This article appeared in the July 1999 issue of the
© 1999 Massachusetts Bar Association By Michael S.Marino is a law clerk at the Boston firm of Truelove & Dee.
Due, in part, to the competitive nature of the legal industry, an industry for legal research material has spawned over the pastdecade that has increased the volume and variety of legal research materials.Unchanged, however, is the lawyer's need for accurate and timely information at a reasonable cost. As if variety was not challenge enough, add to the mix the speed of technological advances, and the legal practitioner is faced with very difficult market decisions. Common questions are: What medium is most practical? Does a product's usefulness justify its cost? What does the product actually offer?
This article will briefly compare the flat rate taxationproducts offered by the two major online legal research services: Westlaw andLexis-Nexis. Although I will highlight important comparisons, any finaldetermination of which is the "best" product is left to the readeras you are the best judges of your individual needs.
This article was created using only those means availableto the average dutiful consumer, specifically, published material and directinquiries made to the two companies. Any seemingly original thoughts should bescrutinized carefully; opinions should be taken for what they are worth; andall errors and/or omissions are the sole responsibility of the author.
PROGRAMS Subscribing to either online service allows the user theoption of either software-based or browser-based access. Currently, theprinciple method of access for both services is software-based. Westlaw'ssoftware is very functional, allowing the user to move quickly to the desireddatabase. The software is graphically oriented, with toolbars across the top ofthe screen and the side on the main menu. Selecting a database in Westlaw isvery intuitive because all databases are also visually arranged in an outlineform. This aids researchers in knowing where they are while in this cyberenvironment. Additionally, in Westlaw researchers can move forward andbackward, from document to document, within their search result, as well as,jump forward and backward to associated information ancillary to their searchresult.
Lexis-Nexis' program is also graphically oriented,with a tool bar across the top of the screen. However, the researcher remainstied to the older Lexis-Nexis database menu selections, which are awkward tonavigate. The Lexis-Nexis software also is unable to move freely back and forththrough a search result or to ancillary information. This, too, may be a sideeffect of how its databases are arranged.
SERVICE Both Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis offer similar search methods.Each service allows term searches or searches using regular language. Notwithstanding,each service has unique ways of finding additional search results. Westlaw usesa system of Keynumbers within Headnotes. A Keynumber is an issue of law thathas been given a numerical identifier. Headnotes precede the text in cases andidentify the Keynumbers as well as describe the issue of law Westlaw hasidentified in that case. The result is that, on Westlaw, a researcher mayretrieve information with similar Keynumbers effortlessly.
Lexis-Nexis has recently developed a system to rival theKeynumber system. Where Westlaw associated legal issues with numbers,Lexis-Nexis has associated legal and factual issues with the Core Terms andSelected Texts most associated with an issue. A Core Term or Selected Textsearch therefore allows a Lexis-Nexis researcher to retrieve similarinformation effortlessly. This is a major improvement for Lexis-Nexis and theability to search specific facts may aid researchers in narrowing theirsearches to only the most useful information. At this time, these services areavailable from the browser-based research only.
Both Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis offer unique citationsservices. Westlaw offers a product called KeyCite. KeyCite provides informationon the case history, negative and positive; labels cases with colored flagsindicating case status; identifies the depth of treatment of the target casewithin the cases of its history; and identifies the Headnote, and therefore aKeynumber, from the target case, which is cited in each case of its history.
Lexis-Nexis offers the familiar Shepard's Citationsservice and it has recently been improved to compete with Westlaw.Shepard's provides thorough case histories as it did before, but nowresearchers are also able to Focus and Filter the documents in the targetcase's history to find the best citing material. Focus allows, for thefirst time on Lexis-Nexis, the researcher to search a target case'shistory for specific terms. Similarly, Filter has the ability to look for anissue of law. Currently, these services are available from the browseronly.
Incidentally, both Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis provide somehuman services as well. Each service has seemingly competent reference lawyersavailable 24 hours a day at the other end of a toll-free line. One difference,however, is that Westlaw provides research training only initially at no cost.Lexis-Nexis provides the similar training on an unlimited basis at no cost.
DATABASES With either service, the number of databases associatedwith taxation is so great it precludes a line-by-line comparison. Directcomparisons are further frustrated by the fact the each company bundles andnames its information differently. For example, what is combined in onedatabase on Westlaw may be included in two databases on Lexis-Nexis. (To be fair,I have found the converse is also true.) The practical result of this is thatmore is not always better; you need to really look at what you are getting.
