Well, friends, the first full-fledged legal research app is born.
Some of you may have heard that the new Fastcase iPhone app dropped tonight. At Legal Geekery, we had the good fortune of getting an advanced preview, so this review is the result of a few days of playing around with the app.
For those of you not familiar with Fastcase, you should check them out. I know that a lot of LG readers are concerned with the price of digital legal research, and Fastcase is ludicrously affordable. Well, the web version is affordable. The iPhone version is 100% free. Yes. Free.
We didn’t believe it either, so Fastcase CEO Ed Walters and LG had something akin to the following conversation:
Legal Geekery: When you say it’s “free,” you mean the app is free, but you have to pay for a subscription, right?
Ed Walters: No, I mean the app is free, AND the subscription is free when researching on the iPhone.
LG: So the app is free, but there’s some sort of hidden fee somewhere, right?
EW: No, seriously, no cost.
LG: I don’t understand.
EW: We’d love it if iPhone users loved the service so much that they sign up for a regular subscription, but if not, they don’t have to do that. They can still research for free on the iPhone.
We’re still confused, but Legal Geekery has a strict policy of not looking a gift horse in the mouth. Anyway, now that the free-ness has been established, download the app and then check out the review below!
The app itself is very user-friendly. There are lots of settings for customizing search results and general display, all of which happened to be set to my preference by default. For example, you can elect to have search results display the case title with the first paragraph, just the case title, or the case title + the most relevant paragraph. Relevancy is a neat innovation that needs to become standard for mobile research now that it’s brought to my attention, but maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, you log in with your free account. Once you log in, you have the option of searching through databases or browsing statutes. You can limit databases just like you’d expect. It seems that all the terms and connectors available in the full Fastcase are available. Search results can be sorted by relevance, decision date, short name, cited generally, or cited within. It would be nice if there were some way to list the Fastcase terms and connectors so that a simple click would inset them into the search box, but it’s possible that there is no good way to do that given the current iPhone SDK.
This is a good point to talk about the relevancy feature. It seems that the app decides which portion of the opinion is the most relevant with respect to your search terms and flags it. If you’ve elected to have results display the most relevant paragraph (the default), you’ll see this paragraph with your search results. The best part of this feature is that when you click through to a case, you can click the “Most Relevant” button, which will bring you to whatever the app has decided is — you guessed it — the most relevant paragraph. While that may not seem like an incredible feature, it actually should be standard for mobile legal research. Anything that can make my scrolling job easier while commuting is a welcome feature. With that said, it’s handy that the search terms are highlighted in the case text, but it would be nice to have the ability to easily turn the highlighting feature on and off.
While we’re on the subject of making our lives easier, let’s talk about the case display. By default, the text field is as wide as your iPhone and you can’t zoom in or out on the text. You can change that option to allow zooming, but I find that the default is actually quite good. I do find myself wishing that the app offered the ability to adapt to landscape mode, but I’m hopeful that feature will be added in a future patch.
Another cool scrolling feature is that there’s a dynamic scroll bar (like you’re probably used to using in your phone contacts list). What that means is that you can scroll through an entire case with a single finger swipe; it’s super useful for scrolling down to the end of a case (maybe you’re a nerdy law student and you actually read the dissenting opinions — we don’t judge). Dynamic scrolling is yet another feature that will obviously become standard in mobile legal research.
Fastcase keeps subscription costs low by not hiring researchers to write summaries or manually cite check. What they will do is programatically call your attention to citing cases. For that reason, Fastcase is very up front about the fact that Authority Check is not a replacement for Shepardizing or KeyCiting. When using the standard web-based Fastcase, all cases have a link to both the Shepards and KeyCite treatment (assuming you are a law student or are willing to pay the ~$6 if you’re an attorney). It would be nice if the app had the same ability, but as it stands, for a 100% on-the-go research solution, you’ll have to copy the citation and then Shepardize or KeyCite with your mobile browser. Still, in our opinion, the Fastcase app is 99% of the way there.
So what’s the verdict? When you’re setting the standard for mobile legal research, you can afford to cut a few corners. Fortunately for us, Fastcase cut few, if any. The Fastcase iPhone app is an extremely solid app which probably won’t be dethroned as the king of mobile legal research anytime soon.
Are we approach the day where legal research is just as efficient when you’re riding the subway or waiting in line for a grande hazelnut skinny white mocha? Maybe. And if you’re willing to let me bill for research performed on my iPhone, I’m still looking for a job.
- First fully-functional mobile legal research option.
- Aesthetically pleasing case and statute viewer.
- Highly customizable.
- Nifty skip to most relevant feature.
- Ability to save cases.
- Search caching, so searches don’t need to be redone every time you accidentally go back to the search screen.
- Dynamic scroll bars allow for seamless scrolling through long cases.
- No landscape mode.
- No ability to email cases (holy grail option?).
- No linking to Shepards/KeyCite from cases.
- No obvious ability to turn off search term highlighting.