Is Cost-Effective Westlaw and Lexis Training Possible?

A message on the American Law Libraries – Private Law Libraries SIS Listserv has alerted me to: (i) A new blog by Law Librarian Jean O’Grady called Dewey B Strategic which has the subtitle of “Risk, value, strategy, libraries, knowledge and the legal profession,” and (ii) a recent intriguing post on this new blog called The Myth and the Madness of Cost Effective Lexis and Westlaw Research Training that raises the challenge (if not impossibility) of trying to teach “cost-effective searching” on Westlaw or Lexis to students or associates given the complexity of how these products are priced. Some examples of the points being made from the post:

Handing an associate a Lexis or Westlaw password and asking them to be “cost effective,” is like handing someone a credit card and sending them into a store in which none of the merchandise is priced and then berating them when the bill comes in exceeding your budget. No consumer affairs department would allow a retailer to perpetrate this kind of thing on the public. How is it that almost every law firm in the US has put up with this for the past 3 decades?


The obsession with being “cost effective” distracts the associate from focusing on the real goal — finding the right answer. Here comes the brain theory. Effective legal research requires deep focus and concentration yet… “the myth of cost effective research” requires an associate to engage half of their attention on a collateral and competing analysis of factors which have nothing to do with the substance of the law. (Am I in hourly or transactional mode? Is this content included or excluded? Should I print or read online? Should I execute a new search or will that cost too much? Have I selected the cheapest file? Is it cheaper to print by the line or print a page or print a document or should I email the results to myself?)

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  1. Michael/Lawviathan

    As a law student, I’ve enjoyed unpaid use of these research platforms for the last three years. In our legal research course, and in one-off seminars we’ve learned to make more accurate searches. From my perspective there is no split focus resulting from the unfortunately complicated fee structure, but I think the problem actually goes much deeper. The user experience offered by both Westlaw and Quicklaw are clunky at best. Even if you can figure out how to go about making your search, the results seem all too often to yield hundreds of irrelevant results that aren’t presented in any particular order. In my view, this is the real problem. Why pay for a system that is wasting our valuable time? Is this really the best that the companies can offer? If a competitor made a better product would anybody be willing to make the switch?

  2. David Cheifetz


    Clunky or not, “Law” is such that there are terms that will always limit the hits to a more than manageable number, so long as you know the terms in advance. If you – the generic you – don’t know the terms, then you should consult a paper source – I believe they’re called books and still exist – or even an online version of a “book” for the key terms. Or, ask the person who asked you to do the search for some help. If that person doesn’t even know that much, well, then GIGO is going to be problem. But that’s their problem.

    As to hundreds of irrelevant results, well … if you don’t know the subject matter well enough to produce a manageable number of results, maybe you don’t know enough to decide how many of those results are irrelevant.

    One thing you will learn about law in due course, if you haven’t already, is that sometimes judges forget to mention the cases. Or don’t quite use the words the way you think. But the result of the case necessarily says something about the principles the judge applied, or thought he or she was applying.

    And, then, another thing you will find, once you are in practice, is the case where the judge makes findings of fact and says the facts invoke a particular principle, which produces a particular result. I’m sure you’ve heard the mantra that appeals are from results, not reasons. On appeal, the appellate court says: right result, wrong reasons, appeal dismissed. Maybe the appellate court gives valid reasons. But maybe not.

    There are any number of extremely knowledgeable people frequenting this site. I think the consensus will be that the only time they start an online database search without knowing the key terms is when they can ask somebody who does know the key terms to do it for them.

    Or they are stuck in a beachfront house on, say, Pukapuka.

    I trust that you won’t take this the wrong way.


  3. Michael/Lawviathan

    Thanks for the feedback David. With your experience it sounds like the search platforms are more manageable. In mine, technology can (almost) always be improved. With Google as the go-to example, they are getting awfully good at returning relevant results despite a searchers inexperience or ignorance of a given topic. One way they do this is by leveraging their enormous amount of data to infer meaning. The benefit being that you don’t need to know too much about dentistry to find a good tooth-doctor near you (perhaps a better comparison is Google Scholar).

    Another thing Google does to help the inexperienced, and/or forgetful, and/or ignorant is make suggestions on common misspellings. A quick search on Westlaw brings the case up for GaRRon Family Trust, but there are zero results and no helpful link for GaRon Family Trust (use of the wildcard characters may be able to improve this).

    Google sets the bar on search particularly high. Still, in my opinion, the companies behind the legal research platforms could improve their technology in a way that reduces the learning curve and provides accurate results whether or not the searcher knows the exact key terms they are looking for.


  4. In my experience – more than many, less than some – the problem with law database searches (no matter the platform) isn’t (usually) misspelling or alternative spelling issues – well, except for my surname and other surnames prone to induce typos. It’s where the searcher doesn’t know the key word(s).

    I suspect that you’re approaching the question from the idea that what you’ve been asked to do is find a particular case because the person who has asked the question thinks there is a case already decided with similar enough facts that it’s not distinguishable. That does happen. On the other hand, an able lawyer, or judge, can find a legion of reasons for distinguishing the precedent you think applies. It might turn out, at the next level, that the distinction is not valid, but then that’s the crapshoot of litigation. You see, the able lawyer or able judge knows that

    “[A] case is only an authority for what it actually decides. I entirely deny that it can be quoted for a proposition that may seem to follow logically from it. Such a mode of reasoning assumes that the law is necessarily a logical code, whereas every lawyer must acknowledge that the law is not always logical at all.” Quinn v. Leathem, [1901] A.C. 495 at 506 (H.L.)

    Don’t shoot me. I’m just the messenger. Take it up with the judge.

  5. Michael, if you are going to participate on Slaw (which I hope you will), please come out from behind your pseudonym.

  6. Thanks Angela.

  7. To Angela’s point: it seems to me that ‘Michael/Lawviathan’ is sufficiently distinctive that a ‘real’ name is hardly needed. Would we gain anything by knowing that the person who posts under this pseudonym is actually Michael Lee or Michael Smith or Michael Podborski, or for that matter even Michelle Martin? I don’t think it is helpful for contributors to post as ‘Anonymous’, but a consistently used and distinctive pseudonym is as good as a name for most purposes. We have as well his description of his educational status, which a ‘real’ name would not give us without more disclosure anyway.

    If anyone actually needed to trace him, Administrator (a descriptive pseudonym, that) has his email address at least.

  8. Michael/Lawviathan

    Thanks John, I replied to Angela using my full name but with the change that comment is awaiting moderation. I agree with your point that distinctiveness trumps public disclosure, and I value my privacy (especially online) highly.

    Lawviathan isn’t a pseudonym at all, and I didn’t mean to hide behind one. Instead, I would like people to associate me with my website of that name. Since convention on Slaw seems to be full names, I’m happy to go along with it.


    Michael Alexis