Casetext

Who wrote this f*@&^ing case summary

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In my second year after law school, my fellow firm associates and I were tasked with researching a motion for summary judgement. A first year on the team, anxious to prove himself to the partner, said that he had found the perfect appellate court case for our argument. The associate then proceeded to read the facts and case summary to the team. As he did so, the rest of the associates groaned and looked towards the ground in embarrassment. It was clear from the case summary format that this was not the associate’s own summary of the case, but a LexisNexis case summary. The partner let the associate finish, then removed his glasses, and, looking the associate right in the eyes, said “I know that case. That is not what the case held. The easiest way to get fired from this firm is to rely on the case summaries of Lexis and Westlaw. Everyone knows those summaries are trash.” 

This memory has stuck firmly in my mind, not only because of the directness of the partner’s comment, but also because of the other questions it raises: Why have we as attorneys become numb to unreliable case summaries? Why doesn’t this make us question the reliability of other parts of Lexis and Westlaw? And who writes these f*@&^ing case summaries anyways?

Surprisingly, it is difficult to get a clear answer on the last question. Both LexisNexis and Westlaw proudly say that they have “human editors” use a case summary template to orderly format the holding and facts of the case of court orders and opinions. But when asked further, it’s unclear who exactly these human editors are. Both companies say they cover many cases, from all appellate court rulings to Los Angeles superior court tentative rulings. But with so many legal cases being filed every day, how are the companies able to get capable attorneys, teach them how to write a case summary, and ensure the quality of those summaries?

In short, they can’t. Both companies use hoards of nameless editors across the world who get paid well below an attorney’s normal rate to do nothing but read cases and summarize them. While some of these editors are undoubtedly fine attorneys, it is no surprise that the aggregate work product is so unreliable. Even the finest of attorneys, when asked to summarize as many cases as possible as quickly as possible would likely have questionable results.

Interestingly, while attorneys know that these case summaries are unreliable, they don’t impart that unreliability to the other pieces of these editors’ work product. For example, one rarely hears of attorneys not relying on headnotes or treatment flags. But for all we know, those are written and assigned by those same nameless editors. In the end it’s the same issue: your brief is only as good as the work on which you rely, whether that work is in the form of summaries, headnotes, or treatment flags.

Almost a decade after that meeting with the partner, I learned about Casetext. I was interested in legal tech, but, like many attorneys, was skeptical of any company promising a better product for a cheaper price. One of the first things that caught my attention, however, was how Casetext handles case summaries. Instead of accumulating a stockpile of editors for just above minimum wage, Casetext relies on technology to do the first pass.

Take as an example, Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (2007). Lexis and Westlaw would have Joe Attorney, Esq., read the 56 page case (his 30th of the day). He would then haphazardly assign headnotes, write a case summary, and assign treatment. He would have 20 minutes for all of this work – not even enough time to thoroughly read the case.

Casetext taxes a different approach. In Petrella v. Brownback, 787 F.3d 1242, 1258 n.5 (10th Cir. 2015), the 10th Circuit writes that Morse “hold[s] that it does not violate the First Amendment for schools to restrict student expression that is reasonably understood as promoting illegal drug use.” Voila! A holding of Morse written by a more reliable source – the 10th Circuit. 

By aggregating the holdings penned by other prominent judges, Casetext immediately has a more reliable and complete case summary of Morse v. Frederick than Lexis and Westlaw. Further, since it is monumentally less expensive and more scalable, Casetext can hire exceptional attorneys to check the trickier cases, seamlessly unifying the best of both human judgment and technology to produce a better work product at a significantly cheaper cost. 

By using the best of both technology and human editors, Casetext has produced over 4 million reliable case summaries. Lexis, by contrast, only has 2 million of questionable reliability. 

And that is really what Casetext is about. While no system is perfect, Casetext goes at solving problems a smarter way. Casetext is a new kind of company, one that knows what lawyers need to do their best work and builds the best solution from the ground up, unencumbered by an analog duopolistic past. 

Casetext is not smarter legal research because it’s less expensive; it’s less expensive because it is smarter legal research. And that approach also leads to a better, more reliable product, like case summaries penned by judges, not nameless editors.

For more information visit www.casetext.com.

Tara McCarty is the Sr. Director of Marketing at Casetext. Before going into marketing, she was herself a litigator for several years after graduating from Columbia Law School. She currently lives in San Francisco and spends her time exploring the area with her husband and her dog, Duke.