The start of 2021 brought surprising news for many in the bar world: The rivalry between Fastcase and Casemaker—which had seemed quite bitter, especially after Casemaker sued Fastcase—was over. The two online legal research companies, both of which used a model in which they offered their products for bars to then provide as a member benefit, officially merged on the last day of 2020, under the Fastcase name.
Bar Leader recently spoke with Dr. Satish Sheth, Ed Walters, and Phil Rosenthal, all from the newly merged Fastcase. Sheth, formerly president and CEO of Casemaker, is now on the board at Fastcase. (Interestingly, he is also a full-time emergency pediatrician for Kaiser Permanente in California.) Walters and Rosenthal cofounded Fastcase; Walters is its CEO, and Rosenthal is its president. Below is that conversation, with slight editing for clarity.
But first, a hat tip is in order: For more comprehensive analysis of this merger, please see Robert Ambrogi’s coverage at his LawSites blog, and listen to the episode of his LawNext podcast in which he talks with the same three company leaders who are featured in our article.
Bar Leader: One thing I found intriguing in what I've heard you say about this merger is that both Casemaker and Fastcase have always focused on "democratizing the law." How has this been a guiding principle for both companies?
Phil Rosenthal: This mission dates all the way back to our founding, when Ed and I worked at a law firm in DC. We started Fastcase when we found out that even lawyers couldn’t afford reliable access to the law. This mission is one of the reasons the bar community has proved to be a perfect partner—the bars have always advocated for their members to have good access to the law.
I should point out here that Casemaker has always shared this mission. Casemaker, of course, was a pioneer in the member benefit model, in conjunction with the Ohio State Bar Association. Bar associations have embraced our companies and the idea of partnering to make legal research available to all lawyers, and the member benefit model is a perfect way to ensure that all lawyers have access. The whole history of Fastcase and Casemaker has been a parallel story of partnership with bar associations to democratize the law.
BL: Could you say a bit more about the member benefit model and why it continues to be important to your newly merged company?
Satish Sheth: The easiest way for lawyers to access legal research is through bar associations. This member benefit model has been a critical part of the way so many lawyers are able to read the law, and we have to give a lot of credit to bar associations for their leadership here. As good partners, our goal is to make bar associations stronger, and to create one more good reason for lawyers to join. We always hope that our work is beneficial to bar associations, publishers, and to the lawyers we all serve.
PR: Bar associations also play an important role as the center of the legal community. They should be the center of legal publishing, too. That’s a place where we can help as well. So many bar associations have terrific deskbooks and other resources, so now we’re helping them to make those books available to members. We enhance the member benefit for users and create nondues revenue for bar associations, so it’s a win-win.
BL: The two companies have always seemed to have very different personalities, with Casemaker being a bit more traditional or serious and Fastcase maintaining more of the "brash upstart" feel (and Phil’s creatively worded sponsor messages). Do you see that, too, and if so, how does melding the two personalities help create a stronger company?
SS: We have always admired Fastcase’s ability to work with bar association executives and to be able to connect more directly to the decision makers. Casemaker was always wondering how. Maybe it was Phil’s wordplay?
PR: Our team has always had enormous respect for Casemaker—it is such a strong editorial team! After working with Satish and his team, I wouldn’t say that they are more traditional or serious—they’re really fun!
BL: On a somewhat similar note, I know each company has certain areas where it has particularly excelled and has been especially strong. Could you please share what those are, and how the products and services from each company will eventually fit together?
Ed Walters: Casemaker has one of the best editorial teams in the world, bar none. When people want to see how a new act will be reflected in statutes or how new regulations will appear in administrative codes, they look to see how Casemaker does it. And that’s one of the reasons that the combined company will rely on that editorial expertise.
Fastcase has a real entrepreneurial DNA, in part because there are so many entrepreneurs on our team. So our product team is terrific at building innovative software, and we’re always rolling out new ways to make research simpler and more insightful.
Our goal is to combine the best of both services, and a good example might be in our citator. Now we can combine the great citator technology built by the Judicata team, which is now part of Fastcase, with Casemaker’s Casecheck+ service and Fastcase’s Bad Law Bot. Our goal is to create the best citator in the world, and now we have the data and the team to do it.
You can’t roll out a citator overnight, but one thing people will see right away is that we can add complementary libraries. So Fastcase, for example, has a deeper library of immigration cases, and we can add that to Casemaker subscribers pretty quickly. And Casemaker has tribal law opinions and historic cases that we can now include in Fastcase. You’ll start seeing those really soon.
BL: For years, those of us in the bar world have tracked the Fastcase vs. Casemaker competition, and it now sounds as if there was less hostility between the two companies than many of us thought. How did you connect with each other on an interpersonal level?
PR: It’s always been a respectful competition between our companies. And with this merger, we can together increase the competition in this market by creating a very high-quality alternative. I’ve always enjoyed getting to know Satish, and also Casemaker’s prior CEO Dave Harriman, a titan in the profession. It was not uncommon for Dave Harriman and me to grab a beer at the end of a conference, and we mused what people would think if they saw us.
EW: Not many people know this, but our companies share a kind of common ancestry. When we first got started at Fastcase, it was Dave Harriman, then CEO of National Law Library in Charlottesville, Va., who first licensed (and later sold) a copy of state and federal judicial opinions to us. Casemaker later purchased National Law Library and offered the same database in its member benefit, but the office has stayed in Charlottesville after all these years, and with some of the industry leaders from the National Law Library days.
So, although we competed for business, we always knew that Casemaker understood Fastcase better than any other company could. It was never a hostile relationship, and we’ve had many coffees and beers over the years.
