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Thursday, December 21, 2006


I received some very interesting comments on my post about how to make Westlaw more user-friendly and on my post about whether Wikipedia citations are appropriate in scholarship.  I was talking about these topics with another lawyer, and we soon began to discuss how Westlaw and Lexis could improve their services by incorporating open-source-style suggestions.  For example, if you discover that a red or yellow Westlaw flag is inappropriate or that a case disposition is inaccurately described, Westlaw should provide an easy opportunity to make that suggestion and have the issue reviewed.  Westlaw could then focus its corrections on those areas that get the most user attention.  I'm sure there are somewhat inconvenient ways of suggesting corrections now.  Perhaps Westlaw fears that an easy feedback option would remind us of how fallible its services are.

A more extreme solution would simply have all this legal analysis done Wikipedia-style.  I have no idea whether this would work.  It also raises some interesting professional responsibility issues.  Presumably, attorneys would have to stop the clock when they spend time improving open-source legal knowledge, even though such work has the potential to ultimately save  clients money in the long run.  There might also be confidentiality/strategy issues that need to be addressed: If I can tell what cases my adversary is looking at, then I may be able to better prepare my briefs.  I'm sure you can hide IP addresses and the like; however, if changes are made about a very narrow issue of law in a small jurisdiction, one might gain some clues about the work of one's adversaries. 

So would this more extreme strategy work and who wants to get it started?

Posted by Adam Kolber on December 21, 2006 at 06:11 PM | Permalink


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I think Wikipedia would be better if all contributions were signed. With acknowledgement comes responsibility. But in any event, if contributions to Westlaw and Lexis were signed, you'll see how many attorneys rush in to contribute. It would be a great advertising ploy. Also, an attorney would not want to take the chance of being accused of a conflict of interest, so I think that this aspect of the matter will be self-regulated.

And while we're at it, why doesn't Westlaw or Lexis show my 'history' of contributions, so I can immediately pull up a case I worked on a couple of days ago, etc. (Maybe they already offer this service but somehow are hiding it from me.)

Posted by: Anthony D'Amato | Dec 21, 2006 6:46:16 PM

I can't believe how shoddy both West and Lexis are. It's like looking at a Geocities page from 1997. Awful, awful stuff. One of the most user-hostile interfaces I have ever seen. Pointless complexity, featureitis. I think at least West wants to keep the UI of their service poor enough that there remains a market for their books. (And the law library is a great example of organization and usability. Why can't the online services be? Instead, they're a joke. )

I get the feeling that those online services are rotten to the core. No standard document schema or anything; no standard way to distinguish metadata.

Just look how unusable Black's is online. I look up law terms on Wikipedia and law.com even though I have unlimited Westlaw access just because their site is so terrible. You can't even save quick searches for it.

It's like the situation with most people's desktop PCs. They're cluttered, barely functioning messes that people somehow learn to deal with instead of demanding change.

Not only that, a lot of Lexis's features are IE only. About 20% of my friends use Macs, and most of the more experienced Windows users are on Firefox.


All edits to Wikipedia are signed, by your IP address or username. It's all there in the "history" tab.

I've been keeping PDFs of every case I can, annotating the PDFS with my own notes, dumping them into a directory, and relying on Spotlight for searching or DevonThink's indexing for quick AI "see also" analysis. The online aspect of the services ought to be just for document retreval; I don't trust keeping personal and work stuff out there in the ether.

Posted by: yesno | Dec 22, 2006 2:06:17 AM

There's already wikipedia legal analysis. It's invariably shoddy, on even the most basic of questions, with the possible exception of the occasional Latin translation. Lord knows I wouldn't trust a Wiki'd West.

If there could be some guarantee of quality control on who gets to participate, that would be a different question. An intrafirm Wiki would actually make a lot of sense, especially for boilerplate.

Posted by: Ted | Dec 22, 2006 10:15:35 AM

These are great suggestions, but may have some unintended distributional consequences. Wikipedia is free and open; WL and Lexis are proprietary services. To the extent users build up the latter's content, they are helping only those able to afford them. I'd have to extract some serious accessibility concessions before wanting to contribute my time to the project.

