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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Yet Another Lexis Advance Polemic: A Reply to Sellers & Gragg

I must admit that I have experienced several moments in my life where I felt like I was playing the character of John Adams in the musical 1776, wondering "Is anybody there? Does anybody care? Does anybody see what I see?" In each of those moments, I could see that I was being pulled down a disastrous path and knew there was a better path to take, but the group of people pulling me would not listen, or could not understand, when I tried pointing out the perils that awaited us if we continued down the road we were on or the benefits of an alternate route. Unfortunately, reading the latest "Back and Forth . . ." column in the current Law Library Journal has raised those feelings once again.

Entitled "WestlawNext and Lexis Advance" (2012 Law Libr. J. 25, 104 Law Libr. J. 341), the latest exchange between Christine L. Sellers and Phillip Gragg promises to "discuss and debate the emergence of [the titular products], and consider their impact on legal research, law school instruction, and the practice of law." And I must admit, they do a commendable job of explaining some of the problems inherent with these products. Here are some of my favorite moments:

  • "[T]his is the crux of the problem: a product that does not require thought as an input in the research phase will leave the lawyer captive to the automated, thoughtless results that flow out of such a system." (¶ 8, at 342)
  • "The 'Googlization' of legal research . . . expects less of the user. It assumes a lack of skill and understanding . . . , and attempts to reduce complex and nuanced problems to the lowest common denominator. If legal research, analysis, and writing ever become full [sic] automated, lawyers will become little more than clerks." (¶ 13, at 344) (emphasis added)
  • "We must hold our students to higher standards so that a search product that results in an answer of the lowest common denominator does not result in a student whose skill approximates the lowest common denominator." (¶ 14, at 344) (emphasis added)
  • "For those of us who are advanced searchers and know where to look for things, a results list with everything in it is too much. I don’t want to have to dig when I know what source the answer will be in." (¶ 17, at 344) (emphasis added)
  • "Every search seems to result in 10,000 results—as if this were a good thing." (¶ 18, at 344)
  • "I cannot in good conscience abdicate my responsibility to teach a student as many paths to information as possible. Lay your burdens down and seek redemption at the temple of simple solutions? No, the law demands more, and I can’t ignore that.” (¶ 26, at 346) (emphasis added)

You, gentle reader, are undoubtedly confused right now. The lead paragraph above seemed to be drenched with pessimism, and yet, I've just positively quoted extensively from the column. Why the incongruity?

Well, in modern rhetorical style, those quotes above have been taken out of context. All of the statements above were expressed in the midst of a discussion specifically regarding WestlawNext, a discussion, mind you, that dominates the majority of the column. For example, the last quote above is preceded by the following:
"[C]onsider that WestlawNext seems to be asking users the question: 'Why do you need knowledge and understanding when you have me?'" (emphasis added). You see, what I find most frustrating is that, for some reason, Lexis Advance seems to be getting a free pass from many in the legal community despite the fact that it is, at this time, in no way a better (and, indeed, in many respects, a much worse) product than WestlawNext.

In this particular column, for example, the authors begin with several claims that, at least to me, seem to misleadingly paint Lexis Advance in a positive light, either directly or by way of contrast with WestlawNext:

  • "LexisNexis . . . had the advantage . . . of watching the very mixed reaction to WestlawNext and the heavy-handed way in which West attempted to foist it upon the masses. . . ." (¶ 3, at 341)
  • "LexisNexis learned from Westlaw's mistakes with WestlawNext, and that was strongly encouraged and noticed by both librarians and bloggers." (¶ 4, at 342)
  • "Westlaw is attempting to force this on us, whether we like it or not, and not in a subtle way." (¶ 5, at 342)
  • "The impression I got from our LexisNexis representative, and others I've met at conferences, is that the emphasis seems to be on the customer." (¶ 6, at 342)

There are three points I would like to make. First, the authors correctly point out that much more has been written about WestlawNext than Lexis Advance. However, Mr. Gragg is kind enough to admit that he did not take the time to actually track down much of what has been written about Lexis Advance, and even the two sources (both from 2010) that Ms. Sellers cites focus on the product's marketing, not its actual value as a research tool. The sad fact is that most of what has been written about Lexis Advance is from bloggers who focused on the rollout, transparency of pricing, and superficial aspects of the product ("ooh, look, it has a single search box, just like Google!") and/or simply parroted LexisNexis marketing materials regarding Lexis Advance.