BL: Likewise, when you were in litigation over a copyright dispute, I think it was easy to assume that the case involved some animosity. But I've heard you say that the lawsuit was actually helpful in some ways, as a means of building mutual trust. Could you explain that a bit further?
PR: The litigation really forced the management of both companies to start talking. During that case, one of the things we kept asking ourselves was, who does litigation between us help? And the answer was that it only helped the incumbents in the legal publishing market.
SS: That lawsuit brought us closer together in understanding views from the other company’s perspective. One thing that was clear was that we were both trying to achieve the same thing in the marketplace.
BL: Am I correct that it was Satish who first raised the merger idea, but that nothing happened for quite a while, and then it was after the lawsuit that things really picked up steam?
SS: We have been talking about a merger for a long time. We discussed it for the first time in 2010, I think.
PR: Satish, I think you do get credit for initiating the idea, but yes, the idea really took off in fall of 2019, after we settled the lawsuit.
EW: We should also credit Fastcase’s Chief Operating Officer Steve Errick, who had worked with a few members of the Casemaker leadership team when they both worked at LexisNexis. Steve worked as an honest broker to help the companies come together. Phil and Satish did the heavy lifting on the commercial terms and lots of legal documentation over more than a year and a half.
BL: We've been touching on this, but what made you decide it was better to "lay down your arms," as it were, and work together rather than continuing as competitors?
EW: We’ve been trying to break into this market for two decades, but we’re not giant companies with a lot of venture money sloshing around. The more we looked at a merger, the more we realized how strong that combined company would be. We’re determined to be not just a competent alternative, but a truly better alternative for legal research. We have a much better chance of doing that together.
BL: Within the bar world, many of us might think that this merger creates a 900-pound gorilla, as the expression goes. But did I hear correctly that your overall market share is still quite small?
EW: I think this is related to my last point. Combined, we probably don’t have 1% of the revenue of the U.S. legal research market, so it’s hard to imagine us (yet?) as a dominant figure. We have a fair amount of humility about how big of a company we are. One thing we have learned is that, to create a real alternative to billion-dollar publishers, you need scale. You can’t break a logjam with a stick.
PR: The work of lawyers is way more than litigation, and to be a real alternative, we have to offer secondary treatises, digests, legal news, and analytics, for example. So you need scale to bring real competition.
BL: On a related note, any time two companies merge, many people anticipate big changes in how the merged company interacts with its customers. Not to put you on the hot seat, but can bars still expect to see you as a sponsor, advertiser, or supporter in other ways?
PR: More than ever. We’ve always prioritized our bar partners, and that won’t change. Bar associations built our companies, and we’re not going to forget that.
SS: Bar associations are our most important business relationships, and we really work closely with them to reach end users. Our work with bar associations is the way that we meet our mission to democratize the law. Working together, we will be as close to our bar associations as we ever were, or even more.
BL: Similarly, in a merger, it’s not uncommon for there to be a staff reduction in the newly combined company. I understand that this did not happen here, and that in fact, it was a condition of the merger that no one lose their job. Why was this so important, and what are you finding, in terms of ways the two staffs complement rather than duplicate each other?
SS: These are two really strong teams, with a lot of institutional knowledge. Combining two companies, their research systems, and the data operations is really technical and requires deep knowledge. Expert teams are really important when you are doing technical work like that.
PR: One thing that’s great is that our teams are surprisingly complementary. We have the opportunity to combine some of the leading product innovators in the market with some of the world’s foremost legal editors. We make each other better: Data specialists enhance docket analytics, and innovators can bring new functionality to editorial products. It’s truly a case where one plus one equals three.
EW: Our combined company has a strong culture of hiring great people and helping them to grow in their careers. Two important pillars of our company’s goals for 2021 are to truly act as one company and to help our teammates to grow. So we’re learning a lot from each other and really growing together as a single team.
BL: On the surface, it seems as if, of the three of you, Satish is the one experiencing the most change as a result of this merger, or even giving something up that seems big: the company name and the titles of president and CEO. Satish, could you tell us what particularly excites you about this merger and about your new role, and why it's worth anything you had to give up?
SS: I don’t feel that I have given up anything—if anything, I now have more responsibility and direction to bring together the larger team. I serve on the board of directors of the combined company, and I have a lot of work to do in coordinating our editorial team. I’m glad that Ed and Phil are able to take over some of the other responsibilities of the business. There are some roles like marketing and communications where I prefer to stay in the background.
BL: Likewise, Phil and Ed, is there anything that particularly excites you about this merger and that we haven't touched on yet?
PR: We’ve said since 1999 that we wanted to democratize the law. Now our combined company partners with bar associations in all 50 states and DC to make legal research available for free [to bar members]. So it’s really exciting how well this merger aligns with our mission, and in a sense it completes the first phase. It frees us up to focus on the other pillar of our mission, to make legal research smarter and to lead in legal analytics.
EW: That’s something that we’re all excited about. We have some really cool projects cooking in the Fastcase labs that we can’t wait to bring to our bar partners. (Okay, maybe substitute “geeky” for “cool,” but it’s an exciting time in our labs!)
BL: Is there anything you would like to say to our readers about this merger and about their partnership with you going forward, that we haven't yet covered?
SS: I would like to emphasize that we’re striving to become the best product in the market. We’re as focused as ever to make legal research easy, comprehensive, and available to all at no cost.
PR: I’d like to just say thank you. We had this dream 20 years ago to democratize the law. It’s amazing to see how this small handful of people in the bar community was able to make such an enormous difference to more than 1 million lawyers in America. This is an ambitious (and many thought, impossible) goal, but together we were able to pull it off. We remain committed to keeping bar associations in the center of lawyers’ experience, and we look forward to ways we can help you lead in the future.