The Beginning of the End for the Wexis Duopoly?
I’ve often mentioned Westlaw and LexisNexis in my previous posts. It still amazes me that an online database is able to do so much. One can search for a case, check its validity, find five other similar cases and a few supporting law review articles, and e-mail all their findings to a collaborator on the other side of the world in mere minutes, all from one website. But these great and powerful databases come at a price (literally!). Free access to Westlaw and LexisNexis (fondly referred to as “Wexis” by some) during law school can cultivate bad habits and laziness. During my summer internships, I would find myself simply searching at random, until I hit upon something that was relevant. I was looking until I found whatever it was I was looking for, really, which any librarian will tell you is a terrible approach to research. During a recent research assignment, the class had to answer research questions using only free websites. Needless to say, being unable to use my tried-and-true Westlaw was incredibly frustrating, but it was still encouraging to know that I wouldn’t be at a complete loss if I didn’t have free access to Westlaw in my life post-graduation.
Apart from my ironic inability to use legal research engines that were built upon the idea of ease and simplicity, Wexis may be turning away more users than they are attracting due to their extraordinarily high prices. Both companies have flat rates and transaction-based arrangements, as well as reduced rates for smaller firms and solo practitioners. But running a single search on Westlaw can still be prohibitively expensive, costing hundreds of dollars. And if one chooses an hourly approach (all the searches you can perform in a minute), the costs can quickly accumulate. At $24/minute for 30 minutes, that’s already over $700. Who knew time was that much money?
There has been a growing backlash against the high prices these two companies charge. Granted, they provide a fantastic service, and they have many many features that free or low-cost alternatives could never hope to replicate, such as KeyCite, headnotes, and cross-references across databases and materials, as well as access to commonly-used secondary sources. While all of those attributes are helpful in making an attorney’s life easier (though sometimes it feels like information supersaturation), among practicing attorneys, many are able to get by without the bells and whistles that are commonly found in law school subscription plans. Even among my classmates, many of us agree that secondary sources are not too helpful when it comes to the actual practice of law, and the only thing that free legal research sites like Findlaw need is a way to verify whether caselaw is still good or bad. Apart from KeyCiting/Shepardizing and access to some specialized databases (BNA Labor Reports, etc.), the practicing attorney has quite a few handy resources at his or her disposal (this blog lists many!).
Pundits, scholars, and researchers have all argued for open access to legal information. After reading a post on “3 Geeks and a Law”, I began to wonder myself what such an environment might look like. There are certainly times when reliance on Wexis is unnecessary, perhaps when writing a routine motion, or in local civil or criminal cases. Apart from the proliferation of free and low-cost alternatives to Wexis that have sprung up online in the last five years or so, the majority of state bars offer access to Casemaker – a free legal research catalog that provides federal and state-specific opinions and statutes, with the ability to search by using keywords. Previous posts (see here and here) have mentioned Google Scholar. Supposedly, Google has also begun work on another initiative, called Law.gov, which promotes open access to government materials, including legal opinions. Perhaps a Wikipedia-esque legal site will appear in the near future, where judges, attorneys, and students can make their work available online for free.
There are times when it would be wise, however, to fork over the money to make sure a brief’s caselaw is solid or that a memo accurately states the current developments in a new area of law. With these relevant needs, it is unlikely that Westlaw or LexisNexis will ever go away. It is further unlikely that any legal database relying on user contributions could gain much credibility and authority, just as Wikipedia’s articles, while well-written and informative, are still viewed with skepticism, and rightly so. But access to information is never a bad thing, and even if increasing the availability of legal information and caselaw doesn’t help the practicing attorney much, it can certainly benefit the wider community. Free resources would keep costs down for many firms as well, and the more well-organized a site, the easier and faster it would be to search. Perhaps a more relevant question isn’t so much, “Should one get by without using Wexis?” but, “Are there any reliable alternatives to do so, particularly with the inability to KeyCite?Shepardize?” It clearly seems like some good options are emerging. Perhaps over the next decade or century, we will see another shift in how legal information is retrieved and used.
Next time…a post completely unrelated to Wexis!