For our purposes here, it will probably be sufficient tomerely state the major similarities and the major differences. The two servicesare similar in that they both offer: federal cases, congressional research; theFederal Register; the Code of Federal Regulations; final, temp and proposedregulations; the Tax Reform Act with added materials; IRS General CounselMemoranda, IRS Technical Memoranda; the IRS Manual; IRS Actions on Decisions;IRS Bulletins; and the United States Code Annotated. From here similarities areharder to find.
The major difference between the two services is thatLexis-Nexis includes state tax materials from 50 states, D.C. and V.I.,including cases, statutes, regulations and bill tracking. Westlaw does notinclude state material, other than tax material, from the state in which theservice plan is based. (e.g. Massachusetts Pro Plan or Pro Plus includesMassachusetts state tax information)
Another difference is the secondary sources available oneither service. Consistent with its multi-state approach, Lexis-Nexis includesa broader scope of secondary sources, most notably including: CCH Federal TaxService, the Tax Notes Today series, the Tax Analysts' series, and selecttax law reviews. By comparison, Westlaw is very deficient in this category. Itstax secondary sources are few and mainly only those included in the subscriber'sbase service plan for their state.
Specifics about how frequently each company'sdatabases are updated is beyond the scope of this article, but in thiscompetitive industry one would only guess each is comparable. I would like tonote, however, that Lexis-Nexis has recently started adding value to its plans.It reported that its flat rate plans will include more directories andservices, as well as, more secondary sources at no additional charge.Similarly, Westlaw stated that it was in the process of adding more secondarysources, but it was unknown what would be included in its flat rate tax plan.
TESTS While there are clearly small differences in the softwareand databases offered, the most practical question is, "Will I receivethe same information on both?" I conducted four identical searches, twovery narrow and two very broad, on both Westlaw and Lexis-Nexis, in databaseswith comparable or similar content. The test yielded the following result:
|"Offer in compromise" "truthfulness" and statement (Narrow)
|"Offer in compromise" /s fraud (Broad)
|* Both the KeyCite andShepard's were searched using the same case.
Therefore, these results, while admittedly limited, yieldvaluable information. When database content is comparable, the searchesprovided nearly the same cases. However, when each service's organiccitations service is used, the results are more drastic. Keycite was able tobring up 10 documents as a document history. This included both cases andnoncase material organized by depth of treatment and issue. Shepard's wasable to bring up only five cases. Please note, this test was not conducted withthe new and improved Shepard's.
Browser-based research is offered by each of the twoservices. Both Web sites operate without using special commands and in a verygraphical environment. Westlaw's browser is effective if you are awayfrom your computer, but I find the computer program much easier and efficientto use. (This may be personal bias.) Lexis-Nexis, however, has a browser thatis far superior to its computer program. Representatives from Lexis-Nexisinformed me that all of its law student training programs are currentlyconducted on the browser rather than computer software. There were two reasonsfor this: the browser offers services not accessible through the program, (allof which were described previously) and they believe browser-based researchwill eclipse computer software research in the future. While therepresentatives from Westlaw believe browser-based research will increase inthe future, the success and utility of their computer software makes them lesseager for a Web revolution.
Lastly, what are the respective costs? The answer is: itdepends. Costs change faster than the technology and are also somewhatdependent on the individual deal you make with your company salerepresentative. Westlaw's flat rate tax package ($115), when added onto astate Pro Plus plan (including: state cases; state statutes; stateadministrative materials; federal District, Circuit and Supreme Court cases;and the U.S. Code for $350), costs approximately $465 per month. Lexis'flat rate tax plan is sold in three different levels: bronze, silver and gold.Lexis-Nexis' Gold plan ($170), when added onto a state package similar toWestlaw ($370), costs approximately $540 per month. Therefore, whileLexis-Nexis costs more, depending upon your practice and your database needs,it may be a better value. Additionally, Lexis-Nexis offers the added benefit offree documents, from outside your service area, as long as you have a documentcitation. Westlaw charges you per document for anything retrieved from outsideyour service area. (The above listed costs are for firms with approximatelyfive lawyers.)
Lexis-Nexis' tax flat rate plan offers more taxinformation than Westlaw, specifically, secondary source material and cases andstatutes from the 50 states. However, Westlaw's flat rate tax plan, whencombined with a PRO plan, offers both federal tax and non-tax information froma host state. I find the current version of the Westlaw software more intuitiveto use with features that Windows users are accustomed to. The current versionof the Lexis-Nexis software is unworkable by comparison. Lexis-Nexis, however,has merely decided to place more emphasis on its browser, which may pay off inthe future. Ultimately, each user must decide what database resources we needand how we will best access them.