Review: Westlaw Next

There have been many thoughtful remarks on Westlaw Next (“WN”) already (for a cursory example: http://outofthejungle.blogspot.com/2010/01/westlaw-next.html and http://www.legaline.com/2010/01/first-look-at-westlawnext.html). I intend to limit my review to my personal interactions with it from trial experience. With a mixture of real-time reference questions, hypotheticals from my legal research class, and research for my own publication, I made ample use of my 6 week trial. I also saw two live demonstrations: the first at a sponsored breakfast in New York; the second with Yale’s representative. I found the product to be a vast improvement over the previous model, but still flawed. I hope some of the major problems are corrected long before students receive passwords, and I am very concerned about the likelihood that legal instructors will need to work with this system before it is ready.

The Interface
First, I am happy to report that the interface is fantastic. You have clean lines, pleasant colors, and an uncluttered work space. Veterans of Westlaw may forget how overwhelming the original search screen is for a new user; and I am certain that the clutter creates a stressful experience. The WN screen looks fantastic when it presents the user with search results, and it looks even better when you view a document.

I was thrilled with the presentation of a statute. The table of contents button appears; you can still scroll to previous or subsequent sections; you can identify the notes of the decisions, and you can key cite. Despite the new locations of these functions, I immediately recognized the majority of them. Public laws, despite their hyperlinks, don’t currently exist in WN, which brings us to a problem—not all Westlaw content is available on WN. In this limited instance, you are invited to suspend WN and log into regular Westlaw to see the document. (More on this problem below). I was also excited about the “versions” function. It was exactly what you want and expect versions to be: the P.L. number, the effective date, the duration, etc (in other words, not the search box that appears on Westlaw). The search box was one of my great complaints with Westlaw (to which any of my former students can attest). Here is an example of a previous version of 29 USCA 2611:
§ 2611. Definitions
29 USCA § 2611
Effective July 7, 2004 to January 27, 2008
Legislative Action Pub.L. 108-271, § 8(b), July 7, 2004, 118 Stat. 814

The Search
If the “versions” function made me happy, imagine my glee when I searched for Roe v. Wade and got… Roe v. Wade! On WN you get the real one, not a denial of a petition for rehearing or McTaggart v. Roe v. Wade. You get the one you want to see. This, the simplest of searches, is groundbreaking. WN appears to finally search by relevance, instead of reverse chronological order. It will revolutionize legal research to be able to immediately pull up the document you want, and the document everyone in the universe knows you want!

The accuracy of WN (regarding primary law) is a huge selling point. Despite the flaws, and whatever negative tone you gather from this review, the arrangement of the results, and the ability to manipulate them, are things I will use religiously. When I was asked to find a judge’s “major opinions,” I turned immediately to WN. I searched for the judge, looked at his writings, focused on cases he authored, and then displayed “most cited” first. I selected the first few pages of documents, downloaded them into a nifty folder, and emailed them in a zip file to a student. This was one tool I was able to use to get more useful results than Westlaw’s reverse chronological order.

Those of you who attended a breakfast may remember the following example. CEPA is the Conscientious Employee Protection Act. At the breakfast we learned most researchers think about the Act as a “Whistleblower Act,” which is a term not used in New Jersey. The demonstration got to the heart of a current legal research limitation: vocabulary. WN tries to allow you to search by concept. In other words, when you run a search for “whistleblower” in New Jersey, the system should be able to decipher what that means, and put you into an appropriate legal classification. However, Mark Estes sent me an interesting tidbit about the headnotes. When he ran a Westlaw search in New Jersey for: sy,di(whistleblower) he retrieved 13 cases; whereas searching sy,di(CEPA) retrieved 100. This was a classic Westlaw problem, and precisely the type of problem they hoped to remedy with WN. Unfortunately, I duplicated his search on WN and got the exact same results. My guess is that the algorithm does not work within fields.

I don’t want to be too hard on them, however. I will note that when you search “whistleblower” within New Jersey, the first statute to appear is the Conscientious Employee Protection Act (this is definitely not the case in Westlaw), so WN has absolutely corrected something.

