Earlier this week, I traveled to Thomson Reuters/West’s headquarters in Eagan, Minnesota to preview, along with a group of other bloggers, a demonstration of the next generation of Westlaw, WestlawNext (go to the end of post for a round up of coverage). Though originally, I’d intended to comment on the product from the solo/small firm perspective, my friend and colleague Lisa Solomon covered that angle fairly well in her blog post, Product and Pricing. Instead, I’ll focus my attention on how WestlawNext works for lawyers with a highly specialized, regulatory based practice like mine. Honestly, it’s not all that great. I don’t fault West entirely for this deficiency because most likely, it had far less competitive intelligence to leverage for development of energy regulation searches than for case research generally. Still, West’s decision to make broad search the presumptive first choice for research in order to make its database more Google-friendly means that West gave short-shrift to another Web 2.0, technology trend: user-customization.
But before I get specific, let me (like WestlawNext search) start more generally: The WestlawNext product, and the sheer amount of work that’s gone into it wowed me. Learning about how West developed the product – from analyzing the way customers view a screen to how many times they print out a case – was simply fascinating. (Greg Lambert discusses it in detail at 3 Geeks and a Law Blog) I’d always assumed that developing computerized research products consists of nothing more than dumping a bunch of cases into a data base and programming a search tool. Now, I’m aware of the effort that goes into creating sophisticated search tools. As such, I’m somewhat more understanding of the comparatively high price tag that top line research tools carry even in an age of declining technological costs.
Likewise, WestlawNext’s comprehensiveness and intelligence was also impressive. Searching for municipality and civil rights liability puts Monell, the seminal casae, at the top of the charts as you might expect. But WestlawNext also captures cases with synonymous terms, like respondeat superior for liability and town or agency for municipality. Even further, WestlawNext casts a wide net, bringing up dozens of law review articles, treatise, jury verdicts and briefs. Who knew that relevant law could reside in so many places? It’s a lawyer’s dream.
But unfortunately, I don’t practice civil rights law or traditional "law school" law for that matter any kind of "law school" law (i.e., related to matters taught in law school). My bread and butter lies in energy regulatory matters, which require me, even at the appellate level, to comb through hundred page Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) orders (often an initial decision and then another equally dull and complex one one rehearing), federal statutes and regulations. Indeed, it’s my day job in the energy biz that keeps an otherwise renegade 21st century lawyer like myself with a penchant for "free" (see, e.g., here) wedded to costly commercial services: they’re the only game in town for researching regulatory law. In the regulatory domain, Google is worthless, as are the second-city search tools (which I adore for their commitment to low cost alternatives) like Fastcase, Casemaker and Versuslaw.
Yet, WestLawNext doesn’t stack up so well for regulatory research. When I research an energy issue, I need precision. I need to be able to search a FERC regulatory library and possibly federal appellate and district court cases, either simultaneously or individually. Sometimes, as for a recent massive report that I completed on feed-in tariffs, I need access to FERC and state regulatory libraries simultaneously. I also need statutes and regulations, sometimes SEC library, sometimes Department of Interior and sometimes even a smattering of international cases (but that’s a matter for another day). That is absolutely all I need 90 percent of the time for energy regulatory research — and WestLawNext doesn’t make it particularly easy for me to put customize that kind of search database (though to be fair, neither does LEXIS, even with a stand-alone "energy" library).
In addition, even if WestLawNext allowed me to cobble together this kind of specialized search (and maybe it does – it just isn’t readily apparent), I’m not so sure that I’d want to pay for all the add ons just to get access to a discrete set of particular services. I want to pay for what I eat, not for all I can eat. However, WestLawNext didn’t go into detail about pricing, so I’ll hold off on any further comment on that front until more information emerges.
As many of the other commenters have observed, WestLawNext’s design channels Google to some extent and indeed, that’s not a bad thing. There’s something to be said about a clean interface, starting search broad, then narrowing and using past results to inform subsequent searches. But much as I love Google (and I have to because my husband works there!), the ability to process massive amounts of information represents only one modern day technological advancement. The other advancement is user-customization, which lies at the core of most Web 2.0 technologies. Once I have access to the entire universe of legal research, I want to be able to cut it up, and pick and choose the pieces that I want and package it to suit my needs. I can do that with many Web 2.0 tools, but I can’t do it so easily with Google and it doesn’t appear that I can do it with WestLawNext.
Anyway, those are my comments – I look forward to your insights when the product launches on February 1. By the way, here’s a huge thank you to West for going to the time and expense of seeking feedback from a wide span of the blogosphere and putting on such an informative presentation.
For other commentary on the WestLawNext, see the following:
Adams Drafting (asking about the role of legal research in contract law).
Out of the Jungle (does WestLawNext dumb down legal research?)
Thoughful Legal Management (summarizing all of WestLawNet’s neat features)
Slaw.ca (usefulness of WestlawNext in Canada and pondering corporate counsel’s willingness to pay for premium service)
JasonEisman.com/blog (video conversation – note towards the end, Tom Boone’s question about whether WestlawNext widens the gap in legal research (presumably between those who can afford premium and those who can’t).