Head-to-Head Review: Casemaker vs. Fastcase

Two legal research services are in a head-to-head competition to win the loyalty of America’s lawyers. If you think I’m talking about Westlaw and LexisNexis, think again. This battle is between Casemaker and Fastcase. For my monthly Web Watch column in Law Technology News, I offer a head-to-head review of the two services: Web Watch: Casemaker vs. Fastcase.

[Note: Because the original link to my column no longer works, I have updated this post to include the full text of the column below.]

Face-off: Casemaker vs. Fastcase

Two legal research services are in a head-to-head competition to win the loyalty of America’s lawyers. No, I am not talking about Westlaw and LexisNexis. This battle is between Casemaker and Fastcase.

Each markets itself as a member benefit to state and local bar associations. Casemaker has the bigger share of the market, with 28 bars representing 475,000 lawyers. But Fastcase is fast on its heels, with 17 state bars and other smaller bars representing 380,000 subscribers.

How do the two services compare? To find out, I tested both and also sat through online presentations from each company. Through my own state’s bar association, I already had access to Casemaker. Fastcase provided me with a temporary password.

My conclusion is that both are worthwhile services with many similarities. In the coverage of their federal and state libraries and the relative strengths of their search tools, neither stands out as significantly superior to the other. But in their intuitiveness and ease of use, Fastcase has the clear edge.

Scope of Coverage

A key factor in comparing legal research services is the scope of their data. Here, Casemaker and Fastcase are largely comparable but not precisely parallel.

Both provide libraries of federal and state primary law and both cover all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In fact, both receive new cases from the identical source. Where their case libraries differ is in how far back they go. Each also has some minor collections that the other does not.

In their federal libraries, both have the full archive of Supreme Court cases. Both have federal circuit opinions, with Casemaker starting from 1930 and Fastcase from 1924. Both also have U.S. district court opinions, with Casemaker starting in 1932 and Fastcase in 1912.

Both also have bankruptcy cases, Tax Court decisions and decisions of the Board of Immigration Appeals. Each has some other narrower federal libraries that the other does not.

State coverage varies by state. With a couple exceptions, both have all state appellate opinions at least back to 1950. Some in each date back to the late 1800s. A small number of state libraries in each include trial-level opinions.

Both also provide access to statutes, regulations, court rules and other materials. Casemaker houses these within its database. Fastcase houses the statutes but for other materials, such as regulations and court rules, it frames content housed on external sites.

Conducting a Search

Fastcase and Casemaker both describe their search interface as intuitive. Indeed, both are easy to use. But Fastcase is the more intuitive, largely because of its Google-like simplicity.

Log on to Fastcase and you land at your personal search page. At the top of the page is the Google-like quick-search bar. Lower on the page are links to advanced search options for caselaw, statutes, regulations and other libraries. The page lists your 10 most recent searches as hyperlinks, so you can easily go back.

Fastcase allows you to use either Boolean or natural language queries or to look up a case by citation. Search across all jurisdictions at once or only those you select. You can set how results will be sorted – by relevance, case name, decision date, court hierarchy or frequency of citation.

When you log on to Casemaker, you start not at a search page, but at your state library page. From there, you select the library within your state to search. You can also opt to perform a MultiBook Search across all of your state’s libraries at once.

To search other jurisdictions, you need to navigate back up to higher-level state and federal libraries and then back down again to the library you want.

Choose a library and you come to its main search screen. Casemaker uses traditional Boolean searching. Unlike Fastcase, it offers an array of fielded search options. These let you search by attorney name, opinion author, panel members, docket number, court, case name and citation. It also allows thesaurus searching, which broadens a search term to include synonyms.

You can search all state cases or all federal cases, but not both sets at once.

Display of Search Results

In their displays of search results, Fastcase provides more information and more flexibility. The Fastcase default is to list results by relevance, much as Google would. With a quick click, you can re-sort the results by name or decision date. With another quick click, you can narrow results to a specific jurisdiction.

Casemaker’s default is to sort results by date. This means the most relevant case could be anywhere on the list. In the state libraries, you can reset this to sort by relevance. The federal libraries do not have this option.

The Fastcase results page displays the name of each case, its relevance ranking, how often it has been cited, and a paragraph excerpt. You can change whether this shows the case’s most relevant paragraph or its opening paragraph. A button next to each case lets you easily add it to a print queue.

