One of the things about my job that I'll sometimes miss is being courted by the two mega legal publishers, Westlaw and Lexis. Law librarians get presents from them all the time. During the two and half years in my job in an academic law library, I've received numerous travelling cups, t-shirts, fancy pens, a flashlight, a clock, and several other things which I'm forgetting. I've only been to one AALL conference in that time - but librarians going to those can pick up even more goodies. I got a toy moose which my niece loved when I gave it to her. Then there's all the free food - from the pastries when our Westlaw or Lexis rep visit, to the huge box of chocolates we received in December.
As an academic law librarian I am of two minds about legal publishers, especially the Big Two.
On the one hand, they have made it so much easier and faster to do legal research. I went to law school in Australia in the first half of the 1990s and I remember what it was like to do legal research solely with print and CD-ROM materials. It was a daunting and tedious process. One the other hand, it did work and maybe because the technology was less advanced, the expectations seemed lower.
Westlaw and Lexis, among others, have done a great job of reducing some of the barriers which used to stand between people and effective legal research. The geographical barriers – you no longer need to be in a large library to have access to a huge range of legal materials. Also some educational barriers. Now as someone who teaches Lexis and Westlaw to first-year law students, I certainly don’t think that you can use these research systems effectively without extensive training and a legal education. What I do think is that it requires less training and work for students to get to the point where they can use Lexis or Westlaw passably on their own, when compared with the older research tools.
Sometimes getting to that passable point is all that people care about. Then too often these people believe the reassuring marketing messages and think that they are in fact masters of electronic research, that anyone can do it and that there’s no need for librarians or libraries, because everything is available on Westlaw or Lexis. I tend to think that true mastery of a research system involves being able to exhaust its possibilities and know its limitations – when it’s appropriate to try something else.
The thing is that although Lexis and Westlaw have lowered some barriers guarding effective legal research, they are raising a big one in its place: money. To use these research systems you need to have money. A few libraries have worked out exceptions, but an average Joe Bloggs can’t walk into a library and expect to use Westlaw or Lexis on his own. Not unless he already has an account with them and his own individual password, or is willing to give them his credit card number. Generally the only people who are able to use the databases are lawyers (including academics) and their support staff, law students and law librarians.
It’s not as if all lawyers can afford these products either. Lexis and Westlaw are very expensive in the real world. If a lawyer subscribes to one (only the more successful have the luxury of subscribing to both), the high costs are usually passed down to the client in some shape or form and this increases the cost of justice. If a lawyer chooses to use one of the cheaper competitors such as Loislaw or Versuslaw, or to do without, he or she may be at a disadvantage – the extent of which will depend on the situation and the lawyer's research skills.
Although law students don’t pay directly for Lexis or Westlaw, to be a law student you need to have money – or be willing to take on a large debt. Lexis and Westlaw must spend millions marketing to law students. Even more importantly, students can use either system as much as they like without ever getting an idea of how much their research would cost in the real world. It is literally a fool’s paradise, and I know that it’s a rude awakening the moment the true costs become known. It must be the Big Two’s plan to get law students hooked onto their products while they are in law school, so that paying for Westlaw or Lexis becomes an essential expense to the practicing lawyer – as essential as maintaining one’s license to practice.
Where do law librarians fit into this equation? Academic law librarians help teach law students how to use these research systems – whether in formal training or in the informal training which takes place at the reference desk. It’s amazing how many times I get a student who’s decided very early on that they prefer Westlaw over Lexis (occasionally it’s the other way around, but then I do work in St. Paul, West’s home town).
I usually teach that law students need to make the most of their “free” access to these products to learn to master both. For one thing, not everything that’s on the one will be on the other. Also, a student who solely uses Westlaw in law school will be at an disadvantage if he or she ends up working in a firm which uses Lexis and printed materials.
So it’s probably because academic law librarians sometimes have influence over law students that we receive gifts from Westlaw and Lexis. It’s not as if we’re ever going to decide to cancel one of the research systems.
If it seemed as if Lexis didn’t give care about even trying to be nice to librarians, but Westlaw always did, would I be so ready to say “Lexis isn’t so bad once you get used to it – you should give it a try because …” to that student who always used Westlaw?
I would like to think that I’m totally independent, that receiving gifts from publishers has no influence on me whatsoever. On a intellectual level, this is true and I am independent. Much of this post has been critical of both companies. On the other hand, I have not said that Westlaw is better than Lexis or that Lexis is better than Westlaw.
My intellectual reason is that Lexis is in fact better at some things and while Westlaw is better at some other things. It just depends on what you’re trying to do. But can I speak to what goes on at the emotional and subconscious levels? That’s what the marketing from Lexis and Westlaw is really targeting. Because of the marketing, do I want to find an intellectual reason not to prefer one over the other as a general rule?
I guess the true test would be to have one of the companies turn off the marketing, but not the other. But if the marketing does make a difference, I don’t think that will happen.