Magazine article Online

WIN - WESTLAW Goes Natural

Magazine article Online

WIN - WESTLAW Goes Natural

Article excerpt

For several years, those of us who learned computer-assisted legal research in the 70s have been Waiting for other attorneys to "get with the program." Many writers have discussed the malpractice implications of failing to access a legal database before giving definitive legal advice. Despite such advice, there was never really the kind of boom we expected in the use of WESTLAW and LEXIS, except among younger, more computer-literate associates. Consequently, even in the larger firms, computer usage has tended to be concentrated in the so-called "power users, who have mastered the research techniques and who often act as conduits to provide research assistance to other attorneys.

There are many extremely competent attorneys who have simply refused to learn how to do online legal research. Speculation as to the reason for their stubbornness varies; e.g., they never learned how to type, they don't want to be involved in a learning process where their junior associates have an edge, they're computer-phobic, the process appears too technical, or you just can't teach senior dogs new tricks. The real reason is probably some combination of these reasons, but whatever it is, it has kept the vast majority of attorneys away from LEXIS and WESTLAW terminals.

Eventually, those younger, more computer-literate attorneys will be partners who will demand increased use of computerized legal research, but West Publishing Company was not resigned to losing the whole generation of potential searchers that preceded the computer generation. To break down the resistance of the infrequent or nonuser, West has spent the past three years developing "WIN"--WESTLAW Is Natural.


WIN was initially available only to the top 500 law firms on October 1, 1992, and is becoming available in tiers to other firms as the WESTLAW trainers effect the transition. Billed as the next generation of online search technology, WIN allows the attorney unfamiliar with search techniques to search for prior relevant case law by using plain English.

A simple question posed by an attorney is processed by WIN in four steps:

1) identification of key concepts; e.g., a phrase, a citation, a word, etc. (The system treats the term "insurance policy" as one word.)

2) removal of stopwords such as "what," "when," "to," "the," etc.

3) application of linguistic techniques to determine root words and/or expand on roots

4) performance of a statistical comparison of retrieval

The statistical comparison analyzes the number of times that the requested concepts appear in a given document compared to the number of times the concept appears anywhere in the database. Based on the analysis, the computer ranks the retrieved documents according to this statistical match. Any difference in retrieval time involved has been inconsequential in studies performed by West.


The documents retrieved by a WIN search default to the twenty most highly ranked. It is West's experience that most researchers are only interested in viewing that number of documents. The largest number of documents possible to retrieve in one search is one hundred. The documents are displayed in order of relevance according to the statistical matching results. After the documents are retrieved, a best command delivers the searcher to the part of the document that most closely corresponds to the query.

WIN includes a legal thesaurus, but its application is not automatic. Instead, a command can cause the display of synonymous terms to be incorporated into the search query with just another keystroke. (This option will also be made available in the WESTLAW Boolean search system. There it will be identified as the "tc method," i.e., terms and connectors.)

There is also a linking process that involves the retrieval of related concepts, including some synonyms. In some cases, noise words are maintained if they are critical to the concept. …

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