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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Westlaw Blues

Many of us spend a lot of our time using online reseach services, yet I think the blawgosphere has been largely silent about how these services can be improved.  This is all the more surprising because Westlaw and Lexis charge many of their customers hundreds of dollars per hour, often just to access public documents!  Here are some preliminary suggestions for improvements to Westlaw, the service I principally use.  Feel free to chime in with your own suggestions, or to tell me that I've missed some features that Westlaw actually does offer:

(1) Place bluebook-formatted citations to all sources at the top of every document.  By cutting and pasting these uniform citations, Westlaw can save time for attorneys, law clerks, professors, students, and law review editors.  I realize that citation formats vary by jurisdiction but Westlaw could offer default preferences based on one's preferred jurisdiction or citation style.  In any event, right now, many documents offer no citation at all, and those that do hardly resemble any bluebook-style.  When I use Westlaw's "copy with reference" feature, the reference often puts the document title in ALL CAPS, a format that virtually no one uses.

(2) Allow me to create multiple projects in Westlaw.  I would like to drag-and-drop particular cases or other documents into a project folder (that may contain subfolders, as well).  I'd like it if I could highlight particular passages of a case or article on screen, add comments to the document, and have all this information stored in my project folder.  Documents and notes in these projects should be searchable.  We should be able to give access to a project to certain other Westlaw users, like those at the same school or law firm.

(3) Speed up the interface and search tools.  Westlaw's data set, large as it is, is just a fraction of the size of Google's.  Yet Google is much faster and is free! (I do think Westlaw has sped up noticeably, though, in recent years.)

(4) Now that most people have broadband connections to the Internet, Westlaw can stop dividing up large cases and law review articles into difficult-to-search pieces. 

(5) It's time for Westlaw to buy up the .pdf's for law reviews.  Westlaw's format is rather unwieldy.  Relatedly, it is sometimes confusing when cases offer page numbers in multiple formats, especially when the page numbers happen to be numerically close.  Put a check box at the top of each case that allows me to see only the page numbering styles that I want to see.

(6) If additional features complicate the service, allow us to pick whether we would like beginner, intermediate, or advanced services.   The amount of control that we're given over the search function (not enough now!) could also vary based on this selection.  My colleague, Tom Smith, has made progress in developing alternative search methods, which suggests that Westaw has yet to do all it can to make its key feature--searching large amounts of text--as helpful as possible.  Your turn. . .

Posted by Adam Kolber on December 6, 2006 at 12:29 PM in Information and Technology | Permalink


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This is all very interesting....i think there should be greater pressure by the legal bloggers in general for these 2 companies to do more to improve their product, espically considering the extremely high cost of them.

Posted by: jason | Apr 2, 2007 4:07:06 AM


I work on the development of westlaw, and am interested in hearing this. While the developers don't have a lot of influence on the product, I can suggest some things. However, I have a couple of comments on incorrect statments above.

1) The problem with the copy with reference relates to the technology the system was built with. Much of the content is still on systems built in the early 90's, when Westlaw first came out. We are currently migrating to a newer technology, and you should see better (in fact, 101 sct 1 now comes out like this... Rostker v. Goldberg 448 U.S. 1306, 101 S.Ct. 1 (U.S.,1980)

2) Good idea, talk to your representative about this.

3) Actually, in most cases, Westlaw search speeds rival Google, the bigger problem is retrieving the data. Google's data is static, so retrieving the result list information is easy. However, Westlaw result lists have Keycite information, term highlighting, more snippets of the text, analytical and briefs that are related in "ResultsPlus". Some of that takes a little bit extra time to retrieve.

4) I agree, but there are still many of our customers on dial up. We have been doing some of this in our migration to the new technology (caselaw for example). However, some customers are still concerned about the extra time it takes to retrieve the document. This also becomes an issue for analytical and codes documents, as they can be extremely large. One of the things that has to happen is to verify that every link is valid, which, when there are thousands of links, does take a few seconds.

5) Talk to your rep

6) Nice, however, there are no links from document to document. No additional information that is the main reason someone should use Westlaw. If you want to just find the text of the case, that is in several locations. But what points of law does it pertain to? Has it been overturned? Is there a new statute that renders it invalid?

7) I hear you about the timeout, and there may be something that can be done in the short term, but an infinite timeout is not going to happen overnight. As I mentioned earlier, we are still on some older technology that needs to go away first. Then, we also have issues with search results, found documents, etc that, after a period of time, are no longer valid. To be as up to date as possible, it would be impracticle for us to keep your session going. For example, lets say on day 1 you did a search, and looked at some of the documents. You went home early, but we got a) an order from the court removing a document, or b) received a new document from the court and added it, both of which would change your search result. On day 2 you returned and continued. We would be unable to modify your search, so you would see inacurate data.

