Reflections on WestlawNext from a few months in

We chose to turn WestlawNext on for faculty and staff in September and for our students in January.  I’ve been teaching the WestlawNext workshops and talking about it in class, as well as using it frequently myself so that I could talk about it competently.

When I first started reading about WestlawNext and saw it demoed at AALL, I was unimpressed.  The pricing model seemed wonky, the Google-like toolbar seemed innately problematic, and you didn’t seem to get much that was better than Classic for the fuss.

Having used it for several months now, I have a more nuanced view.  For the most part, in an academic setting, I prefer WestlawNext to Westlaw Classic.  In the rest of the post, I’m going to outline what I really like and really don’t like, as well as what I’ve learned.

What I really like:

  • Productivity Features: Folders and highlighting are wonderful and make it easy to organize complex research projects for faculty.  The notes feature is also useful for this. Faculty also love this.
  • Ease of Use: It is easier to teach features like searching by Key number and custom digest because the process of doing those functions is more intuitive for both me and the students.  Having said that, the custom digest appears to have lost some of its customizability.
  • Law Reviews and Journals: It is much, much easier to search law reviews and journals in WestlawNext.  I have more options for organizing my search (it’s a lot easier to search by number of cites or by date).
  • The advanced search features are easier to use and explain.
  • The new look for Notes of Decisions is much easier to follow and explain.
  • The representation of statutes makes my inner “code geek” happy.
  • I’ve discovered features that WERE in Westlaw Classic that I didn’t know about because they were so much easier to find in Next.
  • Students appear to find it enough easier to use that they appear to enjoy research more. Win!

What I really don’t like:

  • Search bar: It does look like a Google toolbar, and I’ve had both faculty and students tell me that they’ve tried to use it like one to their detriment.  The search bar is great if you have some idea of how to search law and what you’re looking for—I’ve seen it lead unwary searchers astray, though.  The first thing I make students do when I teach this is limit their jurisdiction.
  • Not for Solos: At the same time that Westlaw is telling us that more and more law firms are adopting the new product, they’ve quietly launched their solo product that competes with LexisAdvance for Solos. Comparably priced, said product is based on Westlaw Classic.  There don’t appear to be plans to make WestlawNext available for solos as far as pricing anytime soon. Most of our students go into solo practice so I see this as a large negative. (Correction (3/4/2011): Westlaw has contacted me to let me know that WestlawNext is available to solos and tells me that pricing is competitive.  The product that I’d seen promoted for solos and had alums tell me about is WestlawPRO, so that is what I was basing my information on.  Westlaw has promised me more pricing information, so I will update when I have that.  Having said all of that, I still think that smart students planning on going into solo or small firm practice would be wise to learn Classic thoroughly given that the small firm adoption rate, based on surveys and anecdotal evidence, is likely to be lower, at least at first.)
  • Printing. This has been a huge headache for our library.  When I talked to Lexis about their new product, this was something they seem to have taken note of; I notice that Harvard’s law blog mentions that this might be fixed late this semester or over the summer. Fixing it would remove a huge negative in my opinion. I hope they mean this, otherwise this is going to continue to be point number two that I write in big bold letters for what’s wrong with the product. (Jason Sowards commented in reviewing this blog post that he was told it would be fixed by January. I’ve been told that this is a more difficult problem to fix programming-wise than you’d think—Lexis Advance for Solos, to my understanding, currently allows NO printing at all, but they’re working on fixing it—but you’d think that the bad press would push to get this fixed sooner rather than later. We’ll see.) (Update 3/4/2011: I have been informed by our Westlaw rep that the problem with printing to the Westlaw printer will be resolved by the end of March.)
  • If possible, the new product appears to me to have made it harder to do administrative law research.  It certainly hasn’t prioritized making it easier the way it has cases.  Statutory research in my testing has seemed to be about the same (still not fun).
  • Pricing. It’s great that they made the pricing more easily accessible for students to see, but the numbers are scary, and I can really see the premium for Next being an issue in the future.  A colleague has mentioned before that he knows a friend who won a case because they had Westlaw and their opponent only had Fastcase.  I see in the future there being the potential for that happening with Next over Classic.
  • Content: They’ve been particularly slow to move international and news content over and this means that you have to be very aware of what is and isn’t there.  FCIL-SIS, I know, has had extended discussions about this. I suspect that this will change relatively quickly as the migration continues. Jason Sowards mentioned that he’d had some problems with legislative history showing up, so there are definitely large chunks of important content missing.

Your turn: Now that you’ve had Next for a few months, what are your favorite and least favorite features?

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This entry was posted in Issues in Law Librarianship, Legal Research, Legal Research Instruction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Reflections on WestlawNext from a few months in

  1. Ron Wheeler says:

    I discuss my thoughts on WestlawNext in an article titled “Does WestlawNext Really Change Everything: The Implications of Westlaw Next on Legal Research.” The article will appear in the summer issue, volume 103 of Law Library Journal. However, a draft is available on SSRN at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1773767

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