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Notes From the Technology Trenches: Lexis and Westlaw Revisited

By Cindy Carlson, Published on October 16, 2004

Cindy Carlson is the Electronic Resources Librarian at Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLP 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.


The fall is always full of activity in law libraries. In universities, of course, students flood back, asking the classic questions all over again. At firms and courts everyone gets back from vacation and starts to really focus on work with new hires fresh out of law school topping the list. And we all begin the challenge of training them to handle their tools productively. 

In my firm, it's not only a time to teach, but also to get a brush-up myself on the latest changes. I review all our training handouts on the basics of secondary legal research materials, case research shortcuts and tips, and approaches to regulatory and legislative research and update them to include any changes since the summer, learning myself as I go. I give practice group orientations to help our fall associates avoid of the quirky pitfalls of some of our Web-based subscription services. And, of course, I sit in on their Westlaw and Lexis orientations.

I was especially glad that I did so this year. I always like to be available to answer questions for the falls about contract-specific pricing and firm research policies, but this year there was an added benefit. Even having seen recent changes promoted at the American Association of Law Libraries annual meeting this year, I was surprised by the number new upgrades and features that popped up in our orientation sessions. And that was before the recent round of announcements about the changes both Lexis and Westlaw are undergoing in their news services. So, I thought it was probably a good time to revisit the topic of Westlaw and Lexis with an overview of at least some of the changes.

Westlaw Past Stats

Both services seem to be concentrating on developing their statute products at the moment. The large scale change happening at Westlaw right now is the introduction of what our representatives are calling Past Stats -- a way to look at prior versions of federal and some state statutes (at the time I am writing officially only CA and NY but with other frequently used state statutes to come soon) online. It has been possible for some time to look at previous versions of the U.S. Code online, but it was harder to determine how the statute actually stood as of a particular date if there had been more than one modification to a section over the course of a year. Now, Past Stats makes it easier to do both. You can not only look at a section and then see past versions, but also give a particular date and see the statute as it existed at that time. Moreover, if a change is pending, you'll also be able to view the date on which a future version of a statute will take effect and the date on which the current version will lapse. Very handy. So far, U.S. Code sections are available back though 1996 and the states go back through 1999. Details on retrieving statutes are available in the "What's New" section of Westlaw.com at this link. 

If you are like me and thinking, "Wow, that's great! I wonder when they will be doing that for regulations," it's coming. Sadly, it's not going to happen until all the statues are all taken care of, but it's in the works. The explanation I have heard is that while there is a need for both past statutes and regulations, West wants to tackle the statutes first because it's a more manageable project in the short term. I see the point, but since regulations change so much more frequently and are not as conveniently annotated with an extensive history the way statutes are, I will be even more excited to see a parallel product for regulations. 

Two other handy things have happened with statute research at Westlaw recently as well. Now you can use the alphabetical index and popular name tables for annotated statutes! Woo-hoo! Librarians have been asking for these enhancements for awhile, so I'm very happy to see them both. 

Lexis Practitioner's Toolbox

Lexis has been working on its statutes too, but from a different direction, sort of combing a focus on legislative history with what Westlaw has been doing with Results Plus (which, by the way, now works with statute search results and includes treatise materials, go Westlaw!). I hear Lexis is also working on something like Past Stats, but no delivery date was available when I checked. The Practitioner's Toolbox is their new enhancement on selected annotated state statutes, currently available on the upper right-hand side of the screen for LA, CT, MO, OK, MN, WI, OR, FL, TX, NJ, and PA. The plan is to add other state statutes through the end of the year and into 2005.The toolbox is a shortcut-link to references within the statute to things like annotations and treatises or analytical materials. What appears in the box depends on what is currently available in the statute for the particular state. Links may include:

The Westlaw semi-equivalent of this is available in the navigation bar on the left side of the page alongside statute search results.

Lexis and Westlaw Result Screen Searches

Both Lexis and Westlaw have come out with a way to limit or modify your search directly from the results screen, and I'm happy to see both, but here I think Lexis has a little bit of an edge. Beware, though, that's partly because I have a bias toward the per-search charge method and Westlaw, while it offers the option, still leans a bit more toward searching by the hour. 

The Lexis on-screen search lets you Focus, a free search within your existing result, without having to go to a separate screen as you had to do in the past. The Focus bar includes a box for your terms and a dropdown list to let you choose between focusing within all your  results or selected results. If you want to see your full search or make extensive modifications, you still have the option to go to the old Focus screen if you'd like. Westlaw lets you modify your search right from your results screen as well, but not Locate, their free search within an existing result. Because I like to Focus and Locate frequently, I find that more useful than completely revising my search. Why? Especially with new searchers, we like to emphasize the importance of planning search strategy in advance. When you know that your first search is going to be the basis for most of your time online, you need to think it through carefully, and I think that helps build better search skills overall. So kudos to Lexis for making Focus the obvious first option for modifying results.

On that note, Westlaw, please pick a spot for the locate button and stick with it. I know developers are aware that wandering navigational tools cause frustration for users, and that is something they are working on, but it still seems to meander around the screen with remarkable frequency. How can I direct people to use Locate if it keeps changing locations?

Keeping Yourself and Your Users Informed about Changes

There have been many other minor recent changes as well, a few at Lexis and especially at Westlaw. Two good ways to keep apprised of the news are to monitor beSpacific and TVC Alert -- each sends a daily email with relevant search information. After an initial training session it can be hard to ensure that a user keeps his skills current, but with so many changes happening it is important that users are at least aware of what has changed and that they have the option to brush-up as necessary. We keep a link available on our intranet to the Westlaw What's New page, and also to the LexisNexis InfoPro Newsletter where is is easy to see full details on any changes. We also highlight changes in an e-mail newsletter and include very current news about each service in our email announcements when representatives are in the office for their regular training sessions. If you have any other effective ways to share information about changing resources, I'd love to hear about them. Thanks, and see you next month!