The Future of WestLaw – a First Glimpse (Plus Update 1)

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.

Home page

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.

Three engines

Three engines

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.

Results

Results

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.

Case snapshot

Case snapshot

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

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Comments

  1. Coincidentally, apropos your comment about the expert using a free (and we’ll assume less powerful) research program –

    NY Review of Books, v. 57, no. 2, Feb 11, 2010

    The Chess Master and the Computer
    By Garry Kasparov

    In 2005, the online chess-playing site Playchess.com hosted what it called a “freestyle” chess tournament in which anyone could compete in teams with other players or computers. …

    Lured by the substantial prize money, several groups of strong grandmasters working with several computers at the same time entered the competition. At first, the results seemed predictable. The teams of human plus machine dominated even the strongest computers. The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.

    The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and “coaching” their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

    (emphasis added by me)

    Law is analogous to chess in at least this much. A specific legal issue necessarily has a finite number of valid solutions. Need I say what the analogue to “weak human” is?

  2. Well done, Simon. Thank you for keeping us ahead of the curve!

  3. Simon, your comment that “the free Google Scholar service might be all that some clients are prepared to pay for,” gives me pause. I’m not sure if your reference to “clients” means West’s clients (i.e., their lawyer-customers) or the clients who those lawyers are representing (who I’ll refer to as Clients with a capital “C”).

    In my experience, lawyers do not consult with their Clients concerning which legal research tool they should use, just as surgeons don’t ask their patients which scalpels they should use. This is as it should be, of course, as the vast majority of Clients are not qualified to make that judgment call. Moreover, the whole free vs. pay issue is relevant only to Clients whose lawyers are employing cost recovery (which I’ve previously decried).

    If you meant that Google Scholar might be all that some lawyers are prepared to pay for, that raises the thorny issue of whether the free research tools really are “good enough.” I suspect that the first malpractice case against a free-tools-using lawyer who missed relevant authority that he or she would have found using one of the pay services may answer that question.

  4. Lisa – some large corporate clients state up front in their retainer agreements that they will not pay for any legal research charges – others that they will not pay for flat-rated charges – on the basis that this is part of the firm’s overhead. Sometimes they even say they won’t pay for time spent on legal research on the basis that they hire lawyers who should know this stuff.

    If a partner gives a junior a research and then tells the junior that the research time and disbursements will be regarded as non-billable, this may affect the depth and quality of the research carried out.

    I think for simple look-ups like ‘get a copy of this statute or that Supreme Court case’, that lawyers increasingly look to the free or discounted services. Why the lawyer needs to know and how central an issue is to a matter will still steer research in particular directions.

    There is likely space for all these services.

  5. From the perspective of one who teaches future lawyers, I’d just like to add that I am continuously reminding my students of this simple fact:

    “The editors of Westlaw and CanLii have not sworn an oath to uphold the laws of Ontario; lawyers have.”

    In other words, these tools are never perfect. We heavy users come across errors in their content on a daily basis. Regardless of whether it is a free tool, or a fancy commercial tool, it’s the lawyer’s job to make sure they’ve done their research thoroughly. Thus, in the end, neither is “good enough”. The only “good enough” is meticulous legal research conducted by a human being with an ethical obligation to properly inform the courts, their clients, and each other. We should keep this in mind.

    Also, on a lighter note! From a teaching perspective – I loathe system migrations! It mostly stems from the endless amount of explaining that law librarians have to do to help their patrons get up to speed with what the IT people are currently concocting!

  6. Simon,

    I posted my summary (http://tinyurl.com/y9q4fj7) late, so I realize that you did not see it when you posted. I agree that for the first category of search – the “get me the Supreme Court case on preemption,” free tools may be all you need (check out the new FastCase iphone app as well). Unfortunately, as a regulatory attorney, I find myself a captive buyer of for-fee legal research because neither Google nor the “second city” providers (FastCase, Casemaker, Versuslaw) cover decisions of federal and state agencies. When I ran regulatory searches on WestLawNext, the relevant cases did come up but I had to sort through an enormous amount of extraneous material to get to them – and I can’t figure out an easy way to limit my searches to just a few libraries rather than all versus none.

  7. The big launch took place today at LegalTech in NY. In the meantime, selected law librarians across the U.S. reportedly received some nice swag. And for some reason I was included–see my video in which I open the promo package that was couriered to me, and discuss my mixed feelings on receiving it. Sarah Glassmeyer also discusses it on her blog in the post On Vendor Swag.

  8. The problem with the fee and second-city legal searches are that they are date-limited. You generally can’t find cases older than about 1870. That’s fine for some work, but not state or federal constitutional issues, research in jurisdictions with limited jurisprudence, and almost all common law issues.