Posted by: wlguy | Jan 29, 2007 12:15:23 AM

LEXIS has a citation button that lets you copy a citation, including jumpcites for cases. It's pretty useful, but it always screws up the stuff within the parentheses. A 1998 Supreme Court case will come up as "(U.S. 1998)" rather than "(1998)". And a Southern District of Florida case will always come up as "(D. Fla. 1998)" rather than including the "S."

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Dec 7, 2006 10:38:47 PM

Well, as one of the lawyers' clients who ends up PAYING for this duopoly, I'd much rather have a discussion about how we can dump these services and replace them with a competitive market for search and indexing services over these public domain documents.

I learned a new wrinkle over the last few months. I pay a sole practitioner's lexis bill, and he can get a flat rate for "only" hundreds of dollars per month. But when I hired a big law firm, their bills to me keep turning up with separate line-item bills for individual search sessions. Of course the firm could care less what the duopoly charges, since the firm passes on the charge (probably with a mark-up) to their customer. But when I complained, they say, "There's nothing we can do about it -- Westlaw refuses to sell us a flat rate." They've segmented the market such that those who are forced to use big law firms are stuck paying exhorbitant rates -- third hand.

This monopoly is one of the truly stupid things about the legal profession in the US. It's right up there on par with the Supreme Court confiscating paper and pencils from the visitors' gallery -- clearly they've never heard of the First Amendment. It makes the profession look like clowns -- you can't even police your own profession, yet you claim to be experts at making "fair" rules for everybody everywhere.

Posted by: John Gilmore | Dec 7, 2006 4:13:04 AM

Katie: Thanks! I didn't know about the cross-ref feature. That will definately help. I have no idea why Cite It doesn't use it. It's too bad there isn't better legal citation software out there. I suppose there's more features of word I don't know about, but who has the time to naviagte through microsoft's support page maze anyway?

Posted by: Steve | Dec 6, 2006 9:58:20 PM

***I'd be interested in hearing how people write their law review papers and keep the "supras" linked to the correct footnote.***

Microsoft Word's "Insert Cross-Reference" feature. It's not perfect, but it does automatically update footnote supras (until you delete the earlier footnote when shuffling things around, in which case you're in trouble).

Posted by: Katie | Dec 6, 2006 6:59:58 PM

You would have no way of knowing this, but google's contextual searches are a good deal easier than the WestLaw/Lexis style terms and connectors searches. Likewise since their "natural language" searches are just modified terms and connectors searches they aren't the same speed as google.

Yes for natural language they could speed it up a good deal, and possibly make it more accurate, by licensing google's algorithm, but there likely isn't a lot that can be done for the terms and connectors searches other than wait for technology and algorithms to get better.

Posted by: Ben Snitkoff | Dec 6, 2006 6:18:59 PM

How about these too:

1. Searchers should be more like MEDLINE -- searches should goto keywords that can be exploded or condensed. There needs to be a way to search for a term besides using boolean terms (which I hate).

2. Have some type of "export citation" feature so that citations can be exported into a bib software program.

BTW: Am I the only person who is dissapointed with the legal citation software out there? I'd be interested in hearing how people write their law review papers and keep the "supras" linked to the correct footnote.

3. Make WESTLAW subscriptions affordable for folks in solo practice. I mean is $15.00 per case reasonable (esp. when that is comes from just a basic search, no fancy search menus/interfaces allowed for the credit card feature)

I could on and on, but why? I don't think Westlaw or Lexis will change b/c the have a corner on the market :(

Posted by: Steven K. Erickson | Dec 6, 2006 5:39:04 PM

Hein Online already has the PDFs of law reviews, although I don't know if Hein has purchased exclusive rights. Hein has good quality control on the files, but a fairly poor search engine. It would be great if Westlaw and Lexis could somehow license access to Hein Online, so that researchers who just want to retrieve a known cite could do it cheaply through Hein, but full-text researchers could, for a higher fee, link to Hein through WL or Lexis.

Posted by: Jim Milles | Dec 6, 2006 4:36:48 PM

Adam, these are outstanding ideas and frankly, Westlaw owes you a big bowl of lucre for making these suggestions!

Posted by: Dan Markel | Dec 6, 2006 3:25:00 PM

And my biggest easy-to-fix pet peeve--which, sadly, Lexis has just started triggering as well:

(7) Don't automatically log users off after a period of inactivity. We know how to use browser tabs, we use them to save state, and we tend to work on documents over a span of days. Don't force us to recreate our research environment every time we wander off to have dinner or sleep.

As to your other comments--I wonder if Google will step into this market one of these days. The opportunity certainly seems to present itself; even just simple Google searching of opinions, without the benefit of Lexis's and Westlaw's attorney-provided summaries, categorizations, and Shepard's/KeyCite flags, would have substantial value.

Posted by: David Krinsky | Dec 6, 2006 1:12:04 PM

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