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SmallLaw: The Brewing Revolution in Legal Research

By Mazyar Hedayat | Monday, May 3, 2010

Originally published on March 01, 2010 in our free SmallLaw newsletter.

At ABA TechShow, which kicks off later this month, you can learn about blogging, eDiscovery, social media, and other hot topics. But over the past few months, the usually unsexy topic of legal research has emerged as the hottest topic of the year. Recent developments may impact every small firm in the country. Here's why.

Beginning in late 2009, a decades-old question re-emerged for the first time in years: What technology will power the future of legal research? Thanks to several new competitors, legal research looks like a crowded field rather than a duopoly — a good thing, right? After all, competition encourages companies to retain existing customers and win new ones by being faster to market, ensuring a low cost-structure, and introducing a better product — and maybe even by doing all of the above.

Over the years I have sampled and — for at least some time — actively used each of the principal services. For me, the results have been underwhelming. I am among those who yearn for a future with better legal research technology.

The Defending Champs and Their Challengers

Westlaw and Lexis — the leaders in legal research — need no introduction. They built their reputations lawyer by lawyer, reporter by reporter … before being acquired and then acquired again. Today Lexis and Westlaw are often mirror images of one another in many respects. Despite their rivalry for the hearts and minds of the profession, the two companies keep one another under constant surveillance and compete for the same AmLaw 100 accounts more or less … plus whatever smaller players their sales armies can catch.

So is there really a difference? I have found a few. Westlaw has a slightly more graphic-intensive and less confusing interface than its rival. Moreover, its natural-language search capabilities are more robust than those of Lexis, especially given its recent launch of WestlawNext. Meanwhile, its databases are nestled within one another so effectively that researchers can get to searching rather than running the gauntlet of choices that Lexis users must navigate. Unfortunately, when it comes to billing Westlaw shows less flexibility than it used to, and less than Lexis. I attribute this change to the influence of Thomson and Reuters.

Lexis has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to information — traceable to its roots as an information vendor, not just a legal information company. It also possesses a dynamic internal structure that frequently causes it to operate less like a unit and more like a federation of independent businesses. The results can be downright exciting, and Lexis has aggressively acquired a number of cutting-edge companies in the legal field over the past decade. Too bad the company took its eyes off the legal research prize. It seems like LexisNexis can't decide what it wants to be when it grows up: application vendor, news source, social network, etc.

Loislaw was one of the first serious challengers to the domination of legal research by Westlaw and Lexis, but never grew beyond its original sandbox in terms of interface or databases. The key feature Loislaw sought to exploit was its ability to access public records for free and add value by linking the pieces into a network. It also offers a citation service. But it seemed to me like Loislaw never finished integrating the pieces with one another. Nonetheless, the alternative research market is Loislaw's to lose, which it may to Fastcase.

Fastcase seems like the real legal research alternative for my money. To begin with, the service really does deliver information fast, using an easy to grasp, easy to use interface, ties results to the right sources, is available online or on your iPhone, and does it all for free. At first the strategy was to have bar associations pay for the service and pass it on as a member benefit, which worked out fine. So how surprised were they when free became the new way to market? The rest is history. I credit Fastcase with preventing "free research" from being synonymous with "lousy research."

I have the least direct experience with Bloomberg Law for the obvious reason that this service is new and not trying to upend the overall market or serve all lawyers. Quite the contrary, Bloomberg aims to simplify the life of large firm lawyers, securities lawyers, and corporate law departments. The strategy at Bloomberg is simple: limited databases, limited services, high priced premium access for a well-defined market. Bloomberg may take business away from Westlaw and Lexis, and represents a breath of fresh air in this rarefied atmosphere, but you can't use it to shore up your average child support motion.

In November 2009, Google announced that it would offer state and federal court opinions through Google Scholar, including Supreme Court opinions back to 1791. Since then it has become apparent that Google Scholar updates its databases in real-time (a Google hallmark), and continually adds services to enhance its growing case law and statutory law stash. However, the real strength of Westlaw and Lexis stem not just from the number of information sources they boast, but from editorial oversight and connections among those databases to bring forth added value. At the moment, Google Scholar offers no such added value, and there is no indication that it will. Maybe it really just does just want to add another dimension to the searches conducted by ordinary people.

And the Winner Is …

This fight is just getting started. The winner could become your next legal research provider. One way or another we all have a horse in this race, and we should all let the big providers know where we stand. I think I just did. How about you?

Written by Mazyar M. Hedayat of M. Hedayat & Associates, P.C.

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Topics: Legal Research | SmallLaw
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