Speaking of headnotes, they are… quite unfortunately… not good. For several days during my trial I couldn’t even access them. I could read the headnotes in a case, but when I clicked on a key number, an error appeared. When I finally got in, I found the notes very confusing. For example, I was unable to change the jurisdiction from the Supreme Court to the Second Circuit. The cases were presented in reverse chronological order (WHY is Westlaw so enthusiastic about this?) I could only narrow the search with a focus term. This was one of the few instances where I reverted back to my 1L days—was the problem with Westlaw or was I missing something? In short, it doesn’t really matter: headnotes are what Westlaw really offers; if I can’t use them adequately, where does that leave me?

Returning to the discussion about search and accuracy, Mark and I both had a problem with the secondary sources. He selected the database “All States and Federal” and searched for “Berkeley, CA eviction” but could not find the Rutter Landlord Tenant practice guide. “Berkeley eviction” in California and Federal likewise did not turn up the Rutter guide, although it did turn up many secondary sources with “Berkeley” in the title.

Similarly, I looked for a treatise that I knew was available on Westlaw: Bittker’s Federal Income Taxation of Individuals. A simple database query of “Federal Income Taxation of Individuals” in Westlaw would have yielded the result I wanted. In WN it did not. It retrieves primarily law review articles. This led me to problem referenced above—could Rutter and Bittker simply not be here? I limited my search to “secondary sources” and still only found articles. I was able to finally find the resource; however, I was forced to do precisely what WN claims you shouldn’t have to do: I figured out where it would be. I went into Topics, then Tax, then Treatises.

KeyCite and Filtering
KeyCiting posed serious problems for me. One big problem was that you can only view documents by document type. If you keycite a statute, you cannot simultaneously look at case and regulations that cite that statute. You must first select a type, such as cases, narrow the search as you normally would (focus terms, jurisdiction, etc). After you have completed that search you will need to return to the beginning, select regulations, and run a subsequent search. Try as I might, I was unable to figure a way around this.

This same problem appears, and more problematically, when using KeyCite to find secondary sources. You cannot, for example, search the ALR and law reviews simultaneously. Other problems: 1. WN lists all of the journal titles to the left and allows you to select them—if you know the title of the publication you want to search; 2. WN only displays results by “newest first” and “oldest first,” (i.e. not by times cited or times viewed or downloaded); 3. the author’s name will never appear unless you open the document.

I also had a problem with filters when I KeyCited a document. Each time you select a filter, the search runs immediately and the screen refreshes. So when I choose “cases” as the type of document I was interested in researching, the screen refreshed. When I limited cases to “Federal,” the screen refreshed. When I limited Federal Cases to “Reported,” the screen refreshed, and so on. As you may infer, the screen refreshing was not quite as rapid as I would have wanted. This resulted in an extraordinary waste of time while I waited for the screen to reload. I may be more impatient than most, but I fear this particular nuisance will only get worse as more users enter the system.
In sum, the platform is better and the experience is certainly better, but I would only favor this system for specific tasks that rely on primary law. While the design and interface are sleek, I think too little attention was paid to KeyCite, Headnotes, and Secondary Sources.

Reviewed by Ryan Harrington, Reference Librarian, Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library

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15 Responses to “Review: Westlaw Next”


  1. 1 Anne Barker April 28, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Thank you for your detailed review of WestlawNext. My Westlaw rep showed the system to me when he was here last week. I don’t deny that it is a slick interface or that it may be very good for certain types of searching, but the 2 most recent legal searches I did on Westlaw would have been seriously hampered by doing them on WestlawNext.

    For one search, I was looking for examples of a specific type of complaint filed in District Court. In old Westlaw, I was able to limit the search in Federal Filings by Document Type to “Complaint Petition”. As of last Thursday, WestlawNext did not have a similar ability to limit the document type. The rep and I tried a few ways of running my search using the exact language I KNEW was used in the relevant complaints I had previously found, but we kept getting briefs as the top results and could find no way to limit to see only Complaints.

