I will start this review with what probably belongs in my conclusion: Every single lawyer using an iPhone should download the Fastcase app. Moreover, the availability of the free Fastcase app is a compelling reason for any attorney not using an iPhone to purchase one today. This app is that useful.
With that said, let's talk about this app. Fastcase is a legal research service that lets you search caselaw and statutes, an alternative to Westlaw or Lexis that has been around for ten years. On a desktop computer, the main selling point is price. At only $700 to $1000 a year for unlimited use, the service is a fraction of the cost of Westlaw or Lexis. Indeed, 16 bar associations have purchased Fastcase subscriptions for all of their members. The Louisiana State Bar Association, which includes all lawyers in Louisiana, is one such organization so I have been using Fastcase for free since 2005. On a desktop computer, my opinion of Fastcase is mixed. On the plus side, the service is fast and (for me) free, and I often use it to grab an opinion from another state when I have the cite and don't want to have to pay Westlaw/Lexis fees to get the case. On the other hand, when I am doing hard core legal research, I rarely use Fastcase because of the features it lacks as compared to Westlaw/Lexis including headnotes, Keycite/Shepard's, locate, annotations, etc. Thus, I use Fastcase as a supplement to my legal research, but not my primary research tool.
On the iPhone, however, I don't need something as powerful as the full version of Westlaw or Lexis. My research needs on the iPhone usually consist of pulling a case when I am out of the office and have a citation, doing a quick search for recent cases that contain a word or phrase, or pulling a statute. Last week, for example, I was in trial and there were several times when I wanted to quickly pull a case at issue and read it. I accessed Google Scholar using Safari (which I previously discussed here) and for the most part I got what I needed, but it would have been much easier to use a dedicated legal research app. How I wish that Fastcase for the iPhone had been released last Monday instead of last Friday! I would have made extensive use of this app during my time in the courtroom, and the app is so efficient that I would have been much more productive. I know that I will be using this app a lot in the future when I am in court, a meeting, or otherwise out of the office and need to look at the law.
When you first launch the free app, you are asked to create a Fastcase account (unless you already have one). Fortunately, the iPhone account is free for everyone — even if you don't practice in a state like Louisiana where the desktop computer version of Fastcase is free. Once you have an account you are brought to the main screen that appears on every subsequent launch, from which you can search for caselaw or statutes.
The search feature works well, You can search by terms, using operators such as AND or OR, quotes to search for specific phrases, w/# to search within a number of words, etc. You can also just type a natural language search. You can then select search options. First, you select the jurisdiction, and the choices are comprehensive ranging from broad such as the entire database, all federal appellate or all state courts to very focused such as individual states or even an individual federal district court (something that, to my knowledge, you cannot even do on Westlaw). Second, you have the option of selecting a date range. You can also choose to sort your results by relevance, decision date, case name or authority check (more on that below). Tap the search button and the app will query the Fastcase server and display your results. In the settings you can choose to display just a list of results or to include below the cite either the most relevant paragraph of the opinion or the first paragraph of the opinion.
Tap a case in the list to view the case. There are no West or Lexis style headnotes, but you do get the full text of the opinion, with hyperlinks to any cited cases. The text is very easy to read, and in the app settings you can even choose a larger or smaller font. Search terms are highlighted and West reporter pages and other appropriate page cites (such as Louisiana's public domain citation pages) are indicated. You can flick your finger on the screen to scroll up and down, plus you can slide your finger along the right margin of the case to very quickly scroll through the entire case — an incredibly useful feature. A convenient "Most Relevant" button jumps you to the paragraph of the case that appears to be the best match for your search terms, and in my testing this feature worked rather well. If you are looking at a case that you will want to come back to in the future, tap the Save button at the top right. You cannot e-mail a case, but you can use the iPhone's copy function to copy words, sentences or full paragraphs (or, I suppose if you have a lot of patience dragging the text selection handles, the entire case), which you can then paste into an e-mail or some other app.
