Tag Archives: westlaw

The Law Nerd Manifesto, or Email from Thomson Reuters Shows Why We Need Government-Hosted, Boolean-Searchable, Free, Public Access to Caselaw.

We pay a couple thousand dollars a month to Thomson Reuters — owners of the Westlaw database — for the privilege of searching and retrieving decisions by the federal and state judges who are paid from our tax dollars to decide the cases in our public justice system.  Even though these decisions are the backbone of our common law — that is, precedent-based — legal system, We The People don’t have effective access to them without paying the couple-thousand dollars a month for a Westlaw or Lexis subscription.  You could go to a law library and do old fashioned dead-trees book research but, among other things, you’d be reading books published by Thomson Reuters, and you could not remotely afford to purchase these books on your own.   And access to those privately-published, drop-dead-expensive books depends on having access to a law library; they’re not generally available at your average public library.

There are cheaper services, but they are far less comprehensive, so you could never be sure you are searching everything your opponent is or the judge expects you to.  The only publicly available service is PACER which has no full text search function, and charges 10 cents a page to download decisions.  You can only search by case “type” and then just guess which cases have relevant decisions.  There is simply no way it could replace the full-text Boolean search capability of Westlaw or Lexis.

So mostly we just grumble and open a vein each month, while Thomson Reuters and Lexis/Nexis make large piles of money being the gatekeepers of our judicial system.

Then we get an email like this:

To our customers:

As part of our commitment to transparency, I wanted to alert you to some errors related to publishing cases in Westlaw® and our print volumes that we have now corrected.

In March, Thomson Reuters became aware that small portions of text were missing[*] in a number of new cases posted to Westlaw due to the introduction of an upgrade to our PDF conversion process in November 2014.

. . .

Our analysis[**] of the cases found that none of these issues resulted in any change to the meaning of the law. To provide clarity, we are posting examples of the issues, as well as a listing of all corrected cases, here. We will post all affected cases with corrections highlighted within the text.

. . .

We are very aware of our crucial role in supporting the U.S. legal system, and there is nothing more important to us than delivering the best possible solutions and customer service to you.[***] Please accept our apologies for our errors. We are very sorry for the inconvenience.


Andy Martens
Global Head of Product & Editorial

So for the thousands we and millions of other lawyers pay them each month, we can’t even get a reliable account of the cases that constitute the written record of the American judicial system.  And this is just the errors Thomson Reuters has “become aware” of.

At this point in the evolution of document formatting and search technology, there is no reason why the following system shouldn’t be in place:

  1. All judicial decisions online in fully-searchable format.
  2. A taxpayer-funded, free, public database that permits full-text Boolean searches, that is, that permits any American with access to the internet to do the legal research necessary to understand our legal system.

Call it The Law Nerd Manifesto.


*And by “missing” we mean “the case no longer reads the way it was written by the judge.”

**And by “analysis” we mean “frantic ass-covering maneuvers.”

***”Well, almost nothing.  We also like rolling around like Scrooge McDuck in the massive piles of cash we reap from publishing THE CASES THAT CONSTITUTE OUR JUDICIAL SYSTEM.  Bwaahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

Talking back to Westlaw

Why is this image supposed to make me buy a more advanced legal research program?

When I started this blog, I warned you that part of the impetus was my tendency to talk back to the teevee.  I talk back to things like fundamental mathematical errors.  The Aleve lady who is so excited that she’s taking fewer pills than with Advil CLEARLY NEVER READ THE INGREDIENTS.  I helpfully inform her, “you’re getting the same amount of medicine, you dork; and your stomach will feel just as awful”  Or when 9News promises a full segment on some new store or product, I calmly explain to them, “THAT’S NOT NEWS; IT’S ADVERTISING.”

Today’s question is:  why should a photo of a woman with her eyes closed and wind-swept hair make me want to upgrade my legal research software?  Are they telling me I can now do legal research with my eyes closed?  On a wind-swept beach?  Candidly, her look is the one of resigned frustration I get when Westlaw tells me my search yielded 0 or 4,934 cases.  What are they trying to tell me about their new, improved version?

I know this probably sounds like I’m trying to be funny, or am desperate to post something to see if I can attract those 20 or so hardy souls who read this blog.  But I’m serious — why this photo?

Update:  The truly compelling image would be a middle-aged law nerd sitting in front of her computer, arms raised in the universal symbol for “touchdown,” a smile on her face that says, simultaneously, “I’m a genius, and I’m going to demolish the evil bastards on the other side of my case, and wow what cool software this is that both reveals my own genius to me and lets me engage in demolishment with such ease.”  If you’re listening, Westlaw:  use that image and I promise I’ll upgrade toWestlawNext.