logo

Notes from the Technology Trenches - StatutesPlus: New Features for Statute Research on Westlaw

By Cindy Carlson, Published on February 23, 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.


If you're like me, you've probably been pretty reluctant to do even the most basic statute research online if you have a paper option. Even though I can remember efforts to make it easier going back for a decade, it just doesn't seem as if statute research is very well suited to electronic formats. Sure, you can do it, but it always seems clunky. There are even advantages -- it certainly helps to be able to do a word search, for instance -- but mostly the advantages aren't enough to my mind to compensate for the difficulties. The nature of the language used in statutory construction is so specific and the structure of statutes so complex that users more familiar with case or news research often have difficulty adjusting their search strategies to make the best use of statutes online.

Yet there is definitely a market for online statutes, so vendors continue to strive toward a truly usable interface. I'm still not 100 percent comfortable searching statutes online, but I'm happy to see that Westlaw has recently introduced some improvements to its statutes that seem like genuine forward progress. If you haven't seen StatutesPlus yet, it's worth a look. For an overview of the changes, you might want to check out West's Quick Reference Guide, or view their multi-media online demo on the topic. If you don't have speakers at your desk, opt for the Quick Reference Guide. 

That will tell you the basics, but I want to share some of the things I like best about the changes and note some items that aren't clear in the materials available above or that could still use improvement. 

Access Options

First, I should note that not all of these features are available for every single statute -- yet. Most are available for the United States Code Annotated and for all states, though functionality may be limited in states where West does not publish the official code. I spoke to a developer at Westlaw who let me know that pending legislation, a nice feature described in detail below, is now available in 22 states, but that all 50 states will be available before the end of this year. Once you pick a statute database to search there is an immediate and positive difference when the features are available. Where before you were pretty much stuck with choosing to search either by terms and connectors or using natural language once you got to the point of choosing your database, users now see the following list: Search (which still shows the term and natural language options), Find by Citation, Table of Contents, Index, Popular Name Table -- across the top of the search page.

Hallelujah! The tools we use in print! Some of these were available before (citation searching and table of contents), but it's great to see them together here for those of us who think of the resource first and not necessarily how best to access it. Oh, how my heart beats to see those two last! Rapture! I don't wish to appear bitter about their past absence, but golly, let's just say that I sure am glad the Index and Popular Name Table are now available.

Both of the above are free to search in transactional mode and handily link to the sections they reference. This isn't so very unusual lately, and there is, of course, a cost for the convenience of not having to run a separate search to retrieve the documents. 

I'm not going to discuss Search, Find by Citation or the Table of Contents services in great detail. Basically, those unfamiliar with more than the default options for each should know that you can Search using some pretty explicit and very helpful fields (even "Words & Phrases" when you are looking for a definition -- something that's often awkward to do as a full text search in a statute), that Find by Citation offers templates with examples specific to the database you have chosen, and that you can use the Table of Contents (TOC) not only to search within a chapter or subsection by selecting the box to its left, but also to print. 

NOTE: Two cautions about pricing: 

1. While expanding and collapsing the headings in the TOC doesn't cost anything in transactional mode, searching selected portions of the TOC happens at the same rate as a search of the full database whether you have limited your search to a smaller section (like a chapter) or not. 

2. When you use the checkboxes in the TOC to select materials to print, you are being charged the equivalent of a Find by Citation for every section referenced. A chapter, for instance, often includes 20+ sections. In those instances, there is a better way, called Browse All.

Browse All

You can still use Documents in Sequence from the Tools drop down menu within a document in a statute to go to the previous or next document (as if you were turning the page in the book) at no charge. However, West's statutes developers have created Browse All for the times when you want to see a series of documents in sequence as a single document. At the top of each statute section you'll see an indented hierarchy of headings for the section, the last item of which is for the document you're in. Just above the section heading you'll see a couple of levels with an arrow up/page icon. When you click on one of those icons, you'll see all the documents from within that level as a single page. You can print that page as a single document at the single document cost. It's easier both for viewing and for printing.

