A Low Bono Lawyer’s Research Hacks (Casetexter 1)

The Casetexter series is a way for you to peek behind the curtain of great law firms. In addition to learning how our friends use Casetext and other modern tools, you’ll get insights on workflow, product design, business management, and business building.

Mackenzie Dunham is not your average family lawyer. He’s working “low bono.”

Dunham’s firm serves clients usually underserved because of resources. He founded Access Justice Houston right out of law school, eager to deliver legal solutions to those who traditionally couldn’t afford it. Through flat fees and income-adjusted subscription programs, Mackenzie is bringing law to everyone.

The predictable monthly fees also get client buy-in. “The clients have some skin in the game,” Mackenzie told me, “because they can have some control over how long the case goes and what it’s like.”

But the model also creates a dilemma. Mackenzie doesn’t limit the scope of the services he offers – a strategy typical of subscription-driven firms – which means he covers a broad spectrum of legal complexity. Mackenzie’s firm takes on both the standard and the unusual.

Learning on the Fly

The reality of the low bono model, Mackenzie told me, is that he has to be both efficient and effective. The technologies and processes he’s added make that mix possible.

“I need to leverage the tools that we have to learn almost anything really, really quickly.”

Quick learning has been an absolute necessity for Mackenzie’s firm. After earning his license to practice in Texas just two years ago, Mackenzie needed resources that would help him fast.

In this Casetexter post, Mackenzie shares with us how he’s done that, often using tools and systems that put him ahead of much more experienced opposing counsel. You’ll see a workflow that is built on both speed and quality. And you’ll learn the special role Casetext plays in making it all happen.

Mackenzie’s Process

As a low bono attorney, Mackenzie meets lots of interesting people who’d love to hire him. He’s developed this simple four-step process to quickly evaluate cases and prepare for litigation.

  1. Issue-spotting in client meetings: Mackenzie personally handles the firm’s new client consultations. As the attorney, he is able to use the knowledge in his head to map possible legal solutions to client complaints. He does standardized note-taking to make sure he doesn’t miss anything.
  2. Research issues on the Texas State Bar online CLE library: When the client comes on board, Mackenzie goes to his state’s bar’s online library. Former CLE presenters have created robust write-ups on a number of legal issues. Mackenzie gets a grounding on these issues before digging deeper.
  3. Go to the code: Given that family law is very code-driven in Texas, Mackenzie carefully reviews relevant legislation. He finds that annotated codes are often long-winded and outdated, but they direct him to some foundational cases in his area.
  4. Check with Casetext: Finally, Mackenzie uses Casetext’s intuitive natural language search and the enhanced features of CARA to update his understanding of both legislation and case law. Casetext’s tools not only get him highly relevant cases, they offer brief explainers that use the best legal reasoning.

Let’s dig a little deeper on number 4, because Mackenzie added a lot of context to that step in my conversation with him.

Casetext’s Role in Mackenzie’s Process

Mackenzie goes to Casetext early for legal summaries using the Holdings feature because, as he put it to me, Casetext has “found a cheap and dirty way of getting annotated codes.”

If you aren’t familiar with this feature, Casetext pulls brief explainers from judges. Opinions often come with summaries of earlier cases. When you pull up a case in Casetext, CARA (the artificial intelligence tool that powers Casetext) looks through over 4 million court-created summaries for a relevant explainer of your particular issue. Results then include both the case information and later courts’ description of that case.

Mackenzie also checks the Black Letter Law tab to see if judges have summarized the relevant law. Judicial opinions often come with the phrase “It is well settled that…” which is then followed by a concise articulation of a key legal principle. Casetext has amassed a database of hundreds of thousands of these principles. Attorneys can search this database directly, or ask CARA to suggest the ones most relevant to the matter at hand.

The judicial summaries,” Mackenzie told me, “are substantially smaller and more to the point than [traditional legal publishers’] because you don’t have some random person who probably never practiced law summarizing. You have actual judges. I love that.”