As noted above, Fastcase lacks the Keycite feature of Westlaw or the Shepard's feature of Lexis. This is unfortunate; the ability to quickly determine whether a case is good law while you are in court would be very useful. But to give you some search guidance, Fastcase includes a feature called Authority Check. If you have the feature turned on when you run a search, you will see an orange bubble at the top right of each case containing two numbers. The first number is the "Cited Generally" number, and it is supposed to tell you how many times this case has been cited. The second number is the "Cited Within" number and it tells you how many of the cases in your search results cite that case. In theory, Cited Within is supposed to be helpful because a case might be cited a million times for some other proposition, but cited within tells you how many times it has been cited by cases that meet your search terms and thus should give you an indication of how important the case is to the issue that matters to you. While it is nice for Fastcase to offer these Authority Check features, my experience using Fastcase on the computer is that they are not very helpful, and in my limited tests on the iPhone this remained true. Try them out and see if they work for you, but for me I think it best to just turn off the option to use Authority Check when you run your search, and you'll get your search results a little faster that way.
Two very useful features of the Fastcase app are the "Recent" and "Saved" buttons at the bottom. One button shows your recent searches, and you can simply tap a search to run it again. The other button shows the cases that you have saved for future reference.
From the main screen of the Fastcase app you can also either search for or browse statutes. (This feature is not available for a handful of states.) Searching statutes is similar to searching cases. Choose a jurisdiction and the set of law (such as a state's code of civil procedure rules) and then run your search. Unfortunately, when you are viewing a statute that you found in a search, you cannot advance to the next or previous statute in the books. But if you instead choose the browse function for statutes, you can jump into a set of statutes by title, then chapter, then section and browse backwards and forwards through the statutes. Unfortunately, when you are browsing there is no quick way to jump to a specific statute, such as 28 U.S.C. 1441, and instead you need to navigate to it by title and then chapter — information that you often will not know, although you can figure it out.
The Fastcase app is not perfect, but most of its shortcomings come from Fastcase itself, not from the iPhone implementation. For example, the lack of Keycite/Shepard's is a major limitation. Also, you frequently see cases show up twice, once for the West reporter version and once as a slip opinion from the court itself. The cases also don't have the helpful editorial content such as headnotes that you get with Westlaw or Lexis. Statutes lack annotations and historical information. I doubt that these shortcomings will be addressed any time soon. A key reason that Fastcase is so inexpensive is that the company doesn't hire researchers to add editorial content such as headnotes and Keycite/Shepard's. As for the features that could be added to the app itself, my #1 request is the ability to e-mail a case or statute. It would also be useful to have hyperlinks in cases to references to statutes; currently you only see hyperlinks to cases.
For accessing statutes, there are times when you will find it more useful to use a dedicated app such as the numerous legal statute apps sold by Cliff Maier, one example of which is his dedicated version of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Jumping to a specific statute, browsing and searching is faster and easier in a dedicated app, plus a dedicated app will work even if you don't have an internet connection. But Fastcase has the advantage of being free.
I presume that Fastcase is offering the iPhone app for free in the hopes that attorneys will enjoy using the iPhone version so much that they will sign up for Fastcase on their computer. That's not a bad strategy. My opinion of Fastcase has gone up quite a bit as I have been using this app over the last few days, and I'm sure that I will find myself giving Fastcase a second look on my computer as a result. If Westlaw or Lexis were to come out with a full featured app, then Fastcase would have some serious competition. Lexis already has an iPhone app, and while it is free, it lacks so many important features that I find the current version of the app just plain frustrating. Also, I suspect that at some point, someone will come out with a good iPhone app front end to Google Scholar, which would also give Fastcase some serious competition. But unless and until we see something good and free from Westlaw, Lexis or Google, Fastcase will clearly be the research app of choice for all attorneys with iPhones. Congratulations to Ed Walters and his team at Fastcase for creating an incredibly useful app that every lawyer should get immediately.