WestlawNext: Revolution or Renovation?

By , March 24, 2011 2:11 pm

by Kerry Fitz-Gerald

I’ve had access to WestlawNext for several months now and have played with it a little bit. Undoubtedly it’s different from classic Westlaw, but I haven’t spent enough time with it to clearly identify the pluses and minuses of the new system. Fortunately, Ronald Wheeler, Director of the Dorraine Zief Law Library at the University of San Fransisco School of Law, has put it to the test and described his results.

In his thoughtful draft paper, Does WestlawNext Really Change Everything: The Implications of WestlawNext on Legal Research, Wheeler describes WestlawNext (including its pricing structure) and considers the effect it will have on the legal research process. In short, traditional techniques, like choosing a database, searching broadly and then focusing or editing searches, are disfavored by WestlawNext. Because crowdsourcing is a part of the search algorithm, certain relevant but esoteric results may, over time, be buried or hidden. The pricing structure may disfavor refining searches and/or reviewing multiple results. But other aspects, including its ability to return focused results up front, as well as the possibility of searching databases the researcher wasn’t aware of, can greatly improve results.

Wheeler concludes that we should be wary, as teachers, of demonizing the product simply because it’s different. Rather, he counsels learning the strengths and weaknesses of each system, so that both can be leveraged to provide the most desirable results.

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