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Fastcase Makes FREE CaseLaw on the Spot a Reality!

by Carolyn Elefant on January 30, 2010 · 2 comments

in Law Practice Management, Legal Research and Writing, Tech Resources

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To live in an era of wish fulfillment is an amazing thing.  That’s exactly how I felt yesterday when I downloaded Fastcase‘s just released and 100 percent FREE legal research app for the iphone.  Yes, I can now search a full database of state and federal cases and statutes right on my phone for no cost.

Granted, the Fastcase free app isn’t WestlawNext.  But when you’re a lawyer on a budget or working on the fly, sometimes good is even better than good enough, particularly when that good thing transforms possibility into practice.

Here’s what I mean.  Back in 2001, I was using technology in my practice — or at least as best as I could.  By then, I’d had email, a cell phone and website since the mid-1990s and MyShingle was under development.   And yet, as much as I was able to do internally, I was frustrated because I couldn’t fully share the benefits of my tech savvy with all of my clients because they lacked access.  And with easy mobility still a few years down the line (e.g., wireless), I felt limited in what I could do on the road.   I wrote about my experience in  the Washington Legal Times entited Bridging the Gap:  Using Technology to Serve Clients Who Aren’t Up to Speed (full article is after the jump – wow was it dated!) and concluded with my wish for the future:

The ways I use Internet applications to serve my solo law practice’s small clients reminds me much of the way I use my microwave oven for preparing my family’s meals.

For starters, both Internet and microwave embellish form rather than substance: The microwave doesn’t make me a better cook, and sadly, the Internet has not transformed me into a smarter or shrewder lawyer. But just as the microwave allows me to operate as an at-home, short-order cook and quickly heat up and serve a variety of meals, the Internet affords a solo practitioner such as myself a means to respond to my clients’ diverse and unpredictable needs with the efficiency of a large firm at a fraction of the staff and cost….


As far as technology has taken my firm, I still eagerly anticipate the future when Internet technology will not just enable us to serve clients more quickly, but to reach out to clients who would otherwise not be served at all. And the day is not far off when a lawyer could take a laptop (or Palm Pilot), a dependable wireless connection, and a small printer to the streets and homeless shelters and dispense legal advice to clients in need on the spot, check the status of a client’s Social Security disability benefits, or print out forms for food stamps.

Every client would get an answer right away; there would be no lag time in following up; and attorneys would not lose track of clients because the clients have no telephone or address where they could be contacted, a problem I encountered time and time again in the days when I served as a volunteer lawyer at a homeless shelter. Granted, any responses provided would be rushed and basic. But just like a microwave supper, it certainly beats going without.

Now,  I realize that I could accomplish much of what I wished with a laptop and a wireless card.  But Google Legal and now Fastcase (which for the record, has a much more reliable database than GoogleLegal and as such, couldn’t be used for serious research) completes the equation with free legal research that’s fully mobile.  In fact, I can now surreptitiously review cases while waiting for a case to be called in court.

I’m not suggesting that these new tools substitute for the hard core, disciplined legal research and analysis that lawyers do.  Still, I can’t deny that the ability to respond quickly and in rudimentary manner to a legal question with a device that fits in my pocket is thrilling — especially when it carries with it the kernel of the possibility that just maybe I will witness the expansion of meaningful access to justice in my lifetime.

[Read below the jump for full text of Bridging the Gap]

Bridging the Gap

Carolyn Elefant/Legal Times

February 06, 2001

The ways I use Internet applications to serve my solo law practice’s small clients reminds me much of the way I use my microwave oven for preparing my family’s meals.

For starters, both Internet and microwave embellish form rather than substance: The microwave doesn’t make me a better cook, and sadly, the Internet has not transformed me into a smarter or shrewder lawyer. But just as the microwave allows me to operate as an at-home, short-order cook and quickly heat up and serve a variety of meals, the Internet affords a solo practitioner such as myself a means to respond to my clients’ diverse and unpredictable needs with the efficiency of a large firm at a fraction of the staff and cost.

