Roger V. Skalbeck is the Technology Services Librarian and Webmaster at George Mason University School of Law in Virginia, and he is a web committee member for the Law Librarian’s Society of Washington, D.C. Opinions expressed or implied in this column do not necessarily reflect those of his current employer or any other organization. This column is, of course, 100% free of any legal advice.
When it comes to the process of drafting and reviewing legal documents on computers, it seems that the lines separating the technologies to support the writing and research processes have never been more blurred. For at least a few years now, the possible concept that "a word processor is a word processor is a word processor" has been pretty untrue. Now a word processor can also act a lot like a web browser, a research platform, a collaborative workspace or a web authoring tool.
With evolving options for integrated software technologies, the idea of the "single-use" application has probably long become quite elusive. Of course, this integration is not only happening in the legal profession. Anybody who has used Microsoft Word or WordPerfect in versions since at least 1997 will likely have seen how these programs can allow users direct access to Internet links. Simply start to type "http://" in a Word document, and the program can convert your text into a web link, with no need to understand or write the HTML code that your browser requires.
Beyond this, the Windows operating system itself is often very difficult to separate from the Internet browser and other applications, evidenced of course in the technical issues of the Microsoft case currently under appeal. With regards to content integration, I won't even touch on the concept of imbedding objects with OLE (object linking and embedding) into various "office suite" applications.
Advantages for Legal Information Integration
Though this integration available for use in pretty much any discipline where computers are used, the legal profession seems uniquely positioned to be able to take advantage of the integration of referenced materials with the actual cited documents. This is a direct result of the fact that citations to legal documents such as cases, statutes, regulations and even law reviews are referenced based on fairly strict and generally uniform guidelines.
People who understand the conventions of legal citation formats can easily recognize a citation such as 505 U.S. 763 or 158 F.3d 1002. Those with access to a law library or database such as Lexis or Westlaw can also easily obtain the cases cited by these references. With current software tools, the step of identifying the citation and pointing to the referenced document in a database can be combined and automated into one procedure. Once software is able to recognize the citations correctly, the next step is to integrate the process of checking to see that citations are correct and that they refer to "good law". Thankfully, both Lexis and Westlaw provide tools that can be used to do both of these functions and a whole lot more.
In the two parallel reviews that follow, I'll take a look at the software-based citation tools available from Lexis and Westlaw, focusing in on their technical aspects. Based on these reviews, I think that it will become apparent that there are some pretty powerful and flexible tools available to better integrate the legal writing and research processes.
The reviews appear separately because this is not intended to be a direct "head-to-head" comparison. The products for each vendor are unique. Even if users find the feature set of one product more attractive or effective than the other, user environment factors will likely make moot a question of "which one is better". If you are more comfortable performing research on one system, you will probably be better served by using the citation software that integrates with that system. Similarly, if you work in a firm that has a preferential flat-rate contract with one vendor, it probably isn't a realistic option for you to heavily use a software product that is tied to the competing database service.
The products from each vendor offer unique and innovative features, and I am sure that each will continue to be improved and enhanced over time. Following are the two reviews:
of Lexis-Nexis Citation Tools 2001
LexLink v.8.2 and CheckCite v.8.2
of West Group Citation Software
WestCiteLink 2.2 and WestCheck 4.11
In the process of considering the citation software tools for your organization, it might be good to think about some of the following issues:
- Remember that for every hypertext link you select that points to an article, case or statute on Lexis or Westlaw, each click can potentially cost you money.
- If you happen to click on a case name several times in the text of a brief (perhaps to view internal citation sources), remember that you might be charged multiple times to view the same case.
- If you choose to use LexLink or WestCiteLink to convert documents for subsequent storage (perhaps in a brief bank or document management system), think about this scenario in the long term. Your flat-rate contract with one vendor might be changed to that of the other down the road.
- Though these programs are very sophisticated, and though they are getting better with each new version, remember that they are not perfect. Spelling errors in documents and differing local citation conventions might bring about unexpected results in documents you are converting or analyzing.
- From a support perspective, you should realize that added integration functionality will also mean increased potential for technical problems to occur.
- In the realm of "just because you can, doesn't mean that you should", remember that though these software tools make it easy to point to versions of documents in Lexis or Westlaw, it might be just as appropriate to get the referenced documents from public web sites, free sources (or even your library!) if they are easy to find.
- From a purely practical standpoint, you should realize that the process determining if cases are "good law" is often not a quick process. Though it takes WestCheck or CheckCite relatively little time to convert and process citations within a document, it still requires time to review them.
In closing, it's clear that the research workspace on a user's desktop is very dynamic. New tools can help to bring together some tasks that had previously been quite separated. Hopefully the above reviews will give you some background to consider whether the current citation software tools for the legal profession are the right ones for you. I think that this generation of software tools are really pretty exciting, and I can't wait to see what comes out next.
Copyright © 2001, Roger V. Skalbeck. All Rights Reserved.