Notes from the Technology Trenches - Lexis and Westlaw Changes and Wishlist

Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson in Washington, D.C., a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C., and organizer of its Legal Research Training Focus Group.

When this column started back in 1998, it was as much a place to gripe about unworkable computer issues as it was a spot to highlight great products or to discuss great electronic resources. For my part -- despite the recent hurricane and resulting loss of electricity, phone and Web access -- I have to say that my recent experiences with technology have been fairly positive. Our firm has pretty well rid itself of CD-ROM products (once a terrific source of frustration), our Information Systems department does a good job coping with spam, we keep up with patches so that viruses haven't been a major problem lately and so forth. There are still problems, but we're coping pretty well.

I was thinking about this because of a recent round of discussions on the Private Law Librarian's Special Interest Section (PLL-SIS) list. Someone looking for authors for articles for an upcoming issue of the SIS newsletter unintentionally started a thread of reminiscences about old technologies - the things that seemed like amazing advances at the time, but that, in retrospect, just look pitiful. One not so fond memory was that of the gigantic, all-in-one Lexis research terminals complete with rolls of silver thermal paper for printing. Another was of the fabulous ability to search Westlaw online -- headnotes only.

It's hard to keep the relative state of technology in mind when you are dealing with the frustrations of the day, but we really have come a long, long way. These days it is now so easy, at least from the technical standpoint, to search LexisNexis and Westlaw in full-text that I swear I spend half my energy encouraging my users not to. I'd rather that they use an online digest or index, restricted field searching or some other method to access case law in order to avoid being overwhelmed by irrelevant results. But, Westlaw and LexisNexis are incredibly improved over their past iterations and getting better all the time. In fact, both Lexis and Westlaw have recently put in place some highly anticipated changes to their services:

  • LexisNexis now offers retail pricing information at Lexis.com, and there are even rumors of a project in the works to allow contract customers to see their discounted pricing.

  • The LexisNexis search history is now available for longer than a single day.


  • Westlaw now offers an "atleast" function for news searching.
  • Those are probably the most important recent changes as far as I'm concerned, but both LexisNexis and Westlaw have set up sites that list other improvements if you need more detail. Check them out to keep current. Our library uses those sites not only to help keep our researchers informed but also to promote training. When our representatives visit, we take a peek at the latest news posted on either site and use it to tempt people into the library to learn more about the new products.

    While both services do an excellent job incorporating changes to the benefit of their users, there's still some room for improvement. The competition between the Westlaw and LexisNexis is so fierce that it seems one never lets the other lead with a new feature for long without offering an answering product. There are some lingering issues, though, that seem never to get the attention we'd like. I expect some are a lost cause - power users will, for instance, never be happy that they can't use all the old stacked "dot" commands on Lexis .com, but it's not an element that's especially compatible with a Web product so it's unlikely to be incorporated anytime soon. In the hope of garnering some attention for the others, here's a short wishlist Lexis and Westlaw could address to help make the world of legal research a better place.

    Pricing

    Even with the new pricing information on Lexis, it would be nice if they could put together a published list of retail prices all in one spot. While it's great to know the price of a file as you go into it (and both Lexis and Westlaw now offer the option of looking at the price for using a particular file or database while you are online), it makes an even bigger impression on new searchers to see costs of files side by side for comparison. Our representative is usually happy to come up with a small cross section of prices, but it would be wonderful to be able to get a current brochure in print - even better if it were online. Westlaw does publish an annual sample of its pricing that is available through the representatives, but I was not able to find it online.

    Deleted Files

    The publishing landscape is rocky with changing agreements about what is published where online. While it's nice to know what has been added to each service -- information which is prominently displayed both on their Web sites and in monthly newsletter updates -- little information is generally available when materials are removed from either Lexis or Westlaw. This happened with horrible regularity when information providers began to make their documents available on their own Web sites throughout the nineties, and it still causes a good bit of wasted time when users search in vain for a file or database which they expect to see but which no longer exists. While librarians and some users may get a monthly newsletter about major changes, and most of us pass the news on to the people likely to need it, nothing beats an on-the-spot notice. I'd love to see that information provided in the online directories for each service or in a "recently removed" list of some kind. A simple announcement somewhere that the file or database was removed on "X" date would save lots of fruitless hunting. It wouldn't need to be displayed in perpetuity, even a limited time notice would be useful.