That context from judges allows Mackenzie to “get a better understanding of whether or not that case is relevant to what I’m looking for.”

Mackenzie suggests that you make good use of those judge-driven features, as they’ve been game-changers for his speedy and accurate process.

A Practical Example

The majority of Mackenzie’s cases involve predictable issues. Divorces and custody fights usually call for knowledge of just a few sections of the Family Code. But sometimes his work gets really challenging, as in a recent case involving criminal protective orders. Mackenzie used Casetext to tackle the originality.

Cases of sexual assault protective orders, Mackenzie explained to me, revolve around the phrase “reasonable grounds to believe.” The problem is, Mackenzie couldn’t find any instance in which a judge or legislator in Texas had defined that phrase – not in CLE papers, not in the Code, and not in expert annotations.

Mackenzie brought in co-counsel who’d handled protective orders for more than six years hoping to get insight on the issue, but even she couldn’t find a good judicial interpretation of that crucial phrase. It just didn’t exist in the family law context. Traditional Boolean searches couldn’t locate a satisfactory definition. Then Mackenzie tried Casetext.

“With Casetext,” Mackenzie said, “I was able to find good case law going back to the 60s within about five minutes that interpreted the phrase. My co-counsel and her entire organization had been looking for the same thing for like a year and a half. The closest thing she found was a random case in Canada.”

Mackenzie was shocked by the speed and accuracy of his result. “That was literally the first thing that popped up in Casetext, a U.S. Supreme Court case analyzing what a reasonable ground meant and comparing it to probable cause.”

He pointed out that the interpretation had never been found because of the different context, being an issue from criminal law rather than family.

“You’re not going to have that phrase used in connection with protective orders because no cases really looked at that. You don’t get a lot of family law appeals but Casetext pulls up cases from other contexts.”

In Mackenzie’s experience, this feature proved invaluable. “Casetext gave me the exact phrase that was used in the Code from an authoritative source. The terms I was searching came from the criminal law context which is a little foreign to family law attorneys,” but Casetext pulled from another context and highlighted judge-created summaries of the distinction that mattered for his case. “It was exceedingly helpful.”

“Casetext is convenient and the user interface is great,” Mackenzie told me, “but more importantly I find a lot more useful information from Casetext. I’m getting more relevant content more quickly, which is important.”

Improving on Mackenzie’s Process

I didn’t intend to have Mackenzie praise Casetext as much as he did, because I want this to be as valuable to you as possible without being salesy, but Mackenzie has truly wrapped Casetext into his quick-moving process. We talked about how he might improve that method to deliver even better results for his clients.

For example, Mackenzie mentioned the limitations of his intake process. Because he’s handling those interviews himself, he confidently spots issues for clients. Still, that step sets limits on his firm’s growth.

As Access Justice Houston builds toward scale, he simply won’t be able to take every new client consultation. He’ll have to outsource that step to some other tool, process, or person. And he sees how Casetext might help with that.

“If we could create a standard intake document, we might be able to feed that into CARA.” CARA is designed to harness the enormous amount of information encoded in legal documents that are fed into the system through a simple drag-and-drop interface.

He also sees a bigger picture opportunity from the efficient tools he uses. Most family lawyers don’t create supporting briefs or do a lot of front end research. Mackenzie wonders if family law attorneys are “inherently lazy” or just don’t recognize the business opportunity in demonstrating that kind of authority. He believes he can gain an advantage from doing the legwork of motions practice and frequent legal briefs for judges.

Already he feels that his tools and processes give him an edge. “I’ve only practiced law for a year and a half but often have a better understanding than a lot of my opposing counsel and the really large firms.”

By adding research-driven competencies, even when outside the hourly billing context, he feels he can create a competitive advantage. In that way, the functions of Casetext will prove even more valuable.

The Money Quote

Here’s how Mackenzie summarized his use of tools and processes, including Casetext:

“Honestly the thing that I value most is the tools that make me better at my job in less time.”

“There are more expensive options,” he told me, “and even free, but accuracy and speed really matter to me. Casetext has both.”

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