Casemaker’s results list has less information. It includes each opinion’s most relevant paragraph and a relevance ranking shown as a percentage.

Both services share the same serious fault. Search results often list the same case twice, once as a slip opinion and again with its official citation. To compound this fault, Casemaker sometimes list these duplicate cases as having different decision dates. For the researcher, de-duping the results list is an unnecessary waste of time.

A feature Fastcase touts is its Interactive Timeline. Click this tab above the search results to display them in a visual format designed to highlight the most important cases. Each case is shown as a circle, its size corresponding to the number of times it is cited – and thus its weight. Hover over any circle for a pop-up with more info about the case.

I could not get the Timeline to display in the Firefox browser. It worked well in Internet Explorer. The company said it should work fine in Firefox.

In performing identical searches on the two services, I obtained surprisingly similar results. Once, each returned the identical number of results. But after I sorted out the duplicates, I saw that Casemaker had found two cases that Fastcase had not.

In another search, I tested Casemaker’s fielded search by adding a judge’s name in the “panel” field. In Fastcase, I included the judge’s name as part of the Boolean query. To my surprise, both yielded virtually identical results.

Viewing Cases

As you view individual cases, Fastcase displays the list of search results in a panel to the left. That makes it easy to move through the list. Hover over any case on the list to see its first paragraph. In Casemaker, the search results are not shown as you read each case. You need to backtrack to return to them.

Casemaker uses bread-crumb-trail navigation. As you conduct searches, the hierarchy of your progress is displayed at the top of the screen. You might see a string saying “Maine : Case Law : Search : Results.” To return to the list of results, click that word. To return to the top level, click “Maine.”

This approach requires a lot of back and forth movement through pages that Fastcase does not. It is one reason that Fastcase is simpler to use.

Both services highlight search terms within a document and let you jump to the next hit of a term. Oddly, Casemaker treats the Boolean connector AND as a search term and stops at each occurrence. Fastcase lets you choose to highlight only specific search terms. It also has an option to jump to a case’s most relevant paragraph.

A nice feature in Fastcase that Casemaker lacks is permanent URLs for cases. That means you can send colleagues a case URL and they can open the case (provided they have Fastcase). Fastcase also lets you save cases to favorites folders.
Both services provide page numbers within cases and both hyperlink case citations. Casemaker also hyperlinks statutory citations. Fastcase does not.

Casemaker also lets you browse cases, but this feature is tedious. I found duplicate libraries for the same courts and cases listed only by numbers that had no relation to the docket number or citation.

Casemaker is developing a feature that lists “knowledge references” on the same screen as search results. These are links to CLE materials related to the search. So far, results are spotty.

Printing and E-mailing

Both services allow you to export cases to Word or PDF format. Casemaker also offers RTF and HTML formats. Both services format the document in dual columns. Fastcase lets you also choose single-column formatting.

Both services also provide an option for e-mailing a document. I tried this several times in Fastcase, e-mailing it to myself, and it worked each time. In Casemaker, it seemed to work, but I never received the e-mail.

Authority Check

Both services include citator functions. Neither will tell you whether a case is still good law in the way that Shepard’s or KeyCite would.

Casemaker’s citator is called CaseCheck. As you view a case, it appears to the right of the screen, listing any cases that have cited your case. Click on any case in the list to be taken to the spot within it where the citation is found.

Fastcase calls its service Authority Check. As you view a case, an icon at the top of the screen shows the number of citations. Click on the number to open a pop-up screen that provides an array of information about the cases.

It includes the visual timeline, a summary showing how often by which courts the case was cited, and the list of citing cases, which includes the paragraph containing the cite.

Customer Service

Both companies offer customer service options that include telephone and e-mail support. Fastcase also has live chat with a research lawyer on its staff. Casemaker has plans to add this option.

Both offer a variety of user guides, FAQs and training videos. Casemaker provides free live training via Webinars.

Advantage, Fastcase

Due to limits of space, this review focuses on caselaw research. Both services offer other features and other libraries. Both also link to external libraries for legal forms, newspaper articles and other useful materials.

A bar association that offers its members either of these services is giving them a valuable benefit. While both offer comparable research libraries and search tools, Fastcase holds the edge in ease of use and intuitiveness of its features.