Jake Heller has been programming since he was 9 years old, and worked full-time as a web developer before becoming a lawyer. His startup Casetext, a Y Combinator-backed company, offers a better way of dealing with legal text.
Early on, Heller was fascinated by open-source code. He loved Wikipedia, was an early reviewer on Yelp, and a fan of Github. However, he couldn’t understand why the community approach that worked elsewhere hadn’t worked in law.
He found that search providers like LexisNexis are problematic in two ways: First, they are expensive. It can cost $50 per search, $20 per document, and is inaccessibly expensive. Heller came across solo practitioners who had a LexisNexis plan allowing only 20 minutes of usage per day. They’d use Google and books for the rest of the search. In Heller’s eyes, these search providers produce information in expensive and unsustainable ways. Writing case summaries, headnotes, and shepardizing are all human-intensive processes.
Secondly, although accurate, these searches are very rarely insightful. Case summaries and shepardization only go so deep. Heller saw a missed opportunity of community insight about cases. Lawyers instead rely heavily on law blogs and twitter for updates in case law and case summaries. He dreamt of building a product that could incorporate all of that and still offer a full text database and, best of all, would be completely free.
“I’d been thinking about this idea for 5 or 6 years,” explains Heller, “and I constantly brought it up with my wife. At one point, she turned to me and said that in the future, we might have kids and a mortgage, and that now was the time to take a risk.” And so, Heller left his position as a litigation associate at Ropes & Gray to pursue Casetext.
Casetext is like Rapgenius or Wikipedia for law. There’s a full text database along with community-added annotations. Features include:
· Case summary and holding: This basic information at the top of the page allows readers to know whether it’s a case they want to read just by skimming the top of the page.
· Treatment and up/down voting: Unlike Westlaw or LexisNexis, you can easily see how the case is distinguishable, and how others have treated a case. Community members can upvote or downvote related cases so that the most important one goes to the top.
· Annotation and heat-mapping: Because just having the text of a case is rarely enough to fully understand it, community members can also add comments alongside a case. The heatmap indicates the more highly cited parts of the case. The darker the heatmap, the more important that part of the case is.
· Fast search and intelligent search filters: Not all cases are created equal—some cases have never been cited before, others are cited repeatedly in secondary literature. Casetext thus has a “leading cases” tag/filter if the case has been cited 5 or more times in law articles and treatises. Moreover, because Casetext uses open-source technology, it can make searches many times faster than even expensive, commercial products. “Traditional competitors insist on using proprietary technologies because they feel insecure about selling something they can’t patent. They’ve spent 7 years developing proprietary technology that is now 7 years behind.”
Casetext’s business model is simple—all the basic research functions are free. Users will be able to upgrade to premium features, which includes the ability to privately annotate and share those annotations within a firm, but not publicly. Knowledge management has been a perpetual problem for law firms. With Casetext, law firm members can annotate privately within their firm (as well as integrate their previous memos, briefs, and other in-firm communications as annotations), and firms can in turn and boast about having the best internal database of knowledge—everything from case knowledge to feedback about judges, giving the firm an advantage over their opponents.
Heller isn’t just limiting himself to case law, though. Casetext also works on contracts. Hours after Y Combinator released a new standard contract for early-stage investing called the simple agreement for future equity (SAFE), over a dozen lawyers, professors, investors, and startup founders annotated the SAFE on Casetext.
First started in May 2013, Jake developed the first version of Casetext himself. It was a single page featuring Loving v. Virginia that some friends helped him annotate to show an example. He admits “it was not nearly as cool as it is today,” and credits his development team, which has rebuilt most of the current platform since August 2013.
In April 2013, Heller quit his job and three days later, was at the Y Combinator offices for what he describes as the most fast-paced, intense 10-minute interview of his life. He was accepted that evening. “What I learned at Y Combinator,” Heller explains, “is that you have to get a product in front of users quickly, and then aggressively iterate based on user feedback as you slowly but surely make your product as good as it can be. The cornerstone of success is listening to your users."
Y Combinator only recently turned its attention to law startups in early 2013. His advice to law startup founders who aim for Y Combinator glory is to talk to others who went through the Y Combinator experience. Do practice interviews, really work on that application so that it’s as clear as day. During the interview, you have to be formidable, be able to take a beating and still look like a polished CEO.
Casetext’s next challenge is just coming up. Heller aims to make the website inviting enough to more deeply engage community members.