And coming around the bend, I imagine that just as a microwave meal has spared me from ordering takeout or skipping supper, Internet technology will eventually make the difference between an indigent client receiving adequate legal assistance and going without.

USING THE WEB TO SERVE CLIENTS

As a solo attorney with both a highly specialized practice in energy regulatory and appellate matters, as well as more traditional generalized practice, my clients run the gamut on the technology spectrum.

Typically, my energy clients — comprising individual developers, trade associations, and small companies — tend to have at least basic Internet access, often through one of the service providers aimed at individuals, such as America Online or Erols. In some instances, these clients may also have a rudimentary ability to use the Internet for basic research, for example, finding a decision or filing at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s Web site.

At the other end of the spectrum are those clients who do not use or own computers and, at most, might have the ability to covertly send or receive a fax at their place of employment.

However, as a general matter, my firm’s technological capabilities have always surpassed those of my clients: I’ve been at least six months to a year ahead on getting DSL, a Web site, e-mail, and even a cell phone. But fortunately, the quickly evolving “information highway” is not a two-way street where benefits inure only if both sides’ capabilities match. While I can maximize my use of the Internet when dealing with those clients who have gone online, there are still other Internet applications that have proven valuable even for my less technically sophisticated client base

Below, I refer to the three top Internet tools that I use to serve clients as

the three Es”: e-fax, e-mail, and the e-merging (ha!) e-filing. In addition, while my firm maintains a Web site (indeed, my firm was one of the first online with a Web site in 1995), at least for now, I regard the site as a means of marketing to prospective clients rather than a tool to serve existing clients.

ELECTRONIC FAX SERVICES

By far, the most useful Internet tool that I’ve found so far is the electronic fax, which combines the traditional fax with e-mail. To be sure, e-mail is also indispensable to my practice; in fact, it’s a necessary prerequisite to e-fax. But e-fax benefits my clients the most since virtually all have access to a fax machine.

The particular electronic fax service that I use is

eFax.com

, which randomly assigns me a fax number at no charge (another great benefit). My fax number has a Florida area code, but I could request a local area code for a small monthly fee. Clients can fax documents to me at that number, which eFax then routes directly into my e-mail box. For an additional fee, I could also e-mail documents to eFax for fax transmittal, a service I have not used since I either exchange documents directly by e-mail or hook my computer up to the phone line to send outgoing faxes directly from my machine.

The ability to receive faxes electronically has liberated me from the physical fax machine. If I am out of town, I no longer need to give clients the fax number at the hotel desk — or worse, hang out at a Kinko’s to await an incoming fax.

Instead, clients can always transmit a fax to my eFax number, and I can retrieve it remotely through e-mail. Even at my own office, eFax is less expensive and more convenient than my former stand-alone fax machine, for which I either paid the price of maintaining a dedicated phone line or inconvenienced clients by asking them to call ahead prior to faxing so that I could flip the phone line into fax mode. Finally, eFax ensures that I will never misplace or maim another fax again, as was common when I received faxes on the flimsy, slippery fax paper that was the norm when I started my firm seven years ago.

Since eFax automatically converts faxes into an electronic format, I can download and print faxes on plain paper while also retaining backup copies of the faxes on my computer hard drive.

ELECTRONIC MAIL

For those clients who have regular and dependable online access, e-mail serves as an indispensable tool for maintaining contact and exchanging information. For example, if I learn of a recent development in a client’s case and I’m pressed for time or haven’t had time to think through all of the implications, I prefer dropping an e-mail to update the client, with an invitation to e-mail me or call me afterward, rather than making what is invariably a more time-consuming phone call.

I find that e-mail gives the clients time to absorb new information so any follow-up calls are more focused. And of course, when the client is not available, it’s much easier to explain the reason for my contact in a written e-mail message than in a convoluted voice mail. Finally, in matters where multiple parties are involved, e-mail enables me to communicate the same information to all the parties at one time, instead of having to transmit multiple faxes.

