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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Some First Thoughts on Lexis Advance for Law Schools (Part 1)

This week, I will be providing some information about LexisNexis for Law Schools BETA, as well as some personal commentary on what I like and don’t like about this new platform.

Preliminaries

Before I begin delving into the topic of these next few posts, I feel it is necessary to provide full personal disclosure. First of all, the opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the University of Houston Law Center, the O'Quinn Law Library, or any of our faculty, staff, or students. [I usually frown upon these types of statements because it's usually obvious from the context that the writing is solely the thoughts of the author (I mean, just because your author's footnote states that you work for a particular entity in no way implies that you are speaking for that entity unless you expressly state as much, so there is no need to include such language in every law review article you write; if it were otherwise, your work would be published by that entity, not a law review), but since this post is not appearing on my personal blog, I think it is called for here.]

Secondly, it should be known that, between graduating from law school and attending library school, I worked for nearly six years in the Legal Search Customer Support Department of LexisNexis. During that time, I attained the position of Sr. Legal Consultant, which means, inter alia, I was one of the people that other call-takers would contact if they couldn't find something for a customer. Accordingly, due to my intimate knowledge of the product, I have a strong affinity toward lexis.com, and an almost equally as strong aversion to Westlaw. Don't get me wrong: I know how to use Westlaw and my feelings about Westlaw have nothing to do with my opinion of the business practices of West Publishing; I just believe that the search syntax employed by lexis.com is easier to use/teach/understand/remember than Westlaw's and that the organization and functionality provided by lexis.com allow for greater specificity and granularity in searching than does Westlaw. As a result of my personal biases, I frequently tell students that, if they hear me saying something positive about lexis.com or negative about Westlaw, they should take it with a grain of salt, but if I say something negative about lexis.com or positive about Westlaw, it's a good bet they should really take note.

Thirdly, although in some ways, it is an improvement over Westlaw, I also dislike WestlawNext. I’m sure part of the reason for this is because I am naturally change-averse. However, I believe that most of the positive differences between Westlaw and WestlawNext are merely cosmetic, superficial changes that easily could have been incorporated into the Westlaw platform (e.g., universal search, extended history, easier access to directory of sources, etc.), but then it would have been harder for the company to justify the paradigm shift from search-based pricing to document-based pricing. I believe that, by its nature, quality legal research demands a certain level of specificity, organization, discipline, and thoroughness that WestlawNext prohibits, intentionally obscures, or encourages its users to ignore. Although it may be fine for practitioners (and I’m not sold that it is), the vagaries of WestlawNext’s search algorithm should be of great concern to every legal researcher. I share most of the concerns raised by Ronald Wheeler in his excellent draft on WestlawNext, but this isn’t about WestlawNext; it’s about Lexis Advance for Law Schools (LALS). And, in my opinion, WestlawNext is superior to LALS.

Imperfect Analogy #1

Granted, LALS is technically just a Beta at this time, and so there is a chance that much of what I will describe will change, but I can't hold out hope for that. To analogize, it reminded me of the time I saw the first Twilight movie: I hadn't read the books, but I could tell that the things that made me dislike the movie were clearly a part of the books as well (and I'm not just talking about the dialogue). Since I felt the movie was a waste of my time, I knew I shouldn't waste my time on the books (unlike, for example, the Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which made me want to immediately buy and read that entire series of books).

Certain problematic aspects of LALS are built in by design, and, knowing what I know about the internal product development process of LexisNexis and the intense amount of power the LN marketing department exerts on corporate decisions (anyone remember LexisNexis® Research on Call?), I cannot imagine LALS changing much, because it would basically require them to scrap the whole thing and start over. Unfortunately, LexisNexis has already decided to force LALS down our throats (see Faculty FAQs Q2), so I can't just decide to walk away.

The "Good" News

Let’s start with the good aspects of LALS. [Please keep in mind that some of these “good” things may be things I personally don’t find particularly exciting, but that I’m sure other users will absolutely love.]

First of all, just like WestlawNext, you don’t have to choose a source before running a search. If desired, you can restrict your initial search by Content Type (CT), Jurisdiction, Practice Area/Topic, or any combination of these three. Unfortunately, at this time, once you restrict the initial search, that becomes the default until you change it back. So, once you run a one-off search in Statutes and Legislation or Ohio, that becomes the default until you change the restriction.

