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legal.online, Column No. 38, April 1998
Copyright 1998 Robert J. Ambrogi
Westlaw, Lexis-Nexis Set Up Shop On The Web
By Robert J. Ambrogi
Legal research on the Internet took two giant steps forward in recent months as the two dominant research services, Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, introduced Web access to their full collections of legal and news databases.
No longer must you use special software or dial in to a particular phone number. All that is required is a standard Web browser and Internet access, making either service easier to use even when away from the office.
Still required by both is a subscription, with prices mirroring those for traditional Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis access. Current subscribers can continue to use existing accounts. Both services offer special pricing for sole practitioners and small firms.
Lexis-Nexis was the first to launch its Web service, called Xchange (http://www.lexis.com), opening its virtual doors for business on Dec. 8. West followed with a March 26 unveiling of its service, westlaw.com (http://www.westlaw.com).
Both offer legal databases unrivaled on the Web for their breadth and integrity. Of the two, westlaw.com offers a slightly more intuitive and easy to use interface and a greater range of functions.
The Lexis-Nexis database is actually only one component of Xchange, a service touted as being a "virtual community" for lawyers. Any legal professional can use Xchange, free of charge, to access a variety of services, including current legal news and practice-area forums.
Access to the database, however, requires an account, with prices mirroring those of traditional Lexis-Nexis subscription plans.
For firms of 10 or fewer attorneys, flat-rate pricing is available, allowing a single attorney to subscribe to a single state library for $105 a month or to only primary law for $65 a month. Flat rate plans are also available for various specialty libraries.
For larger firms, fees will mirror existing pricing plans.
Conducting A Search
Anyone who has used Lexis-Nexis before will find the Web version surprisingly familiar. It offers the same content, organized into many of the same menus, and uses the same Boolean search syntax, but with the added benefit of hypertext.
The main search screen offers three options: general searching, retrieving a specific document, and citation checking. Within each are more specific options.
For general searching, three choices are offered: "Search Now," "Explore Source Directory," and "Search Source Directory."
Choosing to explore the directory brings up a screen presenting a selection of categories, such as Area of Law, Political, Financial, U.S. Legal, Public Records, Reference, and News and Business. Select one, and up comes a menu of subcategories. Many of those lead to further subcategories.
Within these subcategories are the lists of specific libraries you can search. Next to each is the letter "i" in a circle, which you can click on to retrieve a description of the database.
Once you have selected the database to search, a form prompts you to enter your query. If you wish, you can limit the search to a particular range of dates. The search form includes a convenient drop-down menu listing databases you have recently searched.
Search results are displayed much the same as on traditional Lexis-Nexis. By default, documents are displayed in "Kwic" format, showing only the text that contains your search terms. Tabs on the top of the screen allow you to change the display to either full text or citation list.
All citations within a document appear in hypertext, allowing you to jump from the case you are reading to one it cites.
You can refine your search using the "Focus" feature to provide additional search terms. If a document seems particularly on point, you can choose the "More Like This" option, which narrows the search to documents containing your original search terms plus information from the on-point document.
Each page offers the option to Shepardize or Auto-Cite the document. If you select Shepard's, you retrieve the case's history, again all in hypertext.
To save a document, you can either copy it to your hard disk or print it out. You can also copy text from your screen and paste it into a word processing document.
You can search for a particular document, using its citation, docket number or the name of a party.
Westlaw On The Web
While Lexis-Nexis on the Web offers most features of traditional Lexis-Nexis, it does not include the full array of search tools. Westlaw's Web version, on the other hand, offers the identical research tools and content as traditional Westlaw.
Among the features that distinguish westlaw.com:
And although westlaw.com uses any current Web browser, it includes all the functions available using West's proprietary software, Westmate. These include KeyCite, Shepard's and Key numbers.
A document retrieved through westlaw.com appears the same as one retrieved through Westmate. Cases, for example, include the citation, title and KeyCite status flags, as well as the synopsis, headnotes and Star Paging references. While the full document is displayed in the main frame, a complete list of search results sits on the left.
Westlaw.com is easy to navigate. All databases and services can be accessed using a drop-down list. Simply select the service you want and click Go.
You can print any document using your browser's print command. In addition, westlaw.com offers its own Print/Download command, which allows you to print in dual-column format and send print requests to a printer, fax machine or e-mail address. It also allows you to download documents in Microsoft Word, Corel WordPerfect or Adobe Acrobat formats.
Sole practitioners and firms of up to 15 attorneys can subscribe under the Westlaw PRO program, providing state-specific and certain topical databases for a flat monthly fee. (Fees vary by library; a complete breakdown is available at the site.) Larger firms must contact West to arrange subscriptions.
Throughout your research, the screen remains divided into three frames. Across the top is a thin, horizontal frame with buttons for navigating. It features a drop-down menu that lists the main areas of Westlaw. To move around, simply highlight the area you want (i.e., Search, KeyCite, Database Directory, etc.) and click "Go."
When you first log on, the left third of the screen offers various options for beginning your research. You can retrieve a document by its citation, check a citation, or select a particular database to search. After you perform a search, this left frame displays the results in citation format.
The main frame is initially a "Welcome" page, with information on using westlaw.com, news highlights, and descriptions of recent additions to the database. As you perform research, this frame displays the full-text documents.
Choosing to view the complete database directory brings up a list of general databases such as Federal, State, Newspapers and Business. Clicking on any of these general listings brings up a menu of subcategories, which in turn lead to further subcategories. On the left side of the screen is a drop-down menu listing the most popular databases. There is also a form for entering a database ID number to take you directly there.
As with Lexis-Nexis, each database has an "i" icon next to it, which you can click on to retrieve a complete description.
Once you have chosen a database, a query form appears in the main frame. You can choose to write your query using either Boolean connectors or natural language.
Search results are displayed on the left as a list of citations, while the main screen displays the text of the first document. Click any citation on the left to bring up the full document.
Cases include West headnotes and key numbers. Key references are hyperlinked, so by clicking on any key number you can search for related headnotes.
Cases also include West's KeyCite feature, which flags them to warn whether they may no longer be good law. At any time, you can perform a complete "KeyCite" of a case, obtaining its subsequent and citation history.
Also available is West's Table of Authorities service, which lists the cases cited by the case you are viewing and tells you whether any of those cases are no longer good law.
Overall, both are well-designed, intuitive research services that combine the breadth and reliability of traditional online databases with the functionality and ease of use of the Web.
Robert J. Ambrogi (email@example.com), a lawyer in Rockport, Mass., is editor of the Internet newsletter legal.online, http://www.legalonline.com. Past installments of this column are archived at: http://www.legaline.com.