Westlaw will be launching its new search engine, called WestlawNext, at Legal Tech New York next Monday. Yesterday, the folks responsible for WestlawNext gave a pre-launch presentation about the new platform to a group of bloggers and legal journalists who write for various audiences. Carolyn Elefant and I were there representing the small firm and solo practitioner perspective. Other participants included Greg Lambert of 3 Geeks and a Law Blog (large firm perspective), Donna Tuke of Legal Information Alert (a publication for law librarians) and Canadian practice management advisor David Bilinsky (among others). (Disclosure: West paid the participants’ expenses to travel to its Eagan, Minnesota headquarters for the meeting). Everyone at the Eagan meeting (as well as a few others who were not able to attend) had already had an opportunity to use the beta version of Westlaw Next and to provide feedback to the developers.
How Does WestlawNext Differ from Westlaw?
Although he couldn’t make it to Eagan, Bob Ambrogi (who was one of the bloggers who got a beta preview) hit most of the high points of the new search tool in a post published yesterday. Laura Bergus of Social Media Law Student and David Bilinsky have also posted product reviews.
A few additional points are worth mentioning. First, although the ABA Journal reported that, as of December, West was still considering whether or not would allow users to perform boolean (terms and connectors) searches, at yesterday’s meeting the West representatives clarified that boolean searching is not being eliminated.
Second, although both Ambrogi and the ABA Journal refer to the ability to do “natural language” searches in WestlawNext, the West representatives explained that the WestlawNext algorithm for non-boolean searches is much more sophisticated than the algorithm used for natural language searches on Westlaw.com. In particular, it leverages West’s human-created content—including the key number system and other proprietary analytical content (such as statutory annotations and treatises)—along with KeyCite results and customer usage information to return more relevant results earlier in the research process.
Third, I’m intrigued by the fact that you can search in a database that is outside your subscription plan, and review the results list, without incurring search charges. Instead of charging for the search, with WestlawNext, you’ll be charged only for accessing the documents that you view in full text.
Pricing: the Elephant in the Room
There’s no question that WestlawNext is superior to Westlaw. Unfortunately (as the ABA Journal noted on Monday), that performance comes at a price.
When we asked, point blank, what that price would be, the West representatives didn’t have a simple answer. Instead, they explained that the company’s sales reps will try to convince customers to add additional content to their subscriptions at the time of upgrade. When pressed as to whether the upgrade would be pegged at a certain percentage of the cost of a subscriber’s plan, West denied taking that approach.
West’s non-response essentially leaves its subscribers in the dark and on their own when it comes to upgrade negotiations. As I see it, the best way to counter West’s strategy is to crowdsource solutions, a la BidonTravel.com. Perhaps some enterprising legal tech expert will set up a site like BidonTravel.com in the not too distant future; in the meantime, I invite you to discuss your experiences in the comments below.
I’d like to upgrade, but I know I don’t want additional content within my subscription plan. How West will respond to this position remains to be seen; I’ll report back on my negotiations with my account rep.
Finally, some advice for West: although I don’t have any statistics at the moment, my sense is that, since it lowered its prices a number of years ago, West has captured a significant portion of the small firm lawyers and solo practitioners who previously used Lexis. If WestlawNext comes at too high a premium, West may lose the ground it’s gained.