The value of e-mail as a tool to transmit information is further enhanced for those clients who can open and send documents electronically in addition to receiving simple messages. For example, since the appellate courts and federal agencies where I practice issue decisions electronically, I can simply forward those decisions to clients via e-mail immediately after I’ve learned of their issuance.

Moreover, when I’m drafting a filing that requires client review and approval, I can e-mail the document to a client as an attachment. My client can then review the document, make any changes necessary, and e-mail the document back.

Of course, one obvious prerequisite to effective electronic exchange of documents is that clients must share my level of technological capability.

I’ve had a number of occasions where despite my advance inquiries regarding the appropriate format for sending a document (e.g., WordPerfect 5.1, Microsoft Word), clients were unable to open documents upon receipt because of format incompatibilities.

Similarly, I have had clients who inexplicably mangled or lost portions of documents I’ve sent for review. Then they’ve delayed sending revisions, figuring that the document was ready to go with their changes incorporated when, in reality, the problems they created in the document threw me into a last-minute, back-breaking frenzy of cutting and pasting and fiddling with WordPerfect code to finalize the changes.

As a result of those experiences, I always attempt to exchange documents electronically with clients at least once prior to crunch time. I also remind clients that notwithstanding their ability to transmit changes to me instantaneously, I still need time to incorporate the changes, and thus they must meet advance deadlines for sending any proposed revisions, even when the changes are made electronically.

Ironically, up until the past couple of years, when e-mail has become a normalized form of communication in the legal profession, the main criticism of electronic communication came not from clients but from my lawyer colleagues.

Many questioned whether ordinary e-mail provided sufficient privacy to ensure the degree of client confidentiality required by the Rules of Professional Responsibility. However, the D.C. Bar, like many other jurisdictions, has concluded in Ethics Opinion No. 281 that in most circumstances, transmission of confidential information by unencrypted electronic mail does not violate client confidentiality rules — although certain situations may require greater levels of security.

E-FILING

At present, my clients have not yet been substantially affected by electronic filing. Not because of any lack of technological capability on their part, but because in the courts and agencies where I practice, e-filing is only now emerging. However, based on recent e-filing experience at FERC, which just recently implemented an electronic filing system for certain categories of pleadings, I am excited about the prospects that e-filing holds for my clients.

Essentially, an electronic filing system allows for the filing of documents at a court or agency via e-mail, thereby enabling me to file documents within minutes of their completion without even leaving my desk. In theory, e-filing gives me more time to spend on a pleading (or more time to devote to other matters prior to getting to work on the pleading), because I do not have to allocate several hours of time in advance of filing to allow for photocopying and messengering of the document. But, more important, e-filing has the potential to save my clients money — savings that will increase as more jurisdictions permit e-filing and as more documents are converted to electronic format.

Although the FERC document I recently e-filed was only a few pages and thereby spared my client a grand total of about $45 for copying and messenger fees, the potential savings as we enter an electronic age are far greater

For example, in federal appellate matters, I must typically photocopy and bind 20 copies of what is generally a 50-page brief to satisfy the court’s 15-copy filing requirement and to serve the parties in the case. At 10 cents a page and $2 apiece for binding, that’s $140. Moreover, with the paper filing system, I would need to finish the brief at least a day in advance to allow sufficient time for photocopying, and two days in advance if the filing were being made out of the area.

Of course, one of the other large costs in preparing an appellate filing — the joint appendix — will decline substantially only as we progress further down the information highway. A joint appendix for an appeal contains many of the underlying court orders, transcript portions, and pleadings that constitute the record in the case; it is not unusual for a joint appendix to approach 500 pages. With 10 copies for the court and a few others for counsel, the cost of producing a joint appendix might total more than $700.

However, compiling a joint appendix electronically is also a daunting task. Many of the pleadings and court decisions might not come in compatible electronic formats, while some documents, such as transcripts or older pieces of evidence, may not even be available in electronic format. As a result, all of these materials would need to be scanned and compiled into a uniform electronic format and numbered and indexed, which could still be costly for a client.

