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Computer Counselor - June 1998

Internet Research Takes Another Step Forward

Xchange and westlaw.com are now up and running on the Internet

By Daryl Teshima 

With great fanfare, Lexis-Nexis and West Group have recently launched new Internet on-ramps to their online databases. Lexis-Nexis's Xchange (www.lexis.com) and West Group's westlaw.com (www.westlaw.com) allow practitioners to access and search the billions of documents stored on these systems with just a Web browser and an Internet account. This development raises a question: is the Internet a more efficient on-ramp to these legal databases than traditional search programs such as Lexis-Nexis's Office 97 or West Group's Westmate? 

To find an answer, I compared westlaw.com with a prerelease version of West-mate 7.0. I also compared Lexis-Nexis's Xchange with the company's Office 97 version 7.00.200. The computer used in these tests was a Pentium 200 MHz MMX with 64 MB of RAM, a 33.6 bps modem, and an Earthlink Internet connection. The Web browsers used were Internet Explorer 3.02 and Netscape Navigator 4.04. 

Those who already have an Internet Web connection that works will find it easy to get started on westlaw.com and Xchange. A user need only enter the appropriate Web address for the particular service. Access to the World Wide Web is required, however; users not on a graphical user interface (i.e., people still using DOS) are out of luck. 

To enter Xchange, users-even if they already have Lexis-Nexis accounts-need to obtain user names and passwords that are specific to it. On the other hand, a user who already has access to Lexis-Nexis Advantage for the Web can employ the user name and password that work for Advantage. 

To access westlaw.com, users enter the same password used in Westmate. Since westlaw.com uses frames, users must have one of the following Web browsers: Internet Explorer 3.00 or higher, Netscape Navigator 3.01 or higher, or the current America Online Web browser. In addition, westlaw.com gives users the option of downloading cases and other search results while using Adobe's portable document format (PDF), which generates an exact replica of the corresponding West print product. To use this format, users need either the Adobe Acrobat reader or browser. 

Installation requirements for West's and Lexis's proprietary access packages are similar. Using wizards, Westmate and Xchange do a good job of walking users through the setup procedure. Whether these wizards are easier to use than setting up an Internet connection on a computer depends on the service provider. For example, Earthlink's Total Access setup process does a comparable job of connecting a computer to the Internet. 

Lexis-Nexis Office 97 lets users customize their research sessions in just about every manner imaginable. From saving frequent searches to creating a list of commonly used databases, firms can customize sessions to maximize efficiency. Office 97 even allows users to choose between a graphical interface and text-only interface. For those who are intimately familiar with Lexis-Nexis search commands, the text-only interface offers unparalleled speed and responsiveness. 

Westmate also has some powerful customization options, ranging from displaying West's Star Paging numbers to creating customized research toolbars. Westmate users do not, however, have a choice between a graphical and text search interface. West officials indicate, however, that the final release version will have a command line that will allow users to enter stacked print commands. 

Currently, westlaw.com and Xchange do not have the same level of customization features that are available on their proprietary online software counterparts. For example, Xchange takes advantage of the bookmarking features of the browser (i.e., Netscape or Explorer) in order to access search screens rather than use its own feature set, but Xchange does keep track of recently searched databases. 

Westlaw.com also has limited customization options but takes better advantage of some of the more advanced customization features found in Web browsers. For example, westlaw.com uses context/content frames, which allow search results to be displayed simultaneously with the full text of a particular document. In addition, each westlaw.com page-including search requests and results-has its own unique URL. This allows users not only to bookmark frequently made queries but also to imbed them as live links in word processing documents and Windows desktop. 

Additional customization in westlaw.com is possible for firms that utilize an intranet and have expertise in HTML programming. For example, the drop-down lists of favorite databases in westlaw.com's welcome page can be recoded to include only the ones used by the firm. In order for this customized welcome page to work, it must be saved and accessed via the firm's intranet, where it will act as the firm's gateway to westlaw.com. Firms interested in performing this level of customization should contact West's technical support. West officials indicate that more customizations will be incorporated in the near future. 

With the exception of a few third-party databases, the content accessible on westlaw.com and Xchange is the same as that available on Westmate and Office 97. This gives the information retrieved from these sites a level of reliability not typically found on the Web. Both services also offer one-click Shepardizing. In addition, users can access West's new citation research service, KeyCite, from westlaw.com. 

The two online giants differ, however, regarding future content. Lexis-Nexis views Xchange as the beginning of an online legal community. "[Xchange] allows us to put up graphics, discussion groups, and applets that interact with the customer," says Ron Staudt, Lexis-Nexis's vice president of technology development. "It really is an almost unlimited opportunity to reach out to new types of productivity solutions for lawyers." 