Posted by: Frank | Dec 22, 2006 12:02:32 PM

Any weakness on the legal side in Wikipedia is due no doubt to the nature of contributors. Wikipedia is very, very strong on computer science, for instance. It is very strong on most technical subjects, and on pop culture. (I use it instead of Allmusic.com now for most music trivia.) It's pretty good on history and the like because a lot of autodidacts and enthusiasts are interested in those fields.

Competence in the law is pretty much limited to lawyers, who don't have a lot of time to help with Wikipedia. I'd bet a lot of the legal articles are written by people with no experience in the law or by bored 1Ls.

If every lawyer polished one article per week on a topic he is skilled in, imagine how useful Wikipedia would be as a legal resource.

Posted by: yesno | Dec 22, 2006 12:16:12 PM

I started just such a wiki 8 months ago - see www.casesofinterest.com. Unfortunately, I am way too busy to update and market it, but the vision is there.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Dec 22, 2006 12:51:06 PM

Would you really trust a lawyer to wiki-edit cases? Off the top of my head, I can think of nothing less suited for wiki-editing.

1. Lawyers with pending appeals would have incentives to tamper with the relevant authorities. Case X is directly on point saying that you're out of court? No problem. Just wiki-undermine its authority. If you don't like substantive due process, just take the latest Supreme Court majority opinion rejecting a substantive due process claim, and wiki-edit it as overruling/undermining every substantive due process case on the books. Case Y is helpful to you, but from another circuit? No problem. Just wiki-prop it up.

2. By and large, lawyers are either intellectually dishonest or unable to separate their personal opinions from their views of the law. Do you think Roe v. Wade should get a red flag, or no? Do you disagree with any recent decisions of the Supreme Court? Just put red flags by the provisions of the constitution you think they've undermined. Red-flag the Fifth Amendment with a link to Kelo. Red-flag Article II with a link to Hamdan. Red-flag Article V with a link to every Warren Court decision. Red-flag every provision of the Bill of Rights with a link to your least-favorite Scalia opinions. I suspect that this sort of junk would appear more frequently than anything helpful.

3. Westlaw and Lexis people seem to be cautious and unwilling to be too creative with their cataloguing of cases. I think this is a virtue, and one that would be lost if their databases were opened up to the masses.

Posted by: cynical appellate clerk | Dec 26, 2006 7:13:22 PM

I don't think law is particularly amenable to wikification. My personal guideline for how much to trust a Wikipedia article is that if the subject is (a) well-known within the community of Wikipedia editors, and (b) non-controversial, then you can probably trust it. But if it's esoteric (such that there are few people who can judge the veracity of an entry), or controversial (leading to edit wars), it's best to be skeptical.

Besides, the law seems to be an inherently heirarchical, authority-based system. Why is the Eire doctrine law? Because the Supreme Court said so. Why is there a right to free speech? Because the framers of the Constitution said so. Stare decisis and the judicial heirarchy and citation to authority -- it's all part of a legal culture that values appeal to authority. Given that culture, it makes sense that our reference works would also be authority-based. A collective-consciousness (or mass-delusion) tool like a Wiki just doesn't fit.

Posted by: Jim Graves | Dec 28, 2006 1:41:57 PM

You wrote: "I'm sure there are somewhat inconvenient ways of suggesting corrections now."

Yes there are ways. Method 1: Click on "Feedback" in the upper right corner of the westlaw.com screen. Type in the problem you see. Method 2: Telephone 1-800-REF-ATTY and explain to a reference attorney what the problem is.

I have used both of these techniques successfully. West is generally very happy to make corrections.

Posted by: Mary Whisner | Jan 8, 2007 3:44:43 PM

The main reason why West would be un-willing to open up its opinions, is because West "owns" a lot of the content. Allowing the public to modify would start to break down this ownership of the content. I think the effects of that are obvious.

As far as UI improvement goes, I agree. However, West has contracts to support old browsers. This brings up many issues of old vs. new technology when trying to make improvements. You wouldn't believe how many users still use 800x600 (or smaller!) screensize resolution. Most computers don't even suppose such a low resolution, it really is an art to try to pack all of the content into that size.

Posted by: Developer | Aug 3, 2007 3:35:44 PM

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