrate their internal documents with Casetext so that the same platform they’re used to using to access the insights of the broader legal community will also be able to reach the knowledge internal to their firms.
8. What’s the future of legal research? What will attorneys and law firms need to do to adapt?
Historically, attorneys have treated legal research as a solitary endeavor despite that the research experience would be fuller and the understanding of the legal issues deeper if they had access to the analysis from other lawyers with relevant experience. Tapping the wisdom of the legal community has the potential to be a disruptive innovation in the law. It can help attorneys do their jobs better and more efficiently by building on the expertise of the legal community. The key to success is tapping into the incentives of attorneys and the way they work instead of trying to change them. Attorneys will simply conduct their research as they’re used to doing it, but in a way that’s more effective, more through a richer intellectual experience that is rewarding for both attorneys and clients.
“Tapping the wisdom of the legal community has the potential to be a disruptive innovation in the law.”
9. How is technology changing the legal industry and what are the other areas, besides legal research, where you are excited about the companies innovating in this space?
The legal market is at an important historical moment right now. There is enormous pressure on the client side to keep costs low, and interest from lawyers in how to build a sustainable and efficient practice. These changes in the market have created an opportunity for innovation in the development of legal tools, provision of legal services and how attorneys interact with clients. Some examples include the use of data and advanced techniques like natural language processing to help lawyers make decisions and make their workflow more efficient, including companies like DiligenceEngine and LexMachina.
The web has also made possible a sea change in the way that clients find attorneys to represent them. Early success stories include marketplaces connecting entrepreneurs and startups with attorneys who possess a particular skill set and desired price point (like Hire an Esquire!). It is exciting to see smart, driven, innovative attorneys have a chance to succeed outside the traditional big-firm model.