WestlawNext Preview: The Recap

So, how about WestlawNext? That new evolution in legal research? Is there really something to be excited about here?

As regular readers know, I attended the Preview breakfast today. The Preview consisted of an opportunity to watch various Westlaw rep put the product through its paces at stations and a keynote speech by a West VP of Sales. The speech was accompanied by a slide deck with moving graphics and screenshots.

Ever the geeky researcher, I took copious notes. I asked some questions during the individual previews, which were answered to varying degrees of completeness. There were no meaningful opportunities to ask questions during the presentation. So I figured I would share both my notes and my questions here.

Remembering that West intends to charge an undisclosed premium for this next evolution, this Preview was an attempt by West to argue why such a charge makes sense. There were three main talking points to this end: major search improvements improved organization and visual display; and, new work flow tools.

I was particularly interested in the search. The individual reps were unable to give me a satisfactory answer as to how the new “plain” language search is an improvement over the old “natural” language search. The main presenter highlighted West’s search goals: to improve search by accessing a broader array of databases automatically; to bring deep, relevant results higher in the list and bring them faster; to do the analytical evaluation encompassed within KeyCite, Results Plus and other tools behind the scenes automatically; and, to crowdsource the results of other professional searchers.

The new search language has no constraints with respect to format. The new algorithm takes into account 57 different points. In pursuit of relevancy, it accesses the more than 40,000 West databases without manual selection (although you can identify preferred databases). It examines terms used in key numbers associated with point of law suggested by the search. It will look countrywide for relevant related cases and common threads, and then employ concepts gleaned from this analysis within your specified jurisdiction. The same treatment is applied to Key Cite results – citing cases are examined for common threads, which are then run back through the selected databases. Finally, West taps into the searches run by other professional (not student) legal researchers – more than 500,000 transactions per day – to determine the documents yielded by searches employing the same terms and whether the researchers engaged in “meaningful transactions” with respect to those documents. In other words, did they print, Key Cite, email or copy with citation. Then the algorithm goes one step further and pulls other documents that are most frequently related to the documents treated by other researchers. The results are shown, by default in order of decreasing relevance.

Interestingly, there were little to no examples comparing a traditional Westlaw search with a WestlawNext search. Just a few conclusory statements that the WestlawNext search would yield a better result faster. Boolean is not gone, but one of the reps advised that WestlawNext is working behind the scenes on the broader connectors, so it is not a completely Boolean application.

New organizational tools include a foldering system that is fully searchable and automatically updated via Key Cite. The look is cleaner and more modern, with more white space and the ability to control formatting to optimize your viewing experience. When you click on a particular case, other Related Topics from the case are displayed in paragraph form along the right margin – you can access other results on those topics via clickable links. KeyCite is tabbed on the cases, and the results are filter-able.Results also can be filtered by relevancy, recency and other facets.

Workflow is improved as well. Docs can be downloaded, sent via email and, most recently added, sent to your Kindle. You can establish favorite databases. I am not sure whether these favorites affect the relevancy measure within results. There is also a link for “KM” – it accesses the firm’s own documents. an eyeglass symbol on a document means that the document had been previously viewed within the last 30 days for the same client ID. A folder icon on a case shows that the case has already been read and saved in a folder. You can access foldered documents without charge. Search history is now saved for a year (previously 14 days).

Editing tools allow the researcher to notate, highlight and save sections of cases with citations, with these edits saved online indefinitely. Coming soon: the ability to export folders of research content, with annotations, to others on the research team.

For what it is worth, as an experienced researcher delving regularly into similar areas of law, I know how to formulate both a boolean and natural language search and I am well aware of the databases I need. It is a rare occasion that I am plumbing an entirely new area of law. Furthermore, I already have adopted workarounds for the new foldering and annotating system – I save my downloaded docs in topic-specific folders and use my word processor to highlight and mark comments in the margins.

While I still have little questions, the big question for me is price. I was directed to my sales rep. The email I sent to her following the preview in which I indicated I had price questions remains unanswered. I know enough from my reading that there is a premium for WestlawNext, but no one seems to have a firm grasp on the amount of that premium. I imagine there are different premiums depending upon the size and nature of the existing contract and type of client. Hardly seems fair.

I know I am not the first commenter to say this, but I think that West is well off the track and making a huge marketing mistake. In my early days as a law student and lawyer, the only meaningful choice in legal research was Westlaw or Lexis. The Internet had not broken into the mainstream. Early web search was clumsy compared to West’s access to its own curated content. It made sense to pay extra for the service and we all paid dearly for it.

Now, internet search has met and exceeded Westlaw’s current search methodology. In a time when major corporations, the likes of Google and Microsoft, and other minor web developers are regularly trotting out amazing search feats and features and charging absolutely nothing for these marvelous wonders, Westlaw deigns to bring its product in many respects up to modern “free” standards and charge an undisclosed premium for it. Unfortunately, West has not properly read its audience – lawyers are becoming more tech savvy and are getting quite accustomed to receiving new and better tools for free. I know I am.

While I can comprehend paying extra for a vastly improved search algorithm (I don’t know this for sure as I have not yet had a hands-on), I find it difficult to “buy” an improvement such as better site organization, more “white space” and formatting controls. Shouldn’t such “improvements” be par for the course in a product’s development? Barring inflationary increases, car manufacturers regularly change the visual design of their products to keep them modern and add options without charging for these changes. Is West so out of touch with its customers that it believes they feel bringing the site’s look up to modern standards justify a price hike?

When a free product is measured against a pricey one, the reviewer cannot help but consider compromising on features in favor of cost wherever possible. As the free tools improve, WestlawNext is going to be perceived as the poorer option when all factors are examined.

While West touts its upcoming iPhone version, I have been accessing the free Fastcase service on my phone for weeks. This is not charge-worthy innovation.

Oh, and for the record, I overheard a Westlaw rep tell an attendee today that Westlaw.com will be phased out. Thus, the WestlawNext premium will become the new standard (increased) price point for West’s products.

I am sure I will have more on the subject after I activate my free access password (I will get a whopping three days) and after I get some clarification on my outstanding questions from my rep. For now, I have said it before and I will say it again – the jury is still out deliberating.

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