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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Some First Thoughts on LALS (Part 2)

Today, I will continue with my critique of Lexis Advance for Law Schools BETA (LALS). In Part 1 of this critique, I established my personal biases and pointed out some of the good aspects of LALS. In this Part, I will address some of the issues I have with it. For those who missed Part 1, I strongly suggest you read it before continuing on to this Part.

So What are the Problems with LALS?

Most of the issues I have with LALS stem from its search functionality. As alluded to in Part 1, I believe research requires specificity, and specificity requires control. Many people like to compare research to digging for treasure, but I believe a more apropos comparison is to surgery or astronautical engineering: You wouldn’t want your surgeon taking a swing at you with a machete when you need your appendix removed, and I’m sure many an astronaut is thankful that the people designing their spacecraft or determining how much rocket fuel to include didn’t decide to round the numbers. Yet, that is basically what LexisNexis is expecting its customers to accept as "quality legal research". They have confused "search" for "research" and are expecting us to be satisfied with that.

Stripped away from LALS are ALL of the tools researchers used to rely on to actually perform "research": Sources, Segments, Commands (such as ATLn, ALLCAPS, UNANNO, PLUR, etc.), and most Connectors. Under this new platform, for example, you cannot search just in "[State] Federal & State Cases". You can restrict your search to just Cases and to just the desired state and "Federal", but that still searches ALL federal, regardless of district or circuit. In comparison, WestlawNext has a checkbox on its Jurisdiction restriction screen that allows the user to select a state and "Include Related Federal". (Of course, according to LexisNexis, LALS "is not a response to WestlawNext, it is a response to our customers' research needs" (see Faculty FAQs Q3).) Similarly, it is currently impossible to just search in a particular court (including the US Supreme Court) or in one of the two dozen secondary sources currently available. Evidently, what LexisNexis learned from "over 30,000 customer interactions" is that there is no need in law schools to restrict a search in any meaningful way. And, evidently, they learned that law schools have less of a need to search regulatory materials (including the CFR) and most secondary sources (including ALR and law reviews) than to search the all-important content types Briefs, Pleadings and Motions, Jury Instructions, Jury Verdicts and Settlements, Expert Witness Analysis, and Dockets. As one of my colleagues rhetorically asked, when do you need Expert Witness Analysis in law school? Granted, regulatory sources and more secondary sources will be added in the future (maybe as early as October 2011, but most aren't scheduled for addition until sometime in 2012 (see Faculty FAQs Q5-Q7)), but if this is a product designed FOR law schools, why is it currently limited to materials used primarily by Solos and Associates?

More examples of what one can easily do on lexis.com but not LALS: search for opinions by a particular judge (no segments); restrict searches to the text of statutes (no Text segment or UNANNO command); require that a particular term appear a minimum number of times (no ATLn command); require that only the singular or only the plural form of a particular term be retrieved (no SINGULAR or PLURAL commands); or control the capitalization of search terms, such as RICO instead of Puerto Rico (no CAPS, ALLCAPS, or NOCAPS commands). For all you legal research instructors, gone is the classic "aid vs. AIDS" exercise. You also cannot restrict the date until after the initial search has been run.

LALS also removes most Connectors and makes three startlingly unnecessary changes. Gone are the W/S (within sentence), W/P (within paragraph), W/SEG (within same segment), and PRE/n (preceded by n words) [my personal favorite] Connectors, as well as the NOT forms of those Connectors. On one hand, I can understand why the developers got rid of the W/S and W/P: Everyday when I worked in LexisNexis Customer Support, we would get calls from customers who were confused. They had run a search using one of those Connectors, but their terms weren’t showing up literally in the same sentence/paragraph, and they demanded to know why. The answer was because LexisNexis never got around to actually tagging the beginnings and endings of sentences and paragraphs, and instead relied on an algorithm that “approximated” the length of a sentence or paragraph. In a way, W/S and W/P were promises of certain results that were never kept. Knowing this deficiency, I’ve always relied on the W/n and PRE/n Connectors, and I have always encouraged others, whether customers calling LexisNexis Customer Support or my school's students, to do likewise. On the other hand, however, not including these connectors (and especially not the PRE/n Connector) is just pure laziness on the part of LexisNexis developers. There is absolutely no legitimate reason to remove them. So what if they "were used infrequently"? (See Faculty FAQs Q8.) By definition, that means that they were [and still are] being used. If LALS "is a response to our customers' research needs," then what would the frequency of use have to do with anything? Does that mean LexisNexis customers in Maine should be worried because Maine-specific resources clearly are not used as frequently as those of most other states? Should law libraries throw away their copies of the Congressional Record because they are not used frequently enough? Were these less-used Connectors taking up valuable space in LALS' coding? [But click here for an update on Connectors.]

