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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More on Cobalt (& Lexis' Mystery Project)

Logo of Westlaw.
Image via Wikipedia

The New York Times ran an article (link here) discussing “sweeping” changes to the Big Two, Westlaw and Lexis, in the pipeline. Project Cobalt, (previously discussed here), is slated for February 1. Lexis’ drop date has not yet been disclosed.

The Times article is an interesting read on the history of these giants and their motivations for change. You see, people are sick of paying huge amounts for a mediocre, 1980’s interface and functionality. Go figure.

West reps told the Times that it took 5 years to build the new service. Oh no. Does that mean the service is already 5 years out of date?  The article discusses relevancy by algorithm (second-guessing what the lawyer might actually be looking for) and a Google-like search interface. No mention of retaining Boolean search, though. Not 2010 enough, I suppose.

My jury remains out. It will reconvene on February 1.

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To The Google Scholar User: Buyer Beware

Image representing Google Scholar as depicted ...
Image via CrunchBase

Here is a bit of common sense from real life example: when using Google Scholar for your legal research, use care in making sure that versions of a case match. Legal Writing Prof Blog has a post about an attorney preparing a brief for filing who noted a discrepancy in the footnote numbering between the official Wisconsin Reporter version of a case and the Google Scholar version. The Blog quotes the attorney’s findings as follows:

The source of the discrepancy quickly became apparent.  In the official version of the case (as in all official versions of Wisconsin cases), the filing of a petition for review in the Wisconsin Supreme Court gets noted in the caption with a footnote placed at the end of the name of the party that filed the petition.  The symbol for this footnote is a dagger, not a number.  Google Scholar, however, designates this footnote with a number (in this instance, the dagger became “1”) and renumbers the remaining footnotes accordingly.  Where there’s more than one footnote attached to the caption – e.g., Ellsworth v. Schelbrock, 229 Wis. 2d 542, 600 N.W.2d 247 (Ct. App. 1999) – Google Scholar shifts the footnote numbers even more:  in Ellsworth, the caption has two footnotes, so the numbered footnotes shifted by two as well, making footnote 1 in the official version into footnote 3 in the Google Scholar version.

My thinking on the proper role of Google Scholar is this: the greatest cost in using the paid databases is the time spent poking around looking for the main cases on a point of law. Once you have identified those cases, the costs of pulling them down out of the paid databases is relatively inexpensive. I see Google Scholar as an effective (but not sole) tool for the former task. When writing an appellate brief to any court, I would not feel the slightest bit comfortable relying on Google Scholar’s version. At that point, I would be pulling the actual cases from the paid databases. While these sources are far from infallible, they do have a longer track record with respect to accuracy, as well as complete citations and the ability to Keycite or Shepardize, a must for briefs to be filed in any court.

So there you have it. Use the free resources with your eyes wide open to their possible shortcomings, and you should not go far wrong.

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Google Wave Review – GP Solo Technology eReport

I admit that I am a bit late on breaking the news on this one, but I do want to link to my article reviewing Google Wave that ran last month in the GP Solo Technology eReport published by the ABA. Already, the information appears a tiny bit dated, but that’s just the speed that the Web travels. Check out some of the other great articles too, you might recognize a few names and certainly will pick up some good information!

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Studio Hits The Big Time! paidcontent.org

Well, this is almost as good as being named a top legal blawg by the ABA ;). Following my rant article about the dumbing down of search, I was contacted by a reporter from paidcontent.org, a sub of the Guardian news outlet. The focus of the site is to “chronicle the economic evolution of digital content that is shaping the future of the media, information and entertainment industries.” The specific site provides global coverage on the economics of digital content.

Mr. Tartakoff was interested in getting my viewpoint on whether there was any reason to use Bing and what should Google do in response to Bing’s growing popularity, particularly in light of Google’s upcoming search announcements scheduled for this coming Monday. Never at a loss for opinions, I gave him probably more than he needed.

Check out the article that appears on the front page. I am pretty stoked!

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Google Wave Thanksgiving Giveaway Or “Pay It Forward”

Google Wave
Image via Wikipedia

Hello there Studio Readers. Guess what? I have Google Wave invites. Are you interested? Send me an email on my Contact page and tell me why you want one and the email address to which you would like the invitation sent. First come, first served. Come on in – the water’s fine!

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Google Wave Thanksgiving Giveaway Or "Pay It Forward"

Google Wave
Image via Wikipedia

Hello there Studio Readers. Guess what? I have Google Wave invites. Are you interested? Send me an email on my Contact page and tell me why you want one and the email address to which you would like the invitation sent. First come, first served. Come on in – the water’s fine!