Second, nearly every statement made by the authors about WestlawNext also applies to Lexis Advance:

  • "When the very early objections to the introduction of [Lexis Advance] were made, the company merely delayed their time line for rollout. Then, when it started to move forward again, the company used the same tactics—a clumsy, forcible introduction." (¶ 5, at 342)
  • "What I really noticed was the positive response [Lexis Advance] first received from the bloggers invited . . . to preview the product." (¶ 10, at 343)
  • "The launch felt like a top-down. [LexisNexis]'s management would have done well to listen to their soldiers in the field, and most important, their customers who spend enormous sums for access to their products." ((¶ 11, at 343)
  • "In short, I don’t feel [Lexis Advance] is a threat to librarians; it's a threat to lawyers." (¶ 14, at 344)

Finally, we need to stop focusing on the meaningless (and by "meaningless", I mean how it's marketed) and start focusing on its value to the legal community, its usability!! If we're going talk about pricing, let's first talk about its pricing structure, not its transparency! Perhaps Mr. Gragg is correct and "everyone is going the way of WestlawNext [and, presumably, Lexis Advance]" (¶ 26, at 346). But why?! Why do we have to accept, nay, be satisfied with an inferior product?! He identifies the "two central issues: (1) Does the cost of a new product or technology outweigh [its] benefits? . . . And (2) Does the new technology produce a better, more well-rounded and practice-ready attorney?" (¶ 25, at 346). One may infer from his remarks that he might answer both questions with a "No" when it comes to WestlawNext, but neither he nor Ms. Sellers even begins to address those issues as they apply to Lexis Advance. I don't want to put words into their mouths, but I cannot see how the answer to both questions can be anything but a resounding "No!" when it comes to Lexis Advance.

Yes, little has been written about Lexis Advance in comparison to WestlawNext, but puff pieces such as this do not help! The reality is that, as of this writing, Lexis Advance, as a legal research tool, cannot compete with lexis.com, Westlaw, or WestlawNext (and probably not other tools such as Bloomberg Law or FastCase, although I must admit I have not used either of them yet). Maybe the promised coming enhancements to Lexis Advance will finally make it capable of being used for quality legal research, but until then, I cannot help but feel betrayed by a community that refuses to critically examine a product that is being forced upon us.

And maybe I’m wrong! Maybe these products (both Lexis Advance and WestlawNext) are the greatest advancements in legal research in the last 20 years. Maybe I'm just being a "fuddy-duddy". But if that is the case, then I implore you, please, explain to me why I'm wrong. Show me the errors of my ways, 'cause if someone else doesn't start providing actual critiques of these products, I'm going to have to keep on going.

For those who are unaware of my previous postings on Lexis Advance, see "Some First Thoughts on Lexis Advance for Law Schools (Part 1)"; "Some First Thoughts on LALS (Part 2)"; "Some First Thoughts on LALS (Part 3)"; "A Second Look: Lexis Advance Revisited (Part 1)"; "A Second Look: Lexis Advance Revisited (Part 2)"; and "Lexis Advance 'Certification'?".

2 comments:

  1. Let me start by saying that I'm a recent law school graduate, but also that I have a background in the development side of electronic databases. I say that much in the hope that you won't disregard my statement as being "from an anonymous student” ... It’s true that I want to remain anonymous, but I do happen to know something about the matters I address below. I care enough about the research tools being used in the law that I have Google Alerts set up for any mention of either system and have met with both my Lexis and Westlaw reps repeatedly and attended most of the training they've made available.

    Every time I read one of your Lexis Advance rants, I'm tempted to try to find your bio to see if you're an angry, former Lexis employee. When it comes to Lexis, your blog posts tend to come across as unprofessional. The cartoon you posted recently which you used to imply that everyone at Lexis is an idiot was both a perfect example of my point and a particular low point for the professionalism of this law library's blog.