    In the other example, I was looking for cases with a specific outcome. The language being used was very broad and is found in the text of many opinions, but I only needed documents which used my search terms in relation to the outcome of the case. On old Westlaw, I got my result set by focusing the key search terms to the Holdings field. Similar to the first example, as of last Thursday WestlawNext did not have a way to limit the search terms to the holdings field. Again we tried a few different search strategies, but the result set was always too huge and the top cases were not relevant to the specific situation I was trying to target.

    In both cases, I am not certain I could have provided my attorneys with a reasonable result set in a timely fashion had I been restricted to using WestlawNext.

    I told my rep that this is why librarians get nervous when providers try to move to a natural-language, non-fielded search. For some searches, it works fine. But sometimes you need something more powerful (and often we don’t get the request until the attorney has already tried the more straight-forward strategy). It’s all well and good to simplify the interface and try to make the plain language searching better, but don’t take away the higher-level search functionality while you’re at it. The ability to search within a given field is the major benefit or creating a fielded database in the first place.

    My rep thought both of these were good examples of enhancements to have made to the system and he said he would follow up with the developers. But these do not seem like they should be “enhancements” to me; they should have been part of the system from the start. While I believe these particular problems will be fixed, it makes me wonder just how many advanced search capabilities have been removed from the system and how useful it really is.

  2. 2 Andrew April 30, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Regarding the first comment, I think you can still use field restrictors and all other terms and connector functions on Westlaw Next (there is no dropdown list, so you have to know what restrictor to enter).

    I, too, look forward to the day when ALL content from Westlaw is available on Next (especially secondary sources). My guess is that the keycite and headnote display limitations will be corrected…and I can live with the current options. The lack of content is a bigger concern for me right now.

  3. 3 Mike Dahn May 3, 2010 at 7:04 pm

    Ryan,

    Thank you for your detailed review of WestlawNext. In particular, thank you for the positive comments about the accuracy of WestSearch for primary law. Primary law represents the vast majority of the usage in Westlaw and WestlawNext, so it is incredibly gratifying to hear from you and others the impact WestSearch is having in helping users get to the right primary law faster than ever before. We’ve heard from attorneys and seen in our own testing that WestlawNext can cut research time in half.

    There were several points you made in the review that I’d like to comment on:

    • Regarding your whistleblower SY, DI search example, we built WestlawNext to provide great results from simple input, but we also wanted to be sure to give power users all the power and control they have with westlaw.com today (and actually extend that power and control), so a Boolean Terms & Connectors search in WestlawNext gives you very precise results, just as it does in westlaw.com. In WestlawNext, if you just type “whistleblower” into the search box, WestSearch will also find relevant documents that don’t use the word whistleblower. However, if you run a SY,DI search, WestSearch only returns documents that have the word whistleblower in the Synopsis or Digest fields of the document – we don’t want to take precision search capabilities away from the user. Note, however, that with precise Boolean Terms & Connectors searching in WestlawNext, you get significant added benefits – more precision and control – such as new result list sort options (with relevance as the default), new ways to easily filter the list (with a single click, you can remove unpublished decisions, or criminal decisions, if that’s what you want to do), exposure of other matching content (such as admin decisions, expert witness testimony, etc.), and new icons that show you what you’ve seen before for the same client id / project description, or what you’ve already put into a folder in WestlawNext.

    • Regarding the Berkeley eviction search example, we anticipated that the majority of users who wish to learn about California eviction laws will choose California as their jurisdiction and search for [eviction] or a related terms. Doing so returns numerous results from the Rutter Landlord-Tenant treatise. Again, we want legal researchers to have enough control to be precise when they’d like to be. If we were to infer California from the use of the word Berkeley in the query, that would frustrate users who were interested in Berkeley, IL or Berkeley, VA or Berkeley, CO, or Berkeley, MO – or Berkeley, the UK car company. Imagine trying to search for cases involving Arizona iced tea or the poker game of Texas hold ‘em if jurisdiction were inferred. We certainly think there is a place for inference – when users type “whistleblower” and choose NJ as the jurisdiction, we infer that they also want documents about NJ’s whistleblower law, the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, even if those documents don’t use the word whistleblower. But jurisdiction is not something we make inferences about – we ask the user to choose a jurisdiction (or multiple jurisdictions – or all jurisdictions) explicitly. In our work with literally thousands of legal researchers, we found that to work best and to be what they wanted.

