I feel like I’ve been picking on the folks at Thomson Reuters regarding the launch of WestlawNext, especially with this post last week.  I expected a quick response from Thomson Reuters on my questioning their approach to pushing this out to law firms and more specifically to law students.  The response came this morning from Anne Ellis, Senior Director of the Westlaw Library Relations team.  I thought I’d push this out on the blog as a more reasoned response than the one we got from the anonymous ‘A Westlaw Rep.’  In fact, I hope that Anne cc’d all ‘Westlaw Reps.’ on this so that they can give a better response to the specific questions we had on the roll-out. The first three paragraphs are mostly ‘corporate speak’, but Anne goes on to answer some of the questions we had on the effect that law students will have on the new search algorithm (which was my primary concern.)

There are three points I’d like to address, where it seems speculation has been incorrect and has understandably caused concern: 

Rolling out WestlawNext to law firms. Our sales team will make trials of WestlawNext available to customers based on customer needs and priorities. Customers can learn more about WestlawNext by visiting westlawnext.com

Rolling out WestlawNext to law schools. In a previous note, I said that we would begin showing WestlawNext to law schools in a phased rollout of trial passwords, beginning with librarians and faculty this spring, and that we were making plans for launching WestlawNext to law students, with possible introduction as early as the Fall 2010 semester. It appears that it was understood by some that this meant that WestlawNext would be in all law schools by the fall of this year. To be clear, we are still determining timing for our rollout to law schools, and will work closely with law schools and the legal profession overall with the goal of helping them make better potential lawyers as we have always done. 

Questions relating to inexperienced researchers informing the search results. This is a really interesting discussion. I talked to the technology team behind WestlawNext, and student research was never to be part of the algorithm to inform search results. It was a very good question though, and I wish we had spoken to it in our original discussion about the artificial intelligence technology.

WestlawNext is an entirely new platform, and we worked hard in the days around launch to provide the right information to the right individuals. I think we all understand now that there will be questions popping up for awhile as people ask smart questions and as strategy and planning unfold.

We will continue to scan the blogs and listservs for comments that reveal gaps in the discussion, and I will try to speak to those points on a regular basis on Legal Current, the corporate blog for Thomson Reuters, Legal. I invite your questions and comments and I appreciate being part of the discussion.

Anne Ellis
Senior Director, Librarian Relations
Thomson Reuters

Anne’s response makes me feel a little bit better, especially regarding the issues of allowing the 1L’s to affect the algorithm of the WestlawNext search results (which apparently they won’t).  As the product gets pushed out to more law firms, we’ll keep an eye on how firms react and use the new research tool.

  • Anne's reponse addresses concerns about the effect of law student searches on the WestlawNext algorithm.

    However, it doesn't address the serious concerns I've expressed on my blog (which you linked to in your previous post) about pricing, particularly as that issue impacts solos and small firms. I'm still waiting for an official response from West.

  • Jan Rivers

    I would like to see more clarification as well regarding pricing.

  • okay… I admit that I was focusing on my questions (which were mostly 'technical' issues… 'cause I'm a techie geek, you know.)
    From what I've heard (second-hand), the response we got on pricing from the anonymous 'westlaw rep' was spot on for those who have current contracts. But, we are still left with the issue of having the 'deal' based upon how well you negotiate with your local rep. Brings us back to the 'used car salesman' concept that I mentioned.

  • Anne's email was distributed far and wide yesterday. Rather than answering questions, I think it raises many more. She is tacitly acknowledging that WLN does use the "wisdom of crowds" to build and inform its algorithm. This is a very important development. Basically, this means that West is adopting a Google approach to online legal research; the implications are huge. West has built its reputation and usefulness on systematic, objective, logical, and efficient access to legal materials. Is the "crowd" capable of providing systematic, objective, logical and efficient access to legal materials?

    This is a fascinating development. And anyone that thinks this is simply a new interface for Westlaw's rich database needs to think again.

  • Rich,

    I think you're right about there still being a lot of questions out there about this product. However, I think Thomson Reuters is going to try to push that down to the local rep as much as it can and keep the national folks out of the fix.
    As for the wisdom of crowds, I do think that it can work and help push relevant results to the top. I specifically went over (and over) this concept with the Project Cobalt team, and came away satisfied that they were moving in the right direction. My good friend Jason Wilson has pointed out to me time and again that there really isn't any hard data supporting the claim that the West Search Engine is truly better. At this time, we are basically taking the development team's word that it will be better. So, I guess time will tell whether this crowdsourcing process will actually make results better.

  • Your questions, 3 Geeks, might be answered, but too few of mine have been.

    I’m puzzled. After 5+ years of "research" and "product development," TR never thought to include "inexperienced researchers" and "student research was never to be part of the algorithm to inform search results?" Huh?

    These issues occurred to them only now, years later, after a few law librarians asked questions a short time after hearing the TR product announcements? Duh?

    The TR product development process that includes “law librarians” (the phrase “too little, too late” comes to mind) seems to work in theory (and in buzz) but not in execution. It's almost like a car manufacturer asking People Who Drive what car features they like, but not reading “Consumer Reports” or asking for reviews and ideas from serious drivers before redesigning the company's new models.

    WL does need a facelift, but I haven't seen much substantive commentary about real legal research being put to the test on the new system. And by real researchers, I mean the ones who read cases, not blurbs or "most linked to" cases, the researchers who don't Google "the law," but the ones who want to know what the database file structure is rather than what the new features are, and the ones who ask about coverage, editorial quality, etc. In other words, the ones who want to win in court against an opponent, and before a judge, who does perform exceptional legal research.

    Maybe good researchers will like WLNext and maybe not. I do like Westlaw and it has an important place in my legal research toolbox, but I'm not illuminated by any of the recent TR buzz. I'd like to hear from real researchers who have put it through its paces in the real world of Lawyers Who Research, trial and appellate lawyers.

    I can assure, though, you that most law librarians will scrutinize their own attorneys' research really closely for a while to come (not that we didn't in the past 🙂