    Back Catalog

    How about those older documents? Obviously, there are some good reasons why this isn't a huge priority for either service (cost, time, etc.). The kicker, though, is that not adding the older documents has left a niche for a third party, Hein-On-Line, to fill. Hein provides access to .pdf versions of journals and other legal materials not available on either Lexis or Westlaw. While it's nice to have that access and the materials are searchable, it isn't too late for Lexis and Westlaw to get on this bandwagon. Many publications are still not available, and though they are searchable, the search mechanism isn't nearly as sophisticated as it might be. Also, some documents simply ought to be available from any online legal research service worth its salt. The Federal Register is the first publication that leaps to mind here. Neither service covers it very far back, and all those attorneys out there working with regulatory law would really appreciate a deeper collection. There's plenty of room for the older issues of many law reviews and journals as well. Librarians and older attorneys who started out researching in the print world have known for some time that new searchers tend to neglect these older resources. If they were online it would ease at least some of the worries that the research being done isn't as deep as it should be.

    Images

    Both services provide some image files, but the bulk of non-case materials is not available in anything other than relatively plain vanilla text or common word processing formats. Now that .pdf is pretty close to an industry standard, it makes sense to begin to add that as an option. Obviously, it's still early on in this effort -- though case images are available in Westlaw, only one case at a time can currently be printed in that format, though I hear bulk printing in .pdf is somewhere in the works. Hein has proved that .pdf can be done with law review articles, though printing larger documents may still be prohibitively slow. Nonetheless, it would be wonderful to see a move in this direction for news materials as well. Seeing charts and graphs, and even advertisements, could be incredibly handy.

    Accounting Detail

    Several librarians have mentioned one major non-research item they'd like to see changed about both services. While this may be asking for the moon, I think it's worth mentioning because it would make teaching efficient legal research so much simpler. Every year when we get new associates or summer interns, they are terribly paranoid about pricing and even express a desire to know exactly what their searches are costing the firm once we get the bill. Hurray! The first step toward efficient and cost effective research achieved! Happily, we can give them some details about their searching costs after the fact, but it would be much easier to guide their efforts if we knew not only what files or databases were searched, but also what there search terms actually were. Now that both services provide a research history or trail, reviewing that information on an on-demand basis ought to be moving closer to the realm of possibility. Not only the new users who would find this helpful. Billing attorneys are often interested in seeing exactly why a search cost what it did, and the more detail the better. If a supervisor could retrieve real detail on each search, efficiency would increase markedly. If searches were more efficient, clients would be less reluctant to pay for online research, more work could be done online and everyone would be happier with the long term result.

    Other online account options would also be welcome. Kudos to Westlaw for moving password management on to the Web! Again, I hear something similar may be in the works for LexisNexis, but the sooner the better.

    Materials In Development

    Speaking of things I've been hearing about, wouldn't it be nice to hear more about what's currently in development in both services? Obviously, some new products are kept under wraps to ensure that the competition gets caught unawares. Also, some things in development will probably never actually see the light of day, and I can understand a company not wanting to have that happen so often that it ends up with a reputation for failed R&D. Still, some products actually get shown to at least parts of the populous either through focus groups or through dog-and-pony tours. For example, West toured a great concept sometime in the last year or so -- a visual map of case history and relationships -- that I still think would make infinitely more sense to most researchers than the linear list they get now in both KeyCite and Shepard's. Once the word is out, I'd like to see and hear more. Even though the services may not know when a product is going to be offered, it is heartening to at least know that they are committed to working on it, like pricing on Lexis.com. It took forever, but at least we knew it was coming.

    Librarian Developments

    One way I know what is coming is though my sales representatives, another is through my librarian liaison. Here, I have to say, LexisNexis is doing better than its competitor. Westlaw is making an effort, but there simply don't appear to be enough library relations folks there to go around. Staff is not cheap, and excellent staff is even more expensive, but I'd rather have a good librarian liaison program than buckets of promotional toys any day of the week. Westlaw, if you're listening, more people and smaller territories, please, please, please.

    Pie in the Sky

    There are other items on my resolution wish list for LexisNexis and Westlaw, but not things I ever really expect to see, like more open contract negotiation policies for both services. If there are any changes you'd like to have a chance of being addressed, make them known. Contact your local representatives, and if you don't see progress, don't let them forget about your requests. We can be a powerful group, the librarians, attorneys and legal assistants who use LexisNexis and Westlaw. If we can speak in one voice, they will listen.

    If you have more wishes for the LexisNexis and Westlaw list, please let me know. I'll be happy to pass along any reasonable, constructive suggestions -- the more the merrier. And if you just feel like griping, that's fine too. Until next month, happy research!