    • For Keycite, the first screen of a KeyCite result actually does show documents from every content type. For example, see the Montana’s statute on advertising standards (chosen at random): Standards for permitted advertising, MCA 75-15-113. When you look at the citing references tab in WestlawNext for this statute, you’ll notice that you see citing cases, statutes, regulations, and briefs – all in a single list. If you’d like to search within all of the citing references in this list, you can do it easily. If you want to apply filters to this list, you first need to choose a content type, as different content types have different fields for filtering.

    • Regarding finding publications like Bittker & Eustice, simply type the name of the publication or database into the search box at the top of WestlawNext, and it will drop down a list so you can navigate right to it.

    • Regarding the ability to change jurisdictions and sort orders for the online digest (list of headnotes from multiple cases), we hear you loud and clear, and we’re working on it.

    We really appreciate your thoughtful review. Thank you again for taking the time to review WestlawNext.

    Mike Dahn
    Vice President, WestlawNext Product Development
    Thomson Reuters, Legal
    mike.dahn@thomsonreuters.com

  4. 4 Mike Dahn May 4, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Anne, thank you for your comments on this review of WestlawNext. We’re extremely pleased to have you call the interface “slick” – our designers agonized over the interface for years and love it when people say that. We also appreciate your nod to the power of WestlawNext for certain types of searching. We’ve literally been working on our WestSearch algorithms for over five years.

    Regarding the two searches you tried in the system, I’d like to offer some clarification:

    With WestlawNext, you can use the same field restrictions that you know and love in westlaw.com. For instance, in westlaw.com, the search:

    hg(“improper admission”)

    in CA-CS (California Cases) returns four cases that use that phrase in the holdings field.

    In WestlawNext, from the search box on the home page, simply type the same thing:

    hg(“improper admission”)

    and choose California as your jurisdiction, and you get the same 4 cases. This capability has been available since the launch of WestlawNext. While we’ve worked very hard to design WestSearch to deliver great results from simple input, we know that there will be times when you want to be very precise.

    And in WestlawNext, if you forget this advanced searching syntax (is it HG or HO?), don’t worry – you don’t have to memorize it. From the browse section of the home page, just click on “cases” then “California” then on the “advanced” link next to the search button. All of the available fields will be displayed for you – no need to use fancy syntax, just fill them in.

    Regarding court filing document types, we agree with you, and we will display the Document Type field on the Advanced Search page for Pleadings, Motions, & Memoranda on WestlawNext in the coming months. You can do a similar search now using the Title field in Advanced Search, or by crafting your own query, e.g. DT(complaint), although that will return all filings with those words in the title. We’ve also made it easy to seamlessly link back to westlaw.com from WestlawNext (no need to re-enter a password) so that researchers can leverage the ground-breaking advancements of WestlawNext and still have the comfort of all westlaw.com methods of finding information. In essence, all WestlawNext users get the best of both worlds – WestlawNext just adds to a researcher’s capabilities. It doesn’t take anything away.

    Thank you again for your thoughtful comments. Our goal with WestlawNext is to dramatically reduce the time it takes to do thorough legal research and also to expose, through intelligent processes, on-point results that might have otherwise been missed, so researchers can be confident in the research they’ve done. Comments and critique like yours help us achieve that goal and move beyond it. Thank you for alerting us to these items.

    Mike Dahn
    Vice President, WestlawNext Product Development
    Thomson Reuters, Legal
    mike.dahn@thomsonreuters.com

  5. 5 American- American June 1, 2010 at 2:13 am

    Still miles behind New Lexis and lexis for microsoft office.
    lexis is like apple…westlaw is like commodore 64..

    In addition, high pressure sales people at west make the expericence so painful.

    Wont’ be long before lexis/microsoft gobble up westlaw…as they go the way of their key numbers and books…bye bye.

