Jake Heller’s Casetext: Opening Up Law

Health and Law 17
(Illustration by Gary Taxali)

Jake Heller, JD ’10, is very much a product of Silicon Valley. He grew up in Cupertino and learned to program when he was 9. And he feels passionate about the Internet and the free and open exchange of ideas and information it has spawned, with crowdsourcing constantly improving all sorts of tools used at home and at work every day.

“I’m used to the best sources of information being built by communities and to the information being freely available,” he says. “Yelp has replaced Zagat, Wikipedia replaced Britannica. And information on those sites isn’t static—with community input, it is constantly updating and improving.”

When Heller arrived at Stanford Law for the start of his legal education, he was surprised by the stark contrast between the way lawyers access legal information and how people share information everywhere else. “I quickly learned how different and relatively inaccessible legal information is. You had to have a Lexis account to read essential court documents. And those huge costs put real pressure on attorneys across the market, from the biggest firms to legal aid work.”

The need for court cases to be publicly—and freely—available was driven home for him when he took the Community Law Clinic and worked closely with public service lawyers. “They told me they could only afford 20 minutes of Lexis a day. And there was no free alternative. I thought that these are public documents and need to come out from behind the paywall.”

Today, Casetext, the company that Heller founded in 2013, has broken through that paywall, allowing some 500,000 users a month—up from 250,000 users a month just last February and still growing—to not only read cases but to share case annotations and fuller explanations. Heller is building a community of legal experts across all practice areas—and opening it up for all to use.

The new Casetext office has a distinctly college dorm feel—a blue wall offsets the worn sofa tucked into the corner known as the “chill space.” The open-plan main room is jammed with desks, with a small kitchen on one end and a conference room on the other. It’s a cozy space for the 16 employees, and Heller is very proud of it. “Up until last year, we were working out of my apartment. So this is a big improvement,” he says. “We’re a startup and this is very much a startup space. We like it!”

Heller is keeping a tight rein on expenses as he builds Casetext from what was just an idea to a sophisticated database with complex content. And the company has come a long way in the two short years since Heller participated in the Mountain View-based startup incubator Y Combinator and received initial funding of $1.8 million from early investors, including Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures, to the most recent investment of $7 million led by Union Square Ventures. These are exciting times, but Heller is keeping his head down and maintaining his focus on the job he’s taken on, which has proved to be a tough one.

“This is a really ambitious mission—to make the law not only free
but also understandable, to provide the kinds of insights researchers need to know, like whether or not a case has been overturned or what the distinct summary of a case is or the most important page. These are all really tough questions,” he says. To get the job done, Heller has recruited engineers—looking to IBM, Google, Amazon, and other industry leaders for talent. And he brought on seasoned lawyers with experience in diverse practice areas from some of the best firms in the country. The group is tight-knit, eating lunch together every day. And Casetext isn’t a “Red Bull” company, as Heller says. “We’re a bit older, we have experience, a good number of the team have children, so we work hard. But we’re a no-drama, focused, and calm workplace and we go home at seven or eight.”

Casetext has come a long way from the prototype that Heller programmed to a searchable website with cases from appeals courts and up going back to the 1940s for all 50 states and including federal district, appeals, and Supreme Court law. “Our database is everything that I would need to practice law. It was a massive undertaking to gather it all and build—with no centralized repository of cases easily accessible. We put a lot of legwork into this,” he says. “I’m happy I was naïve about how hard this might be going into it.”

Key features of Casetext include a community “wiki” of case annotations and a blogging platform for more detailed case analysis. This crowdsourced expertise addresses the second part of the company’s mission—making law understandable. Building this community has been equally labor intensive. “One of my mentors, [Y Combinator co-founder] Paul Graham, told me that I’d have to do un-scalable things at the beginning, and I’ve found that to be true,” he says. “I’ve discovered that communities don’t just materialize, they are built one by one until there is a critical mass. We’ve put a lot of effort into reaching out to legal scholars and law firms to encourage them to participate in the community. A lot of people just found us. But it took a lot to get to where we are now.” This year, the company is reaching out to law students to participate in the community too, with student ambassadors at 40 law schools across the country, including Michael Ohta, JD ’17, at Stanford Law. Casetext is getting noticed too. Last year, Heller was selected as one of the Forbes 30 under 30 stars and Casetext made the Business Insider list of the 25 Hottest San Francisco Startups.

And while Casetext is free and fully accessible, there is a plan to actually make money with a premium paid service that will, Heller says, cost hundreds rather than thousands of dollars for features including advanced legal research capabilities that tap data science and natural language processing to make research easier and more efficient for lawyers.

Just a little over two years ago, Heller’s legal career had been following a traditional straight line from Stanford Law Review president to a clerkship on the First Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to a position with Ropes & Gray in Boston, where for two years he had been an associate in the appellate practice group. “I was very happy practicing law; the work was challenging and interesting, and my colleagues were phenomenal. But I had been thinking about this need for a while and talking about how someone should build it. Finally, my wife said to me, ‘Maybe that someone is you.’ ”

“It was classic Jake to take on something like this,” says Sina Kian, JD ’10, who was on law review with Heller. Kian recalls during law review how Heller led the effort to encourage more submissions by women and minorities and to make article selection blind so that gender and seniority wouldn’t be apparent. “When there’s a problem and everyone recognizes it—he’s the one who will try to address it. We all saw that there was not enough competition in the legal research market, so access to laws was in fact quite restricted. So he starts a company to address that. He’s very ‘can do.’ There are risks, lots of reasons a company like this might not do well, but he finds a way to make it work. He’s a natural leader.”

Kian says Casetext is one of the research tools he uses at WilmerHale, where he is an associate. “I used it just yesterday. I find it’s very useful—and I’ve been impressed by how much it keeps improving—very much like Jake.”

“There’s a lot of potential here,” says Kevin Papay, JD ’10, an associate at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, who spent many evenings during law school with Heller de-stressing—
playing board games and watching movies, two of Heller’s passions. “Jake sincerely believes in what he’s doing. A lot of companies in Silicon Valley are hypercompetitive, at the cost of actual progress. That’s not Jake. He believes he can actually make things better.”

Stanford Law alumni are increasingly embracing the tools offered by legal tech companies to improve their legal practice, but they’re also the ones driving the innovation.

“Stanford is beyond compare as a breeding ground for new legal technology, with companies emerging that are tackling issues across the legal spectrum,” says Daniel Lewis, JD ’12, co-founder of Ravel Law. “Jake and Casetext are an example of that diversity.”

And the legal tech field is far from crowded, says Heller. “There is a lot of room for innovation in law. And we’re all tackling different challenges and offering unique solutions. You wouldn’t build a house with just a hammer—you need a whole tool kit. We’re building the next generation of tools for law, hoping to improve practice but also the general public’s access to law. There’s a lot to do here.”  SL