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Thomson Reuters Launches WestlawNext—The Next Chapter in Legal Research
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Posted On February 4, 2010
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At a flashy, live music and multimedia event this week, at LegalTech in New York, Thomson Reuters Legal (TRL) formally introduced what it is calling "the next generation in legal research." The new platform, called WestlawNext, aims to simplify and streamline the front-end search experience and provide superior results using new back-end algorithms. The goal is to make legal professionals more efficient and give them the confidence that they've explored every relevant document. The new system, which was known as Project Cobalt during its development, has been 5 years and many millions of dollars in the making. TRL says it represents the culmination of more than 100 years of West attorney-created editorial analysis and technological innovation.

President and CEO Peter Warwick says, "We've combined our 138-year legacy of analyzing and organizing legal information with cutting edge search technology to set a new standard for legal research tools. This combination of authority and insight, driven by peerless technology and innovation, is the essence of intelligent information and provides a powerful advantage for our customers."

The big news in the new WestlawNext service is that users don't have to select a database to begin a search (and Westlaw has more than 40,000 databases). Now you just type your search into the single search box and then select a jurisdiction. In other words, you don't have to know where the answer is before looking for it.

The homepage is much cleaner, with just a simple search box to perform multiple functions (the old Westlaw page was very cluttered and had multiple search boxes depending on what you wanted). You don't need to use special syntax or Boolean logic (terms and connectors), though you can if you wish. Just type what you want in simple, descriptive terms. As Mike Dahn, vice president of WestlawNext product development, says, "Don't worry. We haven't taken anything away-you told us you didn't want us to dumb down your research." (Dahn is a former law librarian.)

The service was designed in close collaboration with Westlaw customers. After watching hundreds of legal professionals do research and analyzing Westlaw logs, it was clear to the project team that researchers typically start by finding relevant documents and then turn to finding aids that link documents together. The new proprietary search engine called WestSearch aims to replicate the iterative research steps with algorithms. It automates the process of applying Key Numbers, KeyCite, and secondary sources (guides, encyclopedias, and treatises) to find additional critical documents and then ranks them with the most important documents at the top of the results list.

WestSearch also "learns" from the aggregate usage of WestlawNext researchers, based on users' "meaningful interactions" with the results-when the user prints, emails, or KeyCites it. Lawyer Ken Adams says, "When amassed over thousands upon thousands of searches, that sort of incremental information should add real value" (www.adamsdrafting.com/2010/02/01/kicking-the-tires-of-westlawnext).

Documents now look better and are easier to read as a result of the company's extensive customer research. Arial is now the font used for text display, along with a larger type size and better use of white space.

Sara R. David, an associate at Cuomo, LLC in New York City, has been testing WestlawNext for several months. She says it's much more streamlined and user-friendly than other systems she's used. "It's a really great product. And, the suggestions I made along the way while testing, West has already implemented." The one concern she has is pricing-"I hope it's priced to be affordable for our firm of seven attorneys."

Jeffrey Halldin, associate at Touhy, Touhy, Buehler & Williams, LLP in Chicago, has similar comments about the interface and the quality of search results. "Just about everything [in WestlawNext] is a step up from the old Westlaw system." After testing WestlawNext for 2 months, he went back to using Westlaw. "I really miss the new one."

Cost and Value

After admiring the interface and powerful search capabilities in WestlawNext, the biggest question for most people does seem to be pricing. TRL wouldn't provide details but indicated that WestlawNext would cost a "modest premium" above users' existing Westlaw contracts. The company says its sales reps would encourage customers to add content to their subscriptions when upgrading but wouldn't specify any percentage increment. It looks like the individual firm's negotiating process will be the key factor.

Lawyer and blogger Simon Chester points out, "[T]he large U.S. firm market is reeling from the most significant revenue downturn in the lives of currently practicing lawyers. Corporate America's drive to trim legal costs may run smack against Westlaw's modest price increases."

Here's what lawyer and consultant Lisa Solomon wrote on her blog:

Finally, some advice for West: although I don't have any statistics at the moment, my sense is that, since it lowered its prices a number of years ago, West has captured a significant portion of the small firm lawyers and solo practitioners who previously used Lexis. If WestlawNext comes at too high a premium, West may lose the ground it's gained.

One interesting change is that with the global searching across all databases, users are not charged for a search in a database that is outside their subscription plans. They can review the results list and then are only charged if they view the full document. The company says it's the concept of "One search box with one search price." And, as Dahn stressed, "You will pay for what you find to be valuable, not for what you hope will prove valuable."

Looking Forward

This is certainly an interesting time in the world of legal research, filled with changes and technological advances, not to mention the efforts to put legal research materials in the public domain (http://public.resource.org). Last fall, Google Scholar announced it was now including full-text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate, and Supreme courts. Both Lexis and Bloomberg are planning to introduce new services sometime later this year. As Jason Eiseman of the Yale Law School Library wrote about WestlawNext:

[T]his new system is obviously a major shift in legal research. Couple this new product with Bloomberg, and the new Lexis product coming later this year, and alternatives like FastCase and the entire ecosystem of legal research may be completely different by this time next year.

Outsell, Inc. analyst David Curle points to the value of a service like WestlawNext leveraging its valuable metadata. He writes, "The metadata that WestlawNext leverages is more valuable precisely because WestlawNext is a closed system, where West has control over its own proprietary indexing, secondary content, and in-depth, focused usage data." He notes that there's a lesson for other publishers of research systems as they contend with the availability and attraction of content on the open web.

[Y]our editorially-derived indexing and secondary works might have value, but not if your users are unable or unwilling to take the extra steps to apply them to an ordinary search. It takes some heavy technology and a lot of work (West says it has thrown five years and 300 people at this revamp), but embedding that metadata in search might be what it takes to raise the value of proprietary systems above the increasingly attractive options found in the open web."

For More Information

Video by Jason Eiseman of the discussion of WestlawNext by bloggers Greg Lambert, Tom Boone, and Jason Wilson, following a briefing at the company headquarters in Eagan, Minn.: www.jasoneiseman.com/blog/?p=378

Jason Eiseman's "random thoughts": www.jasoneiseman.com/blog/?p=383

Robert Ambrogi's discussion of WestSearch functionality: www.legaline.com/2010/01/first-look-at-westlawnext.html

Greg Lambert's discussion of the back-end structure of the new WestSearch engine:

www.geeklawblog.com/2010/01/westlawnext-study-in-applying-knowledge.html

Lisa Solomon's discussion on pricing: http://legalresearchandwritingpro.com/blog/2010/01/27/westlawnext-preview-product-and-pricing

Simon Chester's comments:

www.slaw.ca/2010/01/28/the-future-of-westlaw-a-slaw-canadian-exclusive

For more information: www.westlawnext.com

Video with an overview of WestlawNext: www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qg3Rt0QHCMI

WestlawNext will go live on Feb. 8 for subscribing customers at http://next.westlaw.com.

Disclosure: Thomson Reuters paid the airfare and hotel costs for my recent visit to Eagan, Minn., to be briefed with other journalists and bloggers on WestlawNext.


Paula J. Hane is a freelance writer and editor covering the library and information industries. She was formerly Information Today, Inc.’s news bureau chief and editor of NewsBreaks.

Email Paula J. Hane
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