  6. 6 karmatic June 15, 2010 at 11:16 pm

    @ amerikan-amerikan – you need to stop hating. 1st – You are not even in the same league as Apple. Look at history, stats, stock price and business model (one of you charges a premium for their product and the other just keeps getting cheaper. Hmmmmm?).and 2nd -If you do a good job and keep your numbers up, maybe westlaw will give you an opportunity to leave Lexis and get a real job with a real company. Until then, your just gonna have to keep cutting your price.
    -peace bro

  7. 7 karmatic June 15, 2010 at 11:18 pm

    @ amerikan-amerikan – you need to stop hating. 1st – You are not even in the same league as Apple. Look at history, stats, stock price and business model (one of you charges a premium for their product and the other just keeps getting cheaper. Hmmmmm?).and 2nd -If you do a good job and keep your numbers up, maybe westlaw will give you an opportunity to leave Lexis and get a real job with a real company. Until then, your just gonna have to keep cutting your price.
    -peace bro

    So nice, I said it twice “v”

  8. 8 John Hightower July 15, 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Westlaw Next (WLN) soups up natural language searching (a good thing) and beefs up Results Plus (another good thing), but ruins the frontend user interface. Now, we are required to use two systems to get the results we might want–or benefit from.

    Classic case in point: Where’s the KeyCite box on WLN? The designers were so determined have a single search box (apparently the HOT, COOL thing to have because it makes it look like Google)that, with WLN, we have to type “KC” in front a a citation to KeyCite a case. This takes us back to the DOS interface of Lexis circa 1995. With WLN, I have to click and use two keystrokes before I type the citation, whereas with Westlaw Classic (WLC) I just had to use one click before typing the citation. Small point, yes, but indicative of how the obstinate (esthetic)determination to have one search box was considered more important than efficient usability.

    Second case in point: Where are my databases? How can I get to them? I don’t need all the other clutter. I need to get to where the answer is most likely to be to do things quickly and easiliy. Get all the needless stuff off the splash screen. Let me have my WLC tabs with a list databases that I use more frequently. (Yes, WLN has a place for favorites, but requires me to scroll to list all my favorites because the rest of the screen is filled with direcotry items.) The WLN interface may increase the efficiency and accuracy for those researchers who don’t know what they’re doing, but the WLN interfacce gets in the way of those who do. Yesterday, while using WLN, it took me 30 minutes of digging to even find the Comptroller General’s decisions. And I’m still not sure that I was really searching in that data base (no data base label ever showed up). We need the ability to modify and create the type of splash page we want rather than being restricted to the one-size-fits-all splash page of the current WLN interface. The tabs system on WLC is great. What happened to it in WLN?

  9. 9 Evan Haglund August 13, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    As a longtime user of Westlaw with a great relationship with our Westlaw rep, I tried, really tried, to like Westlaw Next. Unfortunately, WestlawNext is clearly Westlaw’s analog to Microsfot’s Windows Vista or, perhaps even more clearly, the now defunct “New Coke.”

    First, the concept of the search enginge trying to figure out “waht I really wanted,” rather than simply giving me what I searched for in teh first place, is beyond aggravating. Last night I ran a search for the issue when gambling losses could be considered “waste” of marital assets: in WestlawNext, the first five cases didn’t even have anything to do with gambling. Fortunately, I returned to regular Westlaw and found on point authority in under 15 minutes. I have made a list of numerous searches in which WestlawNext either failed to find the relevant autohrity, or had it buried so deep it was like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Even when I finally find relevant authority in WLN, I never have the feeling that I have exhausted the topic, as I have no confidence in WLN searches. I’d prefer to leave “what I really wanted” to my ex-wife and car salesmen, and have a search engine provide me with what I actually asked for.

    As other reviewers have noted, fundamental tasks on Westlaw are infinitely more difficult on Westlaw Next. Keyciting, searching by headnote, etc. I have my favorite databases on my search screen. Now, I still don’t know how to find some of the databases I regularly used on WLN; I have to go back to Westlaw to use these. (Case in point: Wright & Miller’s Federal Practice & Procedure, as well as Restatements.)

    Westlaw Next may have been a good idea, but its execution has been horrible. If West abandons “old” Westlaw altogether, our firm may have to look for new legal searching solutions.

