Features - Westlaw Debuts Digesting Enhancements

Duane A. Strojny is the Associate Director for Library & Information Services,
Thomas M. Cooley Law School, Lansing, Michigan.

Are printed case finding digests obsolete? Has online legal research made the printed formats less valuable? Let's face it, printed digests are easy to use if you know exactly where to go. They are also fairly easy to explain how to use. However, Westlaw takes online digest searching to another level with two recent products on Westlaw.com:  Keycite Notes and Most Cited Cases.

KeyCite Notes is a new product that ties KeyCite together with a digest. "Researchers can view and select from a list of publications with their citation counts - such as case, administrative materials and analytical materials including ALR, Am Jur, encyclopedias, law reviews and journals - that cite a case for a particular legal issue" (the Topic and Key Number).  KetCite Notes makes it easy for legal researchers to focus or expand research.  When a user identifies a relevant headnote in a case on Westlaw.com, Keycite notes will retrieve of citing references that discuss legal issues similar to the ones discussed in the headnote.

The service is easy to use and actually hits you in the face the minute you begin to scroll through a case. Each headnote is preceded by a hotlink to KeyCite Notes along with an icon you can click on. Users can also access KeyCite Notes from the actual text of the decision.  KeyCite Notes icons are also placed next to paragraph sequence numbers within the text of a decision to allow for easy, streamlined access to the Notes Service.  Maybe it's overkill since the links are adjacent to each other, but there is no doubt multiple ways to get into the feature.

Once you click on either link, a list of different categories appears along with the number of documents available in each category. Going through the list is much like browsing the Westlaw Directory. Click on the plus sign next to the category to view the specific types of documents under each category.

Check off any items you wish to view in full text, or all if you want to browse through everything, click on go, and you will jump back into your original document. In the left-hand frame, the KC Citations folder is open and in the forefront. Citations to items requested in the previous screen are now listed in a fashion similar to KeyCite results.

Clicking on any of the listed items brings the full text of the item with your original case highlighted in a pop up screen which easily allows for you to see where you came from.

No doubt, KeyCite Notes is useful in finding cases geared to a very specific jurisdiction or other sources that are easily distinguishable. The system probably does not accomplish that much more than traditional updating as done with citators, but it is a lot slicker and cleaner in presentation. It is also a lot more personalized. In theory, you should be able to update materials in a similar print format but it requires a less focused approach and more time on your behalf.

The second big product offering from KeyCite is the Most Cited Cases.  This new product requires you to imagine your own personalized digest. This feature retrieves a single document containing a list of cases most often cited for a particular point of law.  Now you have an idea of what the Westlaw Most Cited Cases feature is like.  In today's constantly changing world of legal research, it appears that the fee-based services are trying harder than ever to get our attention with the most personalized service in a very impersonal world. Most Cited Cases is just that type of feature. Most of you are familiar with the printed West Key Number Digests. At the state or regional level, the Key Number System is fairly effective in its printed format. Moving up to the federal level, it becomes more of a challenge. At its extreme, the General and Decennial Digests are difficult to use and cumbersome to work with. The beauty of Westlaw has always been the ability to search for a particular Topic and Key Number online. Over the past few years, enhancements allowed us to directly go into the digest online and find cases in a particular jurisdiction that met our needs. Now, Westlaw goes full circle with the introduction of Most Cited Cases by allowing us to personalize Topic and Key Number searching while, simultaneously, allowing users to find the most relevant decisions for a given point of law.

The instructions are easy: "From a displayed headnote, click Most Cited Cases to retrieve a list of cases most often cited for a particular point of law." What appears next looks like a modified version of the KeyCite limit screen.

Beware of garbled text in the Your digest selection(s) box. It contains your topic and key number, but may overlap their text due to a box size restriction. The digest selection (topic and key number) is listed in the search box followed by two options; first Your digest options which allow for results to be in order of Most Recent Cases or the default of Most Cited Cases, then the jurisdiction area where you have multiple drop down menus to select from. An additional, optional search box is available for narrowing the search to contain specific terms followed, finally, by an optional date restriction box.

If results are found, and they usually are, they are displayed according to the number of times the retrieved case has been cited for the same headnote (point of law) as the original case's headnote you searched in MCC. The number of times the headnote is used in the defined jurisdiction, is listed at the top of the results along with the topic and key number that was searched.  Importantly, KeyCite appends its Flags to the case citations so users know, from the outset, whether the case has any negative history.

Clicking on any of the items will bring up the item in a full text pop up window allowing you to see where you came from much like the KeyCite Notes.

Using such features as KeyCite Notes and Most Cited Cases enhance the online experience. Researchers might ask when is the overall service developed as much as it needs to be, and when does it become too confusing and full of unnecessary features. The reality is that if you don't want to use these types of features, they can be easily ignored. There is, however, a benefit to having a working knowledge of a feature when that rare instance arises and you need to power search. If you are involved in teaching attorneys or students how to conduct online research, these bells and whistles may be better reserved to teach in an advanced session. They are much more than what the average researcher may be looking for, but in instances where the most thorough checking has to be done, KeyCite Notes and Most Cited Cases offer added security in completing comprehensive research. Your power researchers will want to be aware of the use of these services and how they make the digesting system useful in the online researching world.