Westlaw and LexisNexis are the giants of legal technology. Whether you are a student just trying to survive the first year of law school, or a distinguished-looking senior at a large law firm, legal search is probably one of the most (if not the most) important technology you depend on daily.
The importance of these services is not unwarranted. Without effective access to cases, secondary sources, and information more generally, lawyers lack the raw material they need to produce their work. A legal industry without legal information is no industry at all.
These platforms are significant as infrastructure, the utilities on which a whole range of services depend.
The importance of these platforms, and the time spent within their ecosystems, are perhaps equally rivaled by the clumsiness of their design. Their interfaces are counter-intuitive, cluttered, and lack simple time-saving features. That’s before you get to a pay-per-time, pay-per-query business model that produces an even worse user experience, and worse user performance. These blemishes grow all the more obvious as the years go by and web platforms outside the legal profession get better—and cheaper.
All this has been said better before by others, but there is a new part of the equation: Bestlaw.
Bestlaw is a simple, cleanly-designed Chrome extension that adds a toolbar to the Westlaw experience. The feature list reads like a cool breeze on a humid day for anyone who has used (and struggled) with Westlaw. For example, Bestlaw gives you the ability to copy a perfect Bluebook citation with a single click, provides easy collapsing/expansion of statutory sections, and prevents you from getting automatically signed off whenever you get up to snag a quick cup of coffee.
And, unlike so many things in the legal profession, Bestlaw is free to install.
In short, Bestlaw takes Westlaw and enhances it with a raft of critical features that make doing legal research easier and more user-friendly. And it was built by Joe Mornin, a 3L at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law.
How is a student with no financial resources and a packed law school schedule able to create a crucial suite of features that vastly upgrade the Westlaw experience? (Let me add here that Mornin is Editor-in-Chief of the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, leaving him even less time for extracurricular pursuits).
It isn’t simply that Mornin is able to code. That’s a pat answer that “teach coding in law school” boosters will surely try to turn this story into. We need to go deeper: coding skills