To WestlawNext or Not? That is the Question.

by Nancy Loewenberg

I’d like express my appreciation to VALL for its generous grant that enabled me to attend the AALL Annual conference in my hometown of Philadelphia. In addition to the meeting’s excellent and relevant programming, being able to visit some of my old stomping grounds, such as the Rittenhouse Square branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, made this one of the more memorable AALL meetings for me.

I attended the highly anticipated session entitled “The New Generation of Legal Research Databases: Eighteen Months Later”. Based on the healthy size of crowd that gathered for this last session on the last day of the conference, many librarians shared my interest in the impact that WestlawNext, Thomson Reuters’s next generation of research service, has had on the legal research landscape since its introduction in February, 2010. The panel represented both the law firm and law school environments.

Prior to the conference, a survey was sent out to the AALL membership to gauge how WestlawNext has been received and the May, 2011 results were both interesting and instructive. The survey demographics were skewed towards law firms, with 76.7% of the respondents from firms; law schools were represented by 18.4% and government agencies/court/corporation libraries by 4.9%. The survey indicated that 48% of the total respondents had already rolled out WLN with 52% having not yet implemented the new platform. The survey showed a much greater adoption of WLN by law school libraries where cost considerations are not a factor. An informal poll was taken of the audience in the meeting room and it confirmed that there has been much greater adoption of WLN by law schools.

The survey revealed that there was still a lot of indecision among libraries that had not yet rolled out WLN, with 63% indicating that they had not yet made the decision to introduce it. Reasons for a delayed roll out included most prominently cost and pricing structure, the quality of the product, the limited scope of its content, and the fact that the product was still evolving.

Comments made by the panel about their experiences with WestlawNext, as well as additional survey results shed light on both its strengths and drawbacks. The strengths included ease of use with a simple, Google-like interface, particularly and predictably popular with students and younger attorneys; the folder and folder-sharing feature; faceted/aggregated search results which expose the researcher to new material; and the new search algorithm. Biggest drawbacks to WLN included most emphatically the cost; pitfalls with an oversimplification of research; a lack of precision; and the new platform not being conducive to power searching.

This program was very thought-provoking and inspired me to closely follow the dialog being conducted in the law library community about this new addition to the legal research arsenal. The stakes are high in terms of the quality and reliability of research results and we are understandably motivated to make the right decision for what best serves our institutions. If you are interested in a further discussion of the implications of WestlawNext, I recommend Ronald Wheeler’s article in the Summer 2011 issue of Law Library Journal, found at http://www.aallnet.org/main-menu/Publications/llj/Vol-103/2011-03/2011-23.pdf. To level the playing field, I recommend you read the response by a senior member of the WLN development team to questions and misconceptions raised about the new service that appeared on the rethinc.k blog this month: http://www.jasnwilsn.com/2011/10/03/on-westlaw/ and http://www.jasnwilsn.com/2011/10/05/part-2-on-westlawnext-westsearch-and-haters-a-brief-interview-with-mike-dahn-of-thomson-reuters/.

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