  10. 11 John Hightower August 13, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    After my previous response, I did some more testing. I have become convinced that the programmers and designers consulted Microsoft personnel to help design the Westlaw Next (WLN) interface. Every Microsoft program I have encountered OVERCONTROLS how I do my work.

    That’s exactly what Westlaw Next does–overcontrol my work.

    I will say that the new WLN search engine is vastly superior to the “natural language” search engine in classic Westlaw.

    I would love to have the classic Westlaw interface with the WLN search engine as an option or in place of the current natural language search engine.

  11. 12 John Hightower September 29, 2010 at 6:11 pm

    From West e-lert, Vol 10, No 9 from West (received 9/29/2010):
    __________

    You can now require or exclude terms in a WestlawNext search

    You can now require that all documents retrieved in WestlawNext contain or exclude a particular term. And you don’t need to construct a Terms and Connectors query to do so.

    To require that all documents retrieved by your WestlawNext search contain a specific term, type a plus (+) symbol immediately before the term in your search. For example, type a search such as the following:

    first amendment right to distribute +handbill

    To exclude a specific term from all documents retrieved by your search, type a minus (-) symbol immediately before the term in your search. For example, type a search such as the following:

    slip and fall where handrail -stairway missing

    __________

    So we’re now returning to Lexis, circa 1997? and just like Lexis of 1997, there was never a place to find what all the commands were. There is a reason why the classic Westlaw (WL) interface had all the dropdowns and other assistance items. It made it easier for the user to use and learn how to use the system gradually. Where is the link on WestlawNext (WLN) for a listing of all the commands?

    From Mike Dahn’s earlier posting on this blog:

    __________

    And in WestlawNext, if you forget this advanced searching syntax (is it HG or HO?), don’t worry – you don’t have to memorize it. From the browse section of the home page, just click on “cases” then “California” then on the “advanced” link next to the search button. All of the available fields will be displayed for you – no need to use fancy syntax, just fill them in.
    __________

    So this THREE-STEP PROCESS (to be used when I don’t remember) is supposed to be easier than the classic WL interface in which I can just use one click on a dropdown list of all the various field limits and command and such?

    Why can’t you give me a choice with WLN that has all my options with classic Westlaw (with the tabs, thank you very much), but with the search algorithm of WLN? (The new algorithm is great, by the way.) Why should I have to switch between systems just to be able to use the new search algorithm?

    Didn’t anyone think that it might be helpful to include and exclude terms when you started working on the single search box? Did you not realize that the single search box was going to be REDUCING the discrimination that a user might want to employ in his or her searches?

    All the single search box has done is return us to the day of the DOS command line.

  12. 13 Anonymous November 2, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    I contacted Westlaw to consider signing up for an account and was very unhappy with the experience.

    Using an internet-conferencing program, a Westlaw rep was able to give me a good presentation of the features of WestlawNext.

    When the rep finally told me about the pricing, she gave me one price, and then told me that there was a special price that was good only for the current month. That basically ended my interest in Westlaw, as I didn’t enjoy the feeling that I was being treated as a sucker who would fall for such a high-pressure sales gimmick. I had a fairly lengthy discussion with the sales rep about my objection, although I was perfectly polite, as was the sales rep.

    The very next day I received an email from this rep, from which I quote:

    “I have talked extensively with my boss about earning your business.

    “This pricing is especially created and designed by my manager, Jonathan – but he has asked for a time frame of Thursday by 3PM CST.

    “I have explained our previous conversation that you do not take kindly to sales tactics or games and that these are not my ways of selling either!!!

    “With that being said – he’s the bad guy in this – but he is really offering you a great deal for a lot less to earn your business this month.

    “Because this is a final notice I personally want to offer you some free books ($1600 in value) of your choice (95% of our books I can offer you) and postpone your 1st month WestlawNext billing to end of December.”

    Apparently, Westlaw preferred that I look elsewhere for my legal-research needs, and so I have done so.


  1. 1 The Latest Review of WestlawNext · Robert Ambrogi's LawSites Trackback on May 3, 2010 at 7:17 pm
  2. 2 Bloggers are talking – and we’re listening | Westlaw Insider Trackback on May 7, 2010 at 6:03 pm

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