West Group's future plans revolve around centralizing its numerous formats and information on-ramps (e.g., West Group CD-ROMs, WestDoc, Westlaw) into one unified search engine. Code-named Trinity, this unified interface will help legal researchers select the most cost-effective resource for their information needs. 

The point-and-click environment of the new Web on-ramps makes choosing a database and entering search terms intuitive. However, this ease of use comes at the expense of some of the features found in Westmate and Office 97 software. 

The latest version of Westmate, for example, takes particular advantage of the Windows 95 operating system. Each screen is displayed in a separate window, allowing almost instantaneous jumps between different result screens. Selecting a directory brings up a search window in which users can conduct both Boolean and natural language searches. Formulating a search request is aided by a right mouse-button click, which pops up a contextual menu. 

Another powerful interface is Lexis-Nexis's Office 97, which not only allows users to choose between a graphical and command-line interface but also allows offline search formulation, saved searches and templates, the Eclipse clipping service, and client billing number validation. The only problem with this package is that its complexity can be daunting to new users. 

In contrast, perhaps the simplest interface to use is Xchange, which does not use frames to navigate Lexis-Nexis's Web site. Placing information and choices in a single window, the user often has to perform several clicks to accomplish such basic tasks as selecting a search database. This simplicity, however, makes Xchange easy to navigate. For example, selecting a search directory is done by either navigating a hierarchical directory tree or searching the Lexis-Nexis directory of databases. Double-clicking a database opens a search screen, where the user enters terms, connectors, and restrictors. Only Boolean searches can be performed in Xchange. 

Xchange's search results are viewed as either a citation list, KWIC results (which list the title of the document and found search terms), or the full text of found documents. Clicking the back and forward buttons of the Web browser navigates the screens. 

Westlaw.com's interface, on the other hand, uses up to three context frames to the top and left of the main window. The thin top frame has a drop-down list of common destinations, such as the database directory and the West Key Number Service. Another horizontal frame above the main window lists options for the displayed document, including a print/download button and a direct link to KeyCite. Content in the left frame changes depending on the information found in the main window. For example, when displaying the results of a search, the left frame lists document citations, allowing users to view any document in the list by clicking its retrieval number. No other interface displays more helpful information than westlaw.com, which also allows users to perform both Boolean and natural language searches. In addition, field restrictions and an online thesaurus help users refine searches. Each search in westlaw.com displays a screen that is updated to show the percentage completed and a running tally of documents found. 

Users of Westmate, Lexis-Nexis's Office 97, and westlaw.com have several print and delivery options. Documents can be printed to an attached printer, e-mailed, faxed, or downloaded in WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, Word 6.0 for Windows, or Adobe PDF format. Another choice is to print documents in the two-column format that replicates the look found in print products. 

Lexis-Nexis's Xchange can only print documents and results using the Web browser's print and save functions. The only option available is View Text Only, which displays a document without the normal header and menu options typically displayed in Xchange. 

The biggest disadvantage to using the Web on-ramps is speed. Generally, each Internet-based search that I attempted took 10 to 12 seconds to execute. Although no westlaw.com or Xchange search took longer than 12 seconds, response time shrank to 5 to 6 seconds when using the proprietary online access programs. 

Recognizing that Internet access speeds can dramatically fluctuate, both West and Lexis charge customers based on either the number and type of searches conducted during the session or a customer's particular billing arrangement. For example, Lexis's MVP Advantage or Westlaw's PRO plan users would be billed under the terms of these plans. Due to the greater reliability of the proprietary online programs, Westmate and Office 97 can offer more pricing options and alternatives. In fact, Office 97 allows budget-conscious users to formulate searches and view results offline. 

The technological wizardry required to make these legal databases accessible on the World Wide Web is indeed impressive. For the most part, Internet users can perform the same searches on westlaw.com and Xchange as they can using proprietary access programs. Which means of access best fits a firm's particular research needs depends on many factors, including the Internet connection speed, familiarity with the online service, and pricing arrangement. 

More important, the launch of these two Internet on-ramps helps legitimize the Internet as a reliable research platform for the legal profession. The Lexis and West imprints have joined other Internet services such as V., LOIS, and JuriSearch in providing accurate information. The recent release of Westmate demonstrates that proprietary online programs remain a viable access option, but with the arrival of Xchange and westlaw.com, there are two new, wide on-ramps onto the information superhighway. 

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