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Google Book Search: What Can It Do For You?

Image representing Google Book Search as depic...
Image via CrunchBase

These days, when I search on most any topic, I will try the free methods first and the pay methods second. I am doing this for a few reasons: to improve my cost efficiencies; to test out results between free and paid sources; to cover all bases from different angles; etc., etc., and, etc.

I am finding lately that more and more of my searches in Google yield results from Google Book Search. Most denizens on-line, and many off-line, will recognize the association between Google and books and may even recall that there is some ginormous settlement looming out there. But what does the marriage of Google and books mean for the researcher in concrete terms?  Ever curious, I decided to do a little deeper digging into that resource and its mechanics.

First, what is it? Google Book Search offers full-text searching of the books that Google has collected and scanned into its database. The best figure I could find reveals more than 1.5 million works. Please feel free to post more accurate figures in the comments – the number obviously is growing by the minute!

Google Book Search operates like a regular Web search, but limits results to the Google collection. If a book is out of copyright or the author has given Google permission, the searcher can see a preview or, in some cases, the full text. Books in the public domain may be downloaded free. Google has created reference pages for its books, with reviews, relevant info, web references and other key data. There are links for purchasing or borrowing the books. The database includes magazines as well. Google is actively seeking book partners – authors and publishers looking to promote their books for free on Google- and library partners including some of the largest brick and mortar institutions. Google points out that it is trying to create a “comprehensive, searchable, virtual card catalog of all books in all languages that helps users discover new books and publishers discover new readers.” No mean goal, indeed.

As with most Google search applications, there are advanced search features. You can peruse all books, limited previews and full views or full view only. You can filter for just books, just magazines or all content. You can search by language, title, author, publisher, subject, publication date, ISBN and ISSN.

Google Book Search started as Google Print and has been around since late 2004. It is still in beta, which is not surprising as Google likes to keep its features in beta for a long, long time (GMail anyone?). It is not the only option out there for digital collections: Microsoft had its own book search, abandoned in 2008, which is now maintained by the Internet Archive. Europeana offers digital “objects”, including manuscripts and artworks. Gallica is a project of the French National Library and is growing at the rate of approximately 5,000 new docs a month. Want the ability to identify specific articles in specific issues of a journal? Try Google Scholars. But Google Books is by far the largest repository of written works at this time.

If you are interested in finding out more about Google Book Search itself, check out this bibliography by Charles W. Bailey, Jr. Pandia Search Engine News has a quick post offering some links of interest, including easy introductory articles on the subject. Google’s own About page is here.

What can Google Book Search do for you, the legal researcher? Well, obviously, Google cannot guarantee it is providing you with a curated database of ALL legal research materials.  Nonetheless, it can be a most helpful tool in your virtual tool belt and shouldn’t be overlooked.

For example, I recently was researching the treatment of fairly arcane exclusionary language in certain crime coverages. Instead of taking my usual tack – enter Westlaw, search the various databases for cases and treatises and other collected materials – I ran a search on the main Google page. High in the results were entries in the Google Books database highlighting my language. These included several, quite-specific treatises on crime coverages. Although I could not pull the entire works down, I could read the sections pertinent to my language. From that, I was able to determine the primary cases on the issue. Even better, the results actually pulled the relevant page from one of West’s own Reporters with some of the main cases. I didn’t know Google Books included West Reporters!

To cross-check, I ran my same questions on Westlaw. Pretending that I didn’t already have the knowledge gleaned from my Google search and using more steps in Westlaw than needed in Google, I ultimately found the cases (but not the treatises) and got my answer.

Would I recommend that the researcher abandon Westlaw or Lexis and rely solely on Google Book Search?  No way, Jose! I owe it to my client (and to my own thorough sensibilities) to ensure that the pool I am fishing from is the largest, most complete body of water available. But, would I recommend that the researcher include a Google Book Search early in the search strategy? You betcha!

I am not going to enter the lively debate regarding Google Book Search, the settlement and copyright concerns here. I will point the interested reader to Google’s take the Google Books Settlement Agreement here and a recent article regarding Amazon’s objections to the settlement at PC World here. The news and blog entries on this topic are overwhelming and could take far longer to peruse than it took for me to find some great answers on my topic in Google Books. Is Google Books “good” or “bad” in the long run? I urge you to give it a trial run,  read up on the debate, and make your own mind up. And, as always, feel free to express your own point of view here in the Studio!

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