Unlike WestlawNext, the initial results screen does not display the top two hits from all the different types of authority, but shows the first 10 documents, sorted by Relevancy, in the default CT. (The number of documents displayed at one time, how the documents are sorted, and what the default CT is, all can be changed according to the user’s preferences.) If sources from more than one CT were searched, the other CTs are accessible through a line of tabs that appear just above the results. Unfortunately, the tabs do not inform you of how many of each CT were retrieved, so it is necessary, at this time, to click into each CT results list to find that out. It would be helpful to have an idea of how many of each CT was retrieved, as that can sometimes give you a clue as to whether you should start in caselaw, statutes, secondary sources, etc.

Second, just like WestlawNext, faceted search functionality allows the user to narrow the results by particular classifications. These Narrow by filters are provided in the left gutter. There are quite a few different filters to choose from, including, where appropriate, a graphical timeline for helping decide how to restrict by date. If you restricted your initial search by Jurisdiction or Practice Area/Topic, these restrictions will appear as the only choices in the relevant post-search filters. Unfortunately, at this time, you cannot do a focus search within the results [but click here for an update on Focus]; instead, LALS provides a Keyword filter with selected keywords that can be used to narrow the results. This list of keywords is apparently based on the Core Terms found in the first 1,000 documents, per Content Type, when ordered by Relevancy, and is limited, at this time, to 20.

Third, just like WestlawNext, there is no limit on the number of results you can retrieve. While all users of lexis.com are familiar with its 3000 results limit, LALS has no such limit. If there are 130,596 cases that satisfy your search query, that's how many will be retrieved.

Fourth, unlike WestlawNext, LALS provides a "Word Wheel" that automatically suggests terms and even citations as you enter your search in the search box. While I'm sure some users will love this feature, there is a problem with it that I will discuss later.

Fifth, some, but not all, of the lexis.com noise words are searchable on LALS.

Sixth, just like WestlawNext, LALS provides a system of folders that allow the user to organize and manage their research by saving documents, entire searches, and even user-generated notes into separate folders. This is the biggest feature that I personally have no use for but that I'm sure others will find very helpful. One caveat: Although there is no limit to the number of folders one can create, nor a limit on how long items stored in folders will remain accessible, there is a current limit of 500 for items stored in the folders. That is currently a fixed number and has nothing to do with the size of the 500 items you have saved. Once the limit is reached, you will not be able to save any additional items without first deleting ones already stored.

Seventh, each step you take down a path of research opens up a separate tab so it is easy to toggle to different steps in the path without losing the information. For example, let's say you run an initial search; the results are on one tab. Then, you click into a particular document; LALS opens up another tab to display that text. If it was a case and you want to see the Shepard's Report for it, clicking the Shepard's signal opens yet another tab. When you're done with a particular step's tab, you can close it, but if you think you might need to look at it again, you can leave it open and just click on a different step's tab.

Eighth, just like WestlawNext, LALS provides an extended History. On lexis.com, past searches and Gets are archived for only 30 days, and only those performed within the last 24 hours can be re-accessed/re-retrieved without incurring new charges. With LALS, the History has been expanded to 90 days, during which time no additional charges are incurred for re-accessing the search. In addition, you can save any activities performed on LALS to a folder for an unlimited time (provided you don't exceed the folder limits mentioned above). [But see Part 3 for additional discussion.]

Finally, LALS also reformats the Shepard’s Report so that it looks more like a KeyCite report, with the Appellate History, Citing Decisions, and Citing Law Reviews, Treatises… appearing on different tabs. Unlike the Content Type tabs in the LALS search results, these tabs identify parenthetically how many entries are on each tab. Each tab also has various Narrow by filters in the left gutter, as well as a Terms within results search box that allows focusing (also unlike the CT tabs).

As you can see, there are some good things about LALS. Unfortunately, most, if not all, of the positives listed above could (and, in my opinion, should) have been incorporated into the lexis.com platform, just as most, if not all, of the good things about WestlawNext could and should have been incorporated into Westlaw. But the differences between lexis.com and LALS go much deeper than the differences between Westlaw and WestlawNext, and LexisNexis' decision to abandon the lexis.com platform has led to some serious deficiencies in LALS.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of my examination of Lexis Advance for Law Schools BETA where I'll discuss some of the problems I have with it.

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