Yesterday, two members of Slaw were given an in-depth look at the most profound re-engineering of a legal research system since the migration to the Web. In Thomson Reuters' impressive Eagan facility we had a briefing on the new Westlaw – to be launched at New York LegalTech next Monday under the name WestlawNext.
WestlawNext is the culmination of five years of research and development and a massive amount of customer research into how legal research is actually carried out.
[In the interests of Blogger disclosure, Thomson Reuters picked up the travel expense tab, but few would count a Minnesota suburb in January as a desirable boondoggle.]
Westlaw has a long and distinguished history, but that legacy survives in how the current search interface now looks. Busy, busy, busy.
And the first question is "which database do you want to search?" Not an easy question for a novice to get right, when there were 40,000 to choose from. Westlaw was a wonderful tool for the search virtuoso but unforgiving and forbidding for the novice. And in a Google-enhanced world, frankly quaintly old-fashioned.
So the R&D team decided to have an interface which would make it easier for searchers to see where the search had taken them and where they should drill down.
Here is a shot of the home page which looks clean and uncluttered. Not too spare, nor hip. They tested a simple Google-style box and legal searchers didn't like it. So the home page presents the options and invites the searcher to search across all of Westlaw, and then refine or limit the results after browsing. And experienced searchers can set their sights on specific jurisdictions or services if they want. But this home page seems elegant.
So what's new about the search experience? It would take a small book [yes, West still publishes them] to describe the algorithms that have been developed but essentially Westlaw has taken its core editorial advantages, its Key Numbering system, its integrated citation system and its wealth of secondary resources and enriched the search engine with that content. Here is a graphic of what that means.
How does it help in searching? Well the key numbering system serves as a conceptual anchor to align responsive and relevant results with the search even if the original search terms are not precisely replicated in the result, though the legal concept was. Keycite helps to navigate through the universe of related caselaw. And my favourite, the links to secondary sources mean that on the right side of the results screen for caselaw and relevant articles, annotations or non-case-law material that deals with the same point. We always tell novice researchers to check a text to get a conceptual map of an area of the law. This toold does just that. Here is a results screen, which shows researchers where they might go next.
Westlaw has taken a lot of care in layout and design and it shows. Here is what a case result will look like, with relevant terms highlighted.
Tomorrow I'll discuss what this means for Canadian researchers and what the plans are for Canadian users and legal information. I'll also talk about collaboration and the building of a personal desktop for research projects.
My general assessment is that this is a highly intelligent rethinking of a powerful set of research tools. It's not perfect – I'm still frustrated that the relevance ranking algorithm seems not as well calibrated as one would like. Go down in the search results at least 40 documents deep before deciding that you've got everything.
And I'm not sure that the price which this service will cost is entirely justifiable for most clients and cases. For the Supreme Court, or a large piece of litigation which might justify the disbursement – obviously. Westlaw staff coyly talked about a modest premium on current costs but ducked questions on what sort of percentage that might be. This is consistent with the firm-by-firm contract negotiations that are conducted by the two dominant market players.
Since the product has been five years in research and development, the accident of the launch timing is unfortunate. It will be publicly unveiled in New York on Monday. But the large US firm market is reeling from the most significant revenue downturn in the lives of currently practicing lawyers. Corporate America's drive to trim legal costs may run smack against Westlaw's modest price increases.
And five years back, Westlaw had its sights on Reed Elsevier's Dayton based Lexis-Nexis product, and building competitive advantage from editorial enhancements. Dayton may shortly react with new features or a redesign, though I'm sceptical that it can have anything this ambitious in the pipe.
But in 2010, Westlaw's chief worry isn't a commercial rival in Dayton but the upstart cheaper services, and ultimately Google Scholar, perhaps coupled with the resources of Cornell's Legal Information Institute. During one of Westlaw's demonstrations I ran the same search on Google Scholar, pulled up the same USSC case, and relevant decisions from the circuits, combined with solid academic articles on point. It wasn't as elegant or as comprehensive as WestlawNext but it didn't have to be. It gave me the answer to the client's problem and that may be good enough. Or to put it another way, the free Google Scholar service might be all that some clients are prepared to pay for.
The outlines of the next battleground in American legal information have been set. But it's likely not the old Eagan v. Dayton tussle, but a smart, well funded and lawyer-focussed commercial operation with a century of insight into legal information, pitted against the Google behemoth and the lure of free information.
Monday's group consisted of a number of bloggers who have posted highly informative posts on their reactions to the new product. The other Canadian post is from Dave Bilinsky, a fellow Slaw contributor, with his trade-mark musical intro. Bob Ambrogi who couldn't join us at Eagan was first out of the gate. The most novel reaction is this video blog from Jason Eiseman, featuring a group discussion with meeting Tom Boone, Greg Lambert and a second Jason, Jason Wilson. Lisa Solomon focused on pricing issues and includes a commentary. Betsy McKenzie talks about how the search process will be affected and notes that "the system does in the background all the things law librarians have wanted good researchers to do: do background reading, get extra terms, carefully choose database or even combine them". Rex Gradeless kicks the tires showing how the tool responds to a research question. And finally Ken Adams surveys his readers on how often they use paid services to find information on deal issues or drafting – be sure to vote. Just out – Greg Lambert's take on the product from a knowledge management perspective