Document Formatting

There have been several improvements to document formatting, most of which (indenting, bolding, arrows to show where you are within a document hierarchy) you may not even notice but which will make reading statutes online a little more book-like and easier on the eye. Another major change is the inclusion of LOADS more internal statute-to-statute linking. Not free, again this will cost the equivalent of a Find by Citation, but sooooo convenient.

That Navigation Pane

Most of the time, I have to say I think of it more as a navigation pain on Westlaw. A plain list of results over there just doesn't help me very much, though I guess it may be useful to some people. However, Westlaw has recently (starting with KeyCite®) begun to try to get a lot more use out of that pane, and now it's downright handy! This one, sensibly, is content sensitive. It's a bit like what you would get by clicking on the Explore prompt in Lexis, but it includes more than the sections of the documents. If they are available, you will see headings for:

KeyCite®

The developer I spoke to at Westlaw also pointed out that up to three Keycite® flags may show in relation to a single statute section. In previous versions of KeyCite, they were only able to use a flag for the most severe indication of treatment.

Full-Text Document

Cases 

Definitely wider coverage than that offered in print.

Analysis - pretty self explanatory.

Legislative History

People, people, people. Read these and save yourself tons of time when you need a legislative history. The Editor's notes tell you exactly what language changed with what amendments and the Text Amendments give you the references you need to find relative reports and public laws, with links! Ok, not every single link, but most, and including some older U.S. Code, Congressional & Administrative News items and links to the Statutes at Large

Statutes

Administrative 

I asked the developer about whether these where implicit cites or explicit, and she said that they were doing their best to include both. Certainly any cite to the statute citation will be here, and West editors have added other relevant materials.

West Key Numbers - For even further research by topic within the West Digest System.

Now, much of the above was already available, and not everyone will use all the features, but when you need 'em, they're fabulous to have all together in one spot as they now are. 

Minor Quibbles

It took a little getting used to for me to become accustomed to the navigation pane format. When my West representative initially showed me the product, I asked about the "Locate in Result" feature that lets you search within your current result at no extra charge. It's no longer in the Tools drop down menu on the bottom right of the document screen, instead, it's at the top right on the navigation pane. But, I asked about it when we were in the Administrative Code results where it evidently doesn't show. It took us forever to get back to a point where it was visible, mainly because I kept forgetting I could click on the main headings in the pane (or just use the back button) and was not limited to the bullet points. I kept clicking where it didn't happen to show. It's a nice product, but so many features can be hard to get a handle on without taking them out for leisurely test drive or two.

I would also like to see a little pop-up reminder or two (like those that tell you what the KeyCite® flags mean) over the navigation pane options. Does Administrative Code refer to both state and federal materials? My legislative librarian expected it to be a term of art for state materials, but it does include CFR sections where applicable. Just a little hint or two would be handy.

Conclusion

I like that StatutesPlus gives users access to the Index and Popular Names Tables, and I like that the navigation pane serves as a reminder that some little-used, but really informative, materials are there (like the legislative history information). The developer I spoke to also mentioned that the pane could function as a checklist of sorts for those researching a statutory issue, and I can see that, though it's not a use I would often apply myself.

StatutesPlus is a real improvement over the previous statute search structure in Westlaw, and part of a trend toward streamlined navigation at Westlaw overall, of which I heartily approve. While some of the same or similar functions are available in Lexis (TOC searching and printing, the Explore feature for navigation, annotations, custom views to show just the part of the documents you want, etc.), to my mind, Westlaw currently has a bit of an edge here. To be fair, comparing the two is a little bit like looking at apples and oranges, but the Westlaw apples are awfully flavorful and shiny. I'm sure we'll be seeing Lexis come out with some more directly comparable features (all that linking!!!) in the near future.

 If you'd like a say, email me in the Trenches.