What’s Next, Westlaw?

Author: Susan Good

WestlawNext is an example of a next generation legal search engine. It offers powerful searching that integrates various components of the original Westlaw into a single search; obtaining the same results that in the original Westlaw would require several searches and much additional effort by the searcher. In this regard, it is definitely a major step forward for anyone doing legal research.

On one hand, WestlawNext simplifies the researcher’s task. All searches are now typed into the same search box. The system is “smart” enough to “know” what the searcher wants from the information entered. For example, you no longer must tell Westlaw that you want it to retrieve a case by its cite. Just type a case cite into the general search box and WestlawNext assumes you want to retrieve that case. It also shows you additional materials that contain the cite you entered, so one search retrieves much more information than before.

On the other hand, despite its apparent simplicity, WestlawNext is a powerful search engine. Original Westlaw was primarily based upon searching for words and phrases in the full-text of court cases, statutes, and other legal materials. Like Google, WestlawNext considers a range of different factors when generating the list of results. Results are based, in part, on the activity of previous searchers who ran similar searches and the documents they examined. WestlawNext goes beyond this, however, and incorporates information from the West topic and key number system, citing cases, and secondary sources while processing the search. In original Westlaw, the searcher had to take many steps to incorporate this information in the search for relevant materials; now, this information is automatically factored into the search.

Those who search for relevant data online are always interested in two objectives when formulating an online search: making sure that most of the results listed are relevant and, out of the universe of all possible relevant documents, making sure that as many as possible are included among the results. WestlawNext should make both of these goals more attainable.

Let’s take a quick look at the mechanics of WestlawNext. At the main screen, you still have the option of selecting a database if you wish, or you can simply type and search, much like Google. As I mentioned above, if you enter the cite to a document, such as a case, a code section, a regulation, a law review article, etc., the search engine will provide a link to that document at the top of the list. This is no big deal for cites to cases, but it goes beyond this simple example. For example, if you have the popular name of a statute, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, you can search using this name. At the top of the results is a link to the popular name table; clicking on this link will take you directly to the popular name table where you can see where each section
of the public law is codified. The second result in the list is a link to the title and first section in the United States Code where this act is codified.

The results screen also shows cases, regulations, and other materials that are related to this act. A column on the left side of the screen displays the various categories, or types, of documents retrieved. You simply click on any category to see a more complete list of relevant documents in that category.

When viewing a specific document, links are provided at the top of the screen to related materials. When viewing a code section, for example, links to interpreting cases, citing references, the table of contents, and other materials are readily available. When viewing a case, links to information from KeyCite, such as history and treatment cases, as well as related court documents are displayed.

An old fashioned terms and connector search can still be run in WestlawNext and may be preferable at times, depending upon what you know and what you want to locate. Running the terms and connector search is easy; just enter the query in the same search box on the initial screen and away you go, much like the old-fashioned Westlaw.

Despite the positives I have mentioned above, there are several important aspects to keep in mind. WestlawNext is not a substitute for good legal research skills; the researcher still needs to understand the various tools for legal research, what they do, and when to use them. (Sorry 1L’s; you must still take Legal Research during your first semester! As for 2 and 3L’s, your not off the hook either; better sign-up for Advanced Legal Research and be sure to sign up for the refresher courses offered in the spring.) WestlawNext isn’t smart enough to show you everything that is relevant after a single search. It could lull the unsuspecting into a false sense of security. Much like Google, you can’t just type a bunch of terms in the search box, look at the first ten results, and assume your job is complete. The most serious drawback for the short term is that not all content and features available in old Westlaw is yet available on WestlawNext.

For example, dockets, patents, and public records are not included yet, and the option to print to the Westlaw Stand-alone printer is not available. However, these shortcomings are somewhat mitigated by WestlawNext’s optimization for mobile devices such as iPads, iPhones, Android phones, and more. No more resizing your browser, WestlawNext automatically fits the screen of your mobile device.

Be sure to take advantage of the opportunities to learn all you can about WestlawNext during this fall semester. You will no doubt work a lot with WestlawNext during your legal career. For more information, see this helpful handout comparing Westlaw and WestlawNext, or discuss WestlawNext with a Westlaw rep or friendly research librarian.

By: Warren Rees