Legal Research Tools Revamp

By Hane, Paula J. | Information Today, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Legal Research Tools Revamp


Hane, Paula J., Information Today


New Offerings From Westlaw and LexisNexis Debut at Legal Tech

REPORT FROM THE FIELD

Big changes are coming to the two main services that have ruled the online legal research world. Thomson Reuters Legal introduced a new Westlaw platform called Westlaw-Next, which aims to simplify and streamline the front-end search experience and to provide superior results using new back-end algorithms.

WestlawNext made its debut in early February at Legal Tech in New York. [Turn to page 42 for more on the New York product premier. - Ed.] Arch competitor LexisNexis is also working on a completely new Lexis that the company says will be out "later this year," but at Legal Tech, it introduced Lexis for Microsoft Office. LexisNexis reports that it enables legal professionals to access content and services from LexisNexis and other sources while working directly within Microsoft Office applications. Both companies say their respective new products transform the way legal research is conducted.

Besides dealing with the challenging business climate we've been in and seeing their legal customers struggle as well, both companies have had to contend with the rise of lower-priced and free rivals (e.g., Fastcase and Justia). There are efforts to put legal research materials in the public domain (http://public.resource .org). Last fall, Google Scholar announced it was now including full-text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate, and Supreme courts. In her NewsBreak (http://newsbreaks.info today.com/NewsBreaks/ Judicial-Opinions-Now-Avail able-in-Google-Scholar580 31. asp), Carol Ebbinghouse makes it clear that Google is not going to put Lexis or Westlaw out of business, but she was impressed with what it offers consumers. "No free site on the internet - including the official state and federal sites - has authoritative, comprehensive, or guaranteed current or preserved archival legal information," she writes. Still, the pressure is on for Lexis and Westlaw to hang onto their client bases, especially solo practitioners and lawyers in small firms.

Rolling Out WestlawNext

The big news in the new WestlawNext service is that users don't have to select a database to begin a search (and Westlaw has more than 40,000 databases). Now users can just select a jurisdiction. In other words, you don't have to know where the answer is before looking for it. The homepage is much cleaner, with just a simple search box to perform multiple functions (the old Westlaw page was cluttered and had multiple search boxes depending on what you wanted). You don't need to use special syntax or Boolean logic (terms and connectors), though you can if you wish. Just type what you want in simple, descriptive terms. As Mike Dahn, vice president of WestlawNext product development, says, "Don't worry. We haven't taken anything away - you told us you didn't want us to dumb down your research."

Behind the simpler search interface is the power of WestSearch. Its algorithms are designed to do the heavy lifting for you. It's about getting users through their research much faster and with the confidence that they haven't missed important results. A search term doesn't even need to appear to be retrieved as a relevant result. For example, different states have different terms and abbreviations for driving while intoxicated, including DWI, DUI, etc. The new search capabilities now correctly find the correct statute for each state as the top result. Organizational features include favorites, drag-and-drop cases and documents, highlighting, notes and comments, stored history for up to 12 months, and other features.

The last major overhaul to the Westlaw technology was in 1998. Dahn says the company has been working on WestlawNext for the past 5 years. After watching hundreds of legal professionals do research and analyzing Westlaw logs, it was clear to the project team that researchers typically start by finding relevant documents, then turn to finding aids that link documents together.

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