Return to Articles, February 1996

copyright 1996 Robert J. Ambrogi

West's New Online Service Ready For Debut

By Robert J. Ambrogi

It was last March that West Publishing announced a spring debut for The West Network, an online news, discussion and information service for lawyers that it had begun developing in 1994. But by summer's end, the service was being redesigned and readied for a new round of testing. In September, West said that the service would be delayed until early 1996.

Now, West appears to be sticking to that schedule. Beginning in February, West will offer 1,000 attorneys nationwide a free two-month trial subscription to the service, after which The West Network will go into full production.

West has not set the price for subscribing to The West Network (we'll call it WestNet for short), but it anticipates the cost will be between $15-$25 a month for five hours of access.

WestNet is not Westlaw -- subscribers to the online service will not have direct access to Westlaw's database of legal materials. However, WestNet subscribers will be able to retrieve certain documents from Westlaw at a charge of about $7 a document. Also, WestNet will provide a gateway into Westlaw for anyone who already has a Westlaw subscription. West is considering offering WestNet subscribers full access to Westlaw at a special price, but it has yet to make a final decision on that.

Choice Of Desktops

WestNet is designed to serve as a lawyer's computer "desktop," whether off- or on-line. It offers a choice of two views -- a traditional button-style layout or a full-screen depiction of a lawyer's roll-top desk.

The desk, otherwise known as a "social interface," is covered with various items, such as a Rolodex, a newspaper and a legal pad. Clicking on an item on the desk activates some feature of the service or launches one of your own software applications. For example, click on the picture of a newspaper to activate West's news-update service. Click on the legal pad to launch your own word processor. Click on the Rolodex to launch your contact-manager program.

The button view accomplishes the same functions, only in a more traditional way. Instead of the legal pad, you click on the "Word Processor" button.

In either case, you can configure the system to run whatever word processor, calendar and contact-manager you are using.

West's Legal News

The heart of the service, at least so far, is West's Legal News. West has assembled a staff of some 25 lawyers and journalists, led by Managing Editor Robert "Chug" Roberts, to form its own legal news service. WLN reports on cases, trends, law-practice management, state-specific issues and other law-related topics. Stories are updated at least daily, and more often in the case of the U.S. Supreme Court.

WLN stories can be browsed online. WestNet also allows subscribers to set up a custom selection of news topics, by practice area, state, and key word. Every night, WestNet will download to your computer the news that fits your custom configuration. Stories include not just those found in WLN, but also any matching stories from the entire Dow Jones News Service.

The next morning, you click on the news icon, be it the desk's newspaper or the "news" button, and bring up a screen with "Personal News for John Lawyer," followed by the date.

A distinguishing feature of West's Legal News is that at the end of each news story is a hypertext listing of related documents. Clicking on the hypertext links allows you easily to retrieve these other documents. For example, if the story is about a U.S. Supreme Court decision, you can follow a link to get the full text of the decision, follow another link to get the briefs that had been filed in the case, and follow another link to retrieve the court of appeals decision.

In some cases, these documents will be part of WestNet and will be accessible at no extra cost. In other cases, the documents will be part of the Westlaw library; accessing these will incur a charge tentatively set at about $7 a document.

WestNet will not maintain an archive of court decisions. However, all federal appellate decisions and the decisions of each state's highest court will be available on WestNet for three weeks from date of issuance. During the three-weeks a decision is on WestNet, it can be retrieved for no extra cost.

Other Features

WestNet includes other features typical to online services, including electronic mail and discussion forums. As yet, the forums remain largely undeveloped, but West expects them to expand quickly once the service moves into final release.

For browsing through its news service and discussion forums, WestNet uses Netscape, the same software used to "surf" the Internet's World Wide Web. For electronic mail, WestNet uses Eudora Lite, a popular shareware e-mail program.

WestNet is not accessible through the Internet, and, for the time being at least, West has no plans to change that. The reason for that, explained Roberts, is that West's research indicated that customers were concerned about security and privacy on the Internet.

As of now, WestNet can only be run over a Windows-based system. West is working on developing an interface for Macintosh systems.

West hopes to make its news service the Associated Press of legal news. It is already distributing news stories to various court and commercial newspapers and may also offer the service over the Microsoft Network.

Is the news business something new for West Publishing? Not according to Managing Editor Roberts. He hearkens back to founder John B. West, who started publishing an eight-page weekly news sheet on court decisions in 1876. The new service, Mr. West stated, was intended to provide the legal provision with information that would be "prompt, interesting, full and at al times thoroughly reliable." Now, 120 years later, Roberts sees himself and his staff as carrying out John West's original directive.

(For information on signing up for the free trial of The West Network, call 800-328-9963.)

Robert J. Ambrogi, a lawyer in Rockport, Mass., is editor of, a monthly newsletter about the Internet published by Legal Communications Ltd., Philadelphia. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at (978) 546-7898.