March 10, 2010
Impressions of the WestlawNext Tour
Today is the day the WestlawNext coming out party hit Chicago. I went to the Hyatt Regency Hotel early this morning for breakfast and the West demo. As one of the first one hundred people to show up I also received an Apple iPod Shuffle. Everyone received a WestlawNext pen. I mention this so as to escape any lingering FTC wrath over non-disclosure of gifts in connection with something about which I'm blogging. Thanks Thomson Reuters.
The presentation began with a statement that no questions about pricing will be answered at this time. That's probably because, given the functionality built into WestlawNext, such as document management, one expects higher prices. Does that mean Westlaw.com will still be around as the budget version of Westlaw? Will law schools pay more for their flat fee access? These are things we don't know, and I suspect that TR isn't sure either about how it intends to proceed with pricing. Someone has to pay for the five years of development costs.
The next phase of the presentation started promptly at 9 AM with a video and a presentation of WestlawNext features. The interface is completely redesigned, hardly cluttered compared to the current list of databases competing for attention. There is just a search box with options to select a jurisdiction, some links to common document types (about 15) and small boxes with Favorite databases and Frequently Used Items. TR representatives were clear that no functionality from WestlawPast (my words, not theirs) is lost. While the search box calls for natural language, it will accept a boolean search string as well. WestlawNext is, however, designed for natural language. Students will love it if for no other reason it will remind them of Google.
The key to the success of WestlawNext is TR's leveraging of its editorial content. The engineers there studied how researchers use Westlaw (and people think Google is bad for tracking search habits of its customers) and concluded that people conduct multiple searches, review smatterings of documents in each search, then use related tools such as KeyCite to extend their topical research. TR focused on language as one of the problems associated with efficient research, in that boolean search only brought up results as defined by the syntax and not the context of the search. It's possible to miss obvious cases because judges can use different terms to define and describe the same concept. Moreover, results were only one type of document as defined by the database type. This is one of the problems researchers face with the current system, searching words and trying to guess the language judges use in particular opinions. The differences in word choice may make or break a search, especially when the meter's running.
WestlawNext claims to solve the language problem by leveraging the editorial content in West paper indexes, digests, descriptive word indexes, and a whole host of finding aids and adds a thesaurus-like function running in the background to bring relevant results based on concept as well as keyword search. The results will be categorized against all the research food groups: cases, statutes, regulations, briefs, secondary sources, rather than just one type. This is how something like KeyCite gets integrated into a search, by using the underlying citator technology to augment the list of relevant results. A four star case that cites a case may now just appear as part of the initial results on a search. A text box for searching within results replaces the old Locate function. TR hopes that conceptual search can help a researcher to analyze results better. Westlaw speaks the same language you do, as the phrase goes. This demonstration certainly showed the best view of WestlawNext. Reality may be different. We'll have to try it out to be sure.
Funny story here about a natural language searching experience I had recently with both current Westlaw and Lexis. We create research problems at DePaul to demonstrate to law students the functionality of natural language search in both Lexis and Westlaw. I used a case out of Texas, Sibai v. Wal-Mart Store, 986 S.W.2d 702 (1999). It's an easy case factually. A person was injured when she was struck in the head by a cashier at sam's Club when he was moving a case of water from the counter to a shopping cart. Most of the opinion goes on about what negligence theories are viable for the plaintiff. Once I picked the case I constructed a simplistic natural language search in The Texas state cases databases on Westlaw and Lexis, "injury to a customer by an employee at a store." The Westlaw natural language search results had the case at number 1 in the list. I thought, wow, this is going to be a piece of cake. I tried the same natural language search in the Lexis case database for Texas and Sibai was nowhere to be found. I had to really massage the search terms to bring up the case on both research services. The demonstration was a construct that glossed over the anomaly. Mind you, all the significant terms are in the text of the opinion.
My point here is that I don't really know what's going on in the background as to how my terms are analyzed and why certain cases came up. While to me, the Sibai search is a deficiency in the algorithms used by Lexis, I don't know how what system biases exist when I run a natural language search. I'm willing to give the spiffy new West search engine the benefit of the doubt and test it when I get my password later in the month. I doubt that TR would demonstrate searches that followed what I had to do above. In the meantime, if anyone knows why the same natural language search brought up the case on which my problem was based in Westlaw but not Lexis, feel free to post a comment. And if I did something incredibly stupid in overlooking something, feel free to post that as well. Back to WestlawNext.
The other changes to the interface is the document display. There's lots of white space on the screen with nice sans serif fonts displaying the text. Headnotes aren't necessarily visible on first display. The document is an easier read online than in current Westlaw. The KeyCite flags at the top are accompanied by an explanation of the most negative treatment of the case with a citation. There is now the ability to save history for a year, rather than two weeks. Documents can be saved online in folders identified by clients, and they can be annotated with highlight's and personal notes. Oh, and one of the export options is specifically to the Amazon Kindle. That suggests you'll see electronic casebooks from West on the Kindle. You have to wonder who is paying who for that capability. Will there be export to the iPad?
The presentation included a coupon to get a three day password. I'll write more about this when I get direct contact with WestlawNext. I get a password good for sixty days at the end of March. [MG]