Once upon a time, the only way to do legal research was to pore through books while tethered to the library.
That started to change in the late 1970s and early 1980s as two pioneering firms, LexisNexis and Westlaw (part of Thomson Reuters since 1996), compiled their databases of legal information, developed indexing, search and retrieval algorithms and provided access via dial-up or hard-wired terminals.
Fast forward 30 years and the internet. The two continued to dominate the legal information research and retrieval market without any serious challengers until Bloomberg Law launched in 2010.
Research platforms cited by law librarians
An annual survey of law libraries conducted by American Lawyer Media is one indicator of how these research platforms are doing. The latest version, released mid-2017, shows a variety of tools in use. The question, “What subscription tool(s) does your department use when conducting research to support attorneys in the practice of law?”, included the following responses:
- 89% of respondents cited Westlaw.
- Lexis was mentioned by 84%.
- Bloomberg’s BLAW by 68%.
- HeinOnline, used for legal history and government documents, and Cheetah (published by Wolters Kluwer) were also cited by greater than 80% of respondents.
- Newer tools mentioned by ten percent or more of respondents were Fastcase (founded late 1999), Casetext (2013) and Ravel (founded in 2012, acquired by LexisNexis in 2017).
One of our own EIR (electronic information resources) experts, VP Robyn Rebollo, has this to add:
“It’s worth noting that the survey respondents were primarily law librarians and information directors, not lawyers. And we’re seeing increases in implementation of other online platforms taking place at law firms, like Lex Machina for predictive analytics, as well as AI (artificial intelligence) technology like ROSS and CARA.”
While Westlaw and Lexis continue to be at the top, their grip on market dominance has continued to loosen with the entrance of technology startups that are both well-funded and agile.
Relatively recent market entrants, such as Casetext, FastCase and ROSS Intelligence are rapidly applying concepts like machine learning and natural language processing to the search and retrieval experience. They cite a common goal of democratizing legal research—essentially making it possible for anyone to find legal data through federated databases and simplified queries.
Yet following are some important areas in which LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters have entrenched themselves in the legal industry and continue to offer strong advantages:
This is the “secret sauce” of legal research software vendors—the way their search engines analyze queries and return relevant results. It’s also where the vendors seek to differentiate themselves.
LexisNexis offers a single search interface that allows the user to enter either a natural language query or search/browse by topic. The search can extend across the entire LexisNexis database or be limited by topic or source, and then filtered to narrow results further. Each search and the results selected by the user help the search algorithm learn and refine what it returns the next time. According to LexisNexis, its entire database is reprocessed every 19 hours to incorporate that learning into the algorithm, to keep making connections among the content elements.
Similar to LexisNexis, Westlaw’s WestSearch allows search using natural language or with terms and connectors. The global search bar accepts queries to return relevant results, or ‘find’ terms to locate a particular resource by its citation, party name, or other particular identifier. WestSearch also uses machine learning to constantly improve the search algorithm and create connections among content, case, and secondary sources across its database.
As for search capabilities of the new market entrants, they are at the cutting edge of artificial intelligence. CARA from Casetext contextually analyzes an attorney’s uploaded brief to yield the most focused results. ROSS allows the user to ask a question as if having a conversation with another attorney. Fastcase allows the user to dynamically adjust relevancy factors to ensure the results are the most applicable.
According to our Research & Intelligence Deputy Director James Hurley:
“LexisNexis prides itself on its Shepard’s® citations, which allows attorneys to see at-a-glance whether a case has received positive or negative court treatment and whether certain aspects of the case are still considered good law.”
Westlaw also offers a citation service, KeyCite® and claims to be the only citator that provides Federal appeals notification. KeyCite is integrated with the 100 year-old West Key Number system, a master classification schema for all US law that allows cases to be organized by issue and topic. Both KeyCite and the West Key Number system figure prominently in search queries and results.
Robyn believes that Westlaw holds an important competitive advantage with court preference:
“One major advantage Westlaw has over Lexis is Westlaw preference in some important courts, especially when it comes to unreported decisions. The issue has created challenges for litigation-heavy firms that are Lexis only, as well as for other firms that are thinking of eliminating Westlaw.”
For example, in the Central District of California, Honorable Gail Standish states that a Westlaw citation is preferred. (See citation formats, no 12)
And Judge Rosenbluth states:
“When no reporter cite is available for a case, parties should cite to Westlaw instead of Lexis.” (See judge’s procedure’s number 4)
The general understanding within the legal community is that Delaware Courts prefer Westlaw citations too, though we are not aware of any formal statements.
Comprehensive legal productivity suite and single-vendor ease
LexisNexis and Westlaw remain dominant with integrated legal productivity tools for case management, time and billing, practice management and more. By positioning themselves as a total solution, they address the business side of running a law firm in addition to providing access to case law and legal research. Like many enterprise software providers, these two behemoths count on being so entrenched that they would be difficult to dislodge.
Lexis, Westlaw and BLAW pricing
The breadth and complexity of the LexisNexis and Westlaw offerings makes transparent pricing extremely difficult. Typical pricing considers database time, search volume, downloads and discount schedules, as well as the number of users, access to various content sources and bundle opportunities of value-add products like Practical Law, Monitor Suite, Practice Advisor, Lex Machina and other popular services.
Bloomberg slightly disrupted this model with a flat, monthly fee that is more in keeping with today’s software as a service (SaaS) subscription models. However, their pricing model has not been attractive enough for large law firms to consider BLAW as a primary legal research service for attorneys and professional staffs.
Even as some vendors offer more straightforward pricing, Robyn Rebollo believes the largest legal research services vendors need to re-adjust their pricing models to align more closely with the current realities of recouping these expenditures by law firm clients. If a firm is no longer recovering any fees for legal research expenses, their pricing to these services should decrease.
New Lexis and Westlaw competition: free
Some providers have a goal to make legal information free and accessible to anyone who needs it. Fastcase’s mobile app offers free, on-the-go access to the legal database for Android and iOS users. Casetext also provides no-cost access to its law library. And then there’s Google, a passionate advocate for unfettered access to, well, everything. While Google Scholar hasn’t unseated any subscription-based service yet, nor is it likely to, the service has supplemented many information resources, especially in small firms.
Legal technology as time-saver
These technologies do save time which, of course, saves money. Yet what hasn’t changed is the value of sound research itself. Even with advances in artificial intelligence and predictive analytics, these tools and services still can’t replace the judgment of an experienced research analyst who knows the right questions to ask and can evaluate the results for relevance and veracity. So another way to save money is to get your research as needed, using a “just in time” model.
LAC Group’s information and knowledge management experts will continue to monitor technology advances and vendor updates. Meanwhile, we offer research services through a highly secure portal that connects you when needed for help. And firms and corporations looking to manage subscription service expenses, our eResource management experts can assess needs, identify and reduce redundancies, manage contracts and optimize vendor relationships.