But presumably, such costs will decline as more documents and transcripts become available in compatible electronic formats.

NET GAINS AND LOSSES

My firm’s Web site contains resources that tend to benefit prospective clients more than my existing clients. For example, a prospective client searching the Web for energy regulatory attorneys might come across my site and view some of my successful pleadings or examine my résumé to determine whether to contact me.

However, as a small practitioner, I lack the resources to provide and maintain a current stream of information to clients about energy matters; moreover, so many other Web sites full of energy information are already available that my resources are best spent elsewhere.

Similarly, I simply do not have the time or skill to develop a sort of extranet Web site where clients could obtain updates on their cases. Although I have the capability to design and post a basic site, an interactive site where clients could access their files would require expertise and attention to security well beyond my basic technical abilities. Moreover, even if I were to outsource development of an extranet, ultimately, my efforts would be wasted.

Quite frankly, when my clients call for information about their case, they don’t just want a basic status report; instead, they want reassurance about their prospects of prevailing or they want to vent about the injustice of our opponent or the system at large.

To date, I am unaware of any technology that can substitute for the personal counseling sessions that come as part of the package when a lawyer represents clients.

The Internet applications I use save clients money (or have the potential to do so) by enabling me to keep them informed about cases, and eventually file cases, without the assistance of additional staff, a cost that would ultimately be borne by clients in the form of higher billable rates. In addition, because the Internet enables me to transmit documents to many clients with such ease, clients have a chance to play a more active role in their matters, which can saves me time, thereby saving my clients money. For example, clients who have reviewed early drafts of a document have caught factual errors or have directly inserted factual information, thereby speeding up preparation of the document.

But the Internet’s speed-of-light mode of communication also bears a cost — not so much to clients but to their lawyers. Because I can speedily relay information like court decisions to clients through the Internet, many come to believe that I can also prepare documents instantaneously. Thus, clients may not give me sufficient time to complete projects, which can compromise quality. And although the Internet undoubtedly makes me more responsive to my clients’ needs by providing a mechanism by which they can contact me around the clock, that can also be a burden, for it makes escape from work difficult.

WISH LIST

Despite any problems, on balance the Internet has been a great blessing for my practice and my clients, giving me flexibility to meet client needs while giving my clients large-firm service at small-firm rates. And yet, as an attorney who has always taken our profession’s pro bono responsibility seriously, I often wonder why the Internet has not yet improved the ability of our profession to serve indigent clients in need of legal services.

As far as technology has taken my firm, I still eagerly anticipate the future when Internet technology will not just enable us to serve clients more quickly, but to reach out to clients who would otherwise not be served at all. And the day is not far off when a lawyer could take a laptop (or Palm Pilot), a dependable wireless connection, and a small printer to the streets and homeless shelters and dispense legal advice to clients in need on the spot, check the status of a client’s Social Security disability benefits, or print out forms for food stamps.

Every client would get an answer right away; there would be no lag time in following up; and attorneys would not lose track of clients because the clients have no telephone or address where they could be contacted, a problem I encountered time and time again in the days when I served as a volunteer lawyer at a homeless shelter. Granted, any responses provided would be rushed and basic. But just like a microwave supper, it certainly beats going without.

  • http://www.mulcaheylaw.com Catherine Mulcahey

    Fastcase has been free for members of the Florida Bar for a couple of years. It is very easy to use. The new app is great!
    I use Fastcase at least once every week, and have found only one instance where it missed an opinion that was in Westlaw. A surprisingly large number of my colleagues don’t know about it even though we all get the bar newspaper twice a month whether we want it or not.

  • http://www.mulcaheylaw.com Catherine Mulcahey

    Fastcase has been free for members of the Florida Bar for a couple of years. It is very easy to use. The new app is great!
    I use Fastcase at least once every week, and have found only one instance where it missed an opinion that was in Westlaw. A surprisingly large number of my colleagues don’t know about it even though we all get the bar newspaper twice a month whether we want it or not.

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