WestlawNext: Westlaw’s Next Generation Research System

Vol. 39 No. 4

By

Shawn G. Nevers teaches legal research and is head ofreference services at the Howard W. Hunter Law Library at Brigham Young University. 

Beginning January 1, 2011,all law students will have access to WestlawNext—the next generation of Westlaw. So, let’s take a look at some of the changes coming to one of the premier legal research systems.

One change you’ll like is the new look. Ever since Google implemented its clean, minimalistic web page design, users expect something similar. Many of my students last year were disappointed at how cluttered andconfusing Westlaw.com looked. They wanted something more like Google. They’re going to get it with WestlawNext.

The cleaner look starts with WestlawNext’s do-it-all searchbox. All your searching—whether with search terms, by citation, or for adatabase—can be done there. This eliminates the need for multiple search boxes and databases cluttering up the page. White space has also been added to allWestlawNext pages, providing a Westlaw that’s much easier on the eyes.

More importantly than freeing up space on the page,WestlawNext’s new search box is the heart and soul of the new Westlaw. Thesearch box is powered by a new search engine called WestSearch, which Westlawdevelopers spent the last several years creating.

To understand WestSearch, it’s helpful to compare it to Westlaw.com’sNatural Language search. Natural Language searching allows you to type in a sentence or some string of words and the search engine brings back relevantresults based on the frequency and proximity of the terms. WestSearch allows you to use the same type of plain language, but it does a lot more work behindthe scenes to make its results more relevant. Think of WestSearch as Natural Language searching on steroids.

An example may help. If I run a Natural Language search in Westlaw.com for“affirmative action in higher education” in the All Federal Cases database, theold search engine looks at the important terms from my search and based ontheir proximity to one another and the frequency with which they appear, itprovides me with a list of cases it thinks I want. In this example, my firsttwo results in Westlaw.com are Geier v. Universityof Tennessee and Knight v. State of Alabama—relevant cases, but not the cream of the crop.

If I run this same search in WestlawNext, the new WestSearch search engine doesmore than just look at the proximity and frequency of my terms. It employs acomplex algorithm that looks at the West Key Number System, citation patternsthrough KeyCite, secondary sources, and lawyer usage, in addition to theproximity and frequency of my terms. The end result is a smarter search engine that brings me back Grutter v. Bollingerand Regents of the University of California v. Bakke—undoubtedly the landmark cases on this issue—as my first two hits.

Does this mean terms and connectors searching is dead? Manyof you probably wouldn’t shed a tear if it were, but there is still a place forit in WestlawNext. Terms and connectors searching can be entered intoWestSearch, just as a plain language search can. While a plain language searchoften brings back what you want with WestSearch, there are times when itdoesn’t. In these instances, you may want to take back control of your searchwith terms and connectors.

For example, if I search for costs of pretrial detention in the Law Reviews and Journals database on WestlawNext,some of my hits, including the first one, don’t mention “costs” at all. On theother hand, if I run the search costs /p pretrial /s detention, allmy results mention “costs” and are, therefore, more relevant. So, while it maybe easy to forget about terms and connectors, you’d be wise not to.

Let’s also examine another touted enhancement inWestlawNext—its universal search. The idea is that users will no longer have toselect a particular database, just a jurisdiction. Once a jurisdiction isselected, WestSearch will search 12 different content sets (things like cases,statutes, regulations, etc.) at the same time. Results are grouped by thosecontent sets, allowing researchers to see multiple types of relevant content.

The one problem with this type of all-encompassing searchis the amount of results it produces—29,895 for the affirmative action search.While it is helpful to have the results organized by content type, the sheer number of hits can be overwhelming. Because of this I have mixed feelings aboutthe all-in-one search. It’s great for making sure you hit all content types anddon’t miss hidden treasures, but I often find myself going back to searching ina particular database to limit the results I have to deal with.

In addition to the WestSearch search engine, WestlawNextincorporates many new features that are great for researchers. A new foldering system allows researchers to easily organize their research within WestlawNext.Researchers can also add notes to documents and highlight portions of the text.These additions remain with the case so you can find them later. After you’veviewed a case, a pair of glasses appears next to it letting you know whereyou’ve been—extremely helpful when you’ve gone through many cases. And finally,WestlawNext keeps your research history for one year instead of the current 14days on Westlaw.com.

Another area of improvement is the presentation of KeyCite.KeyCite information now appears in tabs across the top of a case. After openingGrutter v. Bollinger, I can quickly see there are 14 “Negative Treatment”documents, and 4,307 “Citing References.” Next to my yellow flag I am now giventhe case with the most negative treatment of my case so I can look at it rightaway. It is also much easier to narrow down my citing references—a necessitywith Grutter and many Supreme Court cases.

I have never been a fan of Westlaw.com’s“Limit KeyCite Display.” It is an important tool, but jumping from screen toscreen seemed like a waste of time. WestlawNext fixes this problem. Users cannow limit their KeyCite display quickly in the left-hand pane while looking attheir citing references.

With all the hype surrounding WestlawNext, it is importantto remember that it is not simply replacing Westlaw.com. Westlaw spent a lot ofmoney developing WestlawNext and they want to recoup as much as they can.Because of this, firms must pay more if they want to upgrade from Westlaw.com toWestlawNext. Needless to say, not all firms are on board with shelling out moremoney to Westlaw. This means you shouldn’t give up on Westlaw.com evenif you prefer WestlawNext.

And prefer it you will. 

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