Fastcase’s “Public Library of Law”: A Review
“We launched PLoL in February 2008 as a resource for non-lawyer researchers. We saw lots of journalists, business owners, students, and pro se litigants signing up for free trials of Fastcase, and thought there should be a simple, free resource for them that fit their needs.
The idea was to empower people to educate themselves as best they could — not in place of a lawyer, but more likely before or in conjunction with professional legal help.
We wanted to build a library for law like WebMD was for medicine.
Nobody uses WebMD instead of going to a doctor, but it can empower people to take better care of themselves in conjunction with their doctor.
At its launch, it was the biggest free law library on the Web (a claim we need to update with the launch of the terrific material on Google Scholar).”
Without hesitation, I decided to put PLoL to the test while comparing it to its main competitor, Google Scholar.
- Direct links to state constitutions and websites.
- Very simple user interface, which allows easy movement between searching for state constitutions and case law.
- Nice aggregation of already free sources in one place such as state court rules and statutes.
- For state courts, free decisions only go back to 1997.
- You must register for a free account.
- Many decisions are not available for free, but must be paid for through a subscription to Fastcase. Thus, it acts somewhat like a marketing gimmick. In every case that I’ve accessed, there is a banner stating, “Find related cases fast! Fastcase has specialized tools to help you identify other cases that cite this one, using powerful citation analysis tools. When you find the right case, save it in your personal library or print it in Word, PDF or RTF, in easy-reading dual-column format. Click here to get the tools the pros use.” This is somewhat irritating after some time.
- All cases that show up in the search results are truly free! Plus, there’s great highlighting of key terms and suggestions on how to cite the case.
- You can create an email alert on new cases that fit your search parameters.
- Free cases go back very far back.
- You would often need to jump back and forth with the regular Google search and the Scholar version to get access to statutes and case law.
- PLoL puts up new case law faster.
So, while PLoL puts up a good fight in trying to engage in friendly competition with Google Scholar, it is unable to quite succeed mainly because it cannot quite forget that it’s sponsor is a for-profit company in the business of selling access to case law. Although there has definitely been good intentions by PLoL, this remains an insurmountable crutch, which is likewise the case for other free versions of pay sites such as FindLaw and LexisOne. However, in defense of the latter two, the commercial nature of its parent company is not so blatantly obvious as in the case of PLoL.
To be blunt, I’ve experimented with other free versions of pay sites and, all in all, none have come close to providing the same resources and ease of use as Google Scholar. Earlier I have suggested one possible reason for this and I wonder to what extent this is actually true. On one hand, it is somewhat ridiculous to expect full and excellent access to a free version of case law and statutes when a pay version exists. On the other hand, does this make these initiatives for free versions of pay sites, self-defeating? And, with a foe like Google, does it become a waste of resources for these companies to offer these free sites? When individuals like myself find myself roadblocked with inherent limitations from these free site versions, I become very skeptical of whatever search result I do receive. Is it recent? Is it still good case law? Do I have all of the cases on point? Despite the inherent limitations in Google Scholar, the combination of the Google name and the appearance of many cases in a relatively timely manner, some of those aforementioned concerns become less of an issue. Should we place the burden of producing and archiving all case law be on the government to ensure accuracy and free access to the general public? After all, even though we generally trust Westlaw and LexisNexis, there is always a disclaimer at the end of each document stating that there is guarantee that the work produced by them is similar to the authoritative government works.