What’s new in the legal research classroom? As was mentioned in previous posts, there is a new database, Fastcase, available to all Wisconsin bar members. In the Advanced Legal Research classrooms this past semester students were introduced to Fastcase. Now that it is available to all members of the Wisconsin bar, we plan to expand training on this cost-effective legal research tool. The Fastcase database has already been reviewed by Leslie Behroozi and Elana Olson in a joint post. I’d like to focus my comments on the Interactive Timeline feature of Fastcase. This new feature will prove useful for spotting trends in the law, not only to practicing lawyers, but also to academics, including those interested in writing papers for publication.
Below is an example of the Interactive Timeline for a search for “open records” limited to Wisconsin cases. Each case is represented by a bubble. The size of the bubble indicates how often other cases in the Fastcase database have cited to that particular case. The x-axis represents time and the y-axis represents relevancy (you have the option to select relevancy or court level). This visual format allows the researcher to process more information more rapidly than would be possible by using the traditional list format. For instance, in the visual format, the researcher is able to “view” all 233 relevant cases on one page, whereas in the traditional list format, the researcher would have to either click “next” page or scroll down.
More importantly, it allows the researcher to spot trends in the law. For instance, below, we see an increasing number of cases returned on a search for “open records” since 1979. Is this due to an increased amount of information available to requesters? A change in language in the Wisconsin statute? A move toward transparency and access to public information? Taking note of any trends we see while researching may provide fodder for law review articles or other scholarly publications. For the practitioner, it allows a 30,000-foot view of the case law on a particular topic (at least as demonstrated by the Fastcase database algorithm).
This new tool, the Interactive Timeline, is worth your while to explore. It is probable that we’ll see increased use of visual display of query results in legal research.