Unnecessary Change #1

The first unnecessary change from lexis.com to LALS is the shift from the W/n Connector to a NEAR/n Connector, which works exactly the same way as W/n does in lexis.com. Why the change? According to the LALS marketing, it’s because, for the Lexis Advance platform, they have "moved to the new web standard set of Boolean connectors" (see Faculty FAQs Q8).

And what exactly does "new web standard set of Boolean connectors" mean? Who established this standard? Neither Westlaw nor WestlawNext utilize this "new web standard". Neither does HeinOnline, Fastcase, Casemaker, Factiva, JSTOR, Dialog, ProQuest, or even Google. How "standard" can it be? In fact, according to my quick examination of these systems, the majority utilize some form of the W/n Connector. Even if there was a "web standard" for Boolean connectors (which, outside of AND, OR, and NOT, there clearly isn’t), why would a major legal research system step away from what is apparently the standard for legal search engines, a standard their dedicated customers have used for decades?

Unnecessary Change #2

In the second unnecessary change, LALS changes the universal characters that LexisNexis users have relied on since the beginning. In all LexisNexis platforms before LALS, the exclamation point (“!”) was used as a root expander, and the asterisk (“*”) was used as an individual universal character. Now, with LALS, the asterisk is the root expander and the question mark (“?”) becomes the individual placeholder. Although I seem to remember a time when Westlaw utilized the asterisk/question mark combination, even they now use the exclamation point/asterisk formulation. So, for no intelligible reason whatsoever, LexisNexis expects their customers to shift back and forth between two different sets of universal characters, at least until they are forced to change their thinking when LexisNexis pulls the plug on lexis.com. [But click here for an update on universal characters.]

Unnecessary Change #3: The Most Annoying One

Finally, the most egregious change from lexis.com to LALS is the actual search syntax itself. One of the things I love about lexis.com is how logical it is (or, I should say, how logical it seems to me). For example, if I enter the phrase eminent domain, without quotation marks, lexis.com treats the space between the words as, well, a space. In other words, because there is no Connector between the two words, the system assumes I want those two words to appear next to each other in my results; there is no need to put phrases in quotation marks. Similarly, if I want both term A and term B, or either term A or term B, to appear in the results, then that is what I enter: term A AND term B, or term A OR term B (although it is not necessary to use all capital letters for the Connectors).

With LALS, however, if I, a lexis.com user being forced to transition over to this new product from the same company, were to enter the same eminent domain search (again, without quotation marks), I get completely different results. And it's not because of some WestSearch-like, value-added algorithm running behind the scenes. It's because LALS generally treats that space as an OR Connector (but see Part 3 for a frustrating inconsistency with this syntax). That's right, ladies and gentlemen: The "innovative solution" utilized by LALS in "response to our customers' research needs" (see Faculty FAQs Q3 (emphasis added)) is the exact same search syntax used by Westlaw!! While some may think this is too petty to call it "the most egregious change", to steal an analogy from one of my colleagues, this is tantamount to the Ford Motor Company one day deciding to switch the placement of the gas and brake pedals on all of their new vehicles.

Imperfect Analogy #2: LALS = New Coke

Now, I'm not a businessman. But if there is one thing I know about business, it is that you cannot increase market share simply by copying a competitor. In fact, you usually can't even win by comparing yourself to them. Who has ever been persuaded by "Buy Product X; we’re just like Product Y!" without some other force (e.g., lower price, greater availability, etc.) playing a role. You don't have to have a MBA to learn from the "New Coke" debacle. (Although I thought of this analogy independently, I've had conversations with several other people who thought of it as well, although my take on it may be different from theirs.) It wasn't just that "New Coke" betrayed all of the good will invested in the company by consumers who were used to the flavor of original Coke, but, even worse, it was nothing more than Coca-Cola's attempt to duplicate the flavor of Pepsi. It wasn't a step up; it was a step down. All things being equal, why would any consumer choose the fake-Pepsi of New Coke when you can have the real thing (pun intended)? And to make matters worse (both for lexis.com fans and, more importantly, Reed Elsevier shareholders), LALS in essence copies Westlaw, not WestlawNext! (Of course, as mentioned above, LexisNexis marketing wants us to believe that LALS "is not a response to WestlawNext, it is a response to our customers' research needs" (see Faculty FAQs Q3).)

Why?! Why would a company not only demand that their customers transition from one product to a far inferior one, but at the same time demand that they relearn all of the search techniques that have been so helpful to them in the past? This is way different from the transition from the software to lexis.com: The logic behind the dot commands of the software did not conflict with the online processes. From the perspective of loyal LexisNexis customers, the transition from dot commands to lexis.com was a necessary, albeit painful, step forward in the evolution of electronic legal research. The transition from lexis.com to LALS, from that same perspective, is a painful and unnecessary step back (or, at best, a painful step sideways); it is a repudiation of any good will LexisNexis has cultivated with its customers.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 3 of my critique, where I will discuss some other problems with LALS and provide some concluding remarks.

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