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Teaching Online Legal Research: LEXIS (Part 2)

Magazine article Online

Teaching Online Legal Research: LEXIS (Part 2)

Article excerpt

In the first of this four-part series about teaching computer-assisted legal research, we concentrated on how to use WESTLAW to research a typical legal issue (ONLINE, November 1993). Most legal research teachers adamantly maintain that it is important for a student to learn manual legal research skills before introducing him/her to WESTLAW and LEXIS. After the legal researcher has developed the skills to navigate West's manual digest system, the next logical step is to transfer that skill to the WESTLAW online environment.

It is also beneficial for the student to become familiar with the "look and feel" of the numerous hornbooks, treatises, directories, looseleafs, and other legal research tools before being introduced to their online counterparts. More online versions of these tools are beginning to mirror the manual versions, so first mastering the structures offline makes sense. The online versions often drive changes, i.e., improvements, to the printed indices. For example, West's recent overhaul of its "keynote" system, improved both automated and manual access to the United States' ever growing body of law.

While there is not much debate about whether a student should learn manual or online research first, it is less certain which online legal research system should be taught first. Thus far, it appears that the system learned first tends to remain the attorney's system of choice throughout his or her career. Students of the past decade have generally learned one system exclusively, more often LEXIS, because it was introduced into the law schools a few years earlier than WESTLAW. Once an attorney begins practicing law, however, learning a second system is a laborious, time-consuming and expensive task, often impossible for the busy associate.

It can be argued that WESTLAW would be a good introduction to the online world, because a student may already be familiar with the printed version of the same materials. However, WESTLAW is friendlier for the student who has learned LEXIS first, because it allows a user to formulate queries with LEXIS commands. LEXIS, on the other hand, does not accept WESTLAW commands. Should we reward LEXIS for this unfriendly gesture? I think not. In the best of all possible worlds the legal researcher would learn both systems simultaneously to avoid a lifelong preference based on nothing more than inherent professional time constraints.

Yet an overwhelmed law student may also ask whether it is really necessary to learn both systems. Would it not be better to concentrate on one system to master online research, instead of devoting limited time and energy to deciphering differences between competing systems?


There are several reasons why it is advisable for a legal researcher to learn both LEXIS and WESTLAW:

1. One system can often achieve the same results at a fraction of the cost of the other system due to differences in pricing structures, and depending on the type of search required.

2. In some subject areas, one system can be more powerful than the other.

3. Both systems have "support" databases, i.e., NEXIS and DIALOG, which differ in content. Consequently, thorough research often requires that both LEXIS and WESTLAW be used to access these support sources.

4. The search techniques within the systems' engines tend to make one work better than the other for some research strategies.

5. The promotional efforts of the systems can cause temporary price fluctuations resulting in economic advantages for the attorney's clients.


LEXIS' flexible pricing structure will often make it the system of choice, especially when many documents must be reviewed online. LEXIS offers three billing options: zero connect, transactional, and per minute charges. The zero connect option charges more for an initial search than the transactional option, but excludes connect charges for time spent reviewing results of a search. …

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