    Now on to the substance of my comment: I too read the Sellers & Gragg "debate." I found it largely unhelpful and in some ways offensive to me as a student. As someone who follows at least a portion of the conversation going on about law students and legal research, I'm consistently disappointed by the low expectations faculty seem to have of us. To put it bluntly, my peers and I are not idiots to be coddled and fretted over. We are bright, developing professionals to be guided. If you're not seeing us exhibit our full potential, it's because you as educators are failing to engage us.

    What Lexis and Westlaw are doing right is giving us modern, usable systems that work the way we think and not, as has been suggested, think for us. Perhaps the crux of your problem with these new systems is that you're not the target audience?

    As for your regular whining about Lexis Advance - this is where the developer in me comes out - don't you think it's unfair to compare a product that has been available for less than a year to a product that's been available for almost three? As I recall Next was missing a lot of content and features when I was first given my ID as well.

    The fact that both companies have refrained removing their older products is both an admission that the new product isn't quite ready and a responsible nod to the customer in what can only be described as a very slow-to-change, high-stakes profession.

    You also point out that you feel that Next outperforms Advance. I couldn't disagree more. When compared fairly (that is, comparing content and features that are available on both), I consistently find better results with Lexis Advance. I also find Shepard to be a much more complex and dynamic tool than KeyCite. Moreover, I've had better support, training, and service from my Lexis Rep. In contrast, I'm not even confident of my Westlaw Rep's ability to lick an envelope without cutting herself.

    Finally, I think I've been very clear in stating my Lexis preference and the reasons for it. Let me just request that recognize your responsibility to do likewise. It's clear to me that no matter what product Lexis rolls out, you'll find yourself in opposition - why don't you just come out and state your real reasons for being this way. While you're at it, stop and consider the disservice you do to students when you fall short of stating that bias. All the talk about responsibility to students falls short of credible when it’s immediately paired with a clear bias.

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    Replies
    1. First of all, I would like to thank the anonymous law grad/developer for taking the time to comment. I really do appreciate it, and I am glad to see that you care enough about the research tools available to you as a member of the legal community that you are making a concerted effort to proactively keep abreast of developments.

      Secondly, I have nothing to hide. As I explained at the beginning of Part 1 of my first Lexis Advance series of posts, I am indeed a former employee of LexisNexis. However, as I hoped to convey at the end of Part 3 of that series, I do not consider myself a “disgruntled former employee” as that phrase is typically used.

      Thirdly, while I will concede that it may appear as if I relish attacking Lexis Advance, that should not imply “that no matter what product Lexis rolls out, [I'll] find [myself] in opposition.” Indeed, my passion for attacking Lexis Advance stems entirely from my passion for lexis.com. I love lexis.com!! In fact, in an attempt (apparently unsuccessful) to maintain some level of professionalism, I have purposefully restrained myself from publishing some of my more vitriolic comments, and publicly commended LexisNexis when they’ve made changes to Lexis Advance that address any of my concerns. (See, for example, "A Second Look: Lexis Advance Revisited (Part 1)".)

      If I have not made clear my biases or my reasons for “whining” about Lexis Advance, then I apologize. However, I also feel that I have specifically attempted to direct my opinions primarily toward the non-student legal community, precisely because we (i.e. non-students, whether librarians, professors, or practitioners) are not the target audience, despite propaganda, I mean, marketing from both Lexis Advance and WestlawNext to the contrary. Similarly, although I cannot speak for them, my perception of the Sellers-Gragg column was that it was not directed toward students, but towards those tasked with teaching legal research to students. I found their discussion (as far it went) to be very informative and inoffensive. Yet, I can’t help but notice the irony in your critique of their work: You state that law students “are not idiots to be coddled and fretted over” (and I would concur wholeheartedly with that statement), and yet you resoundingly endorse a tool that was designed precisely because the duopoly behind the current legal research regime is betting they are.

      I hope you’ll stay engaged in the overall discussion regarding legal research tools, and I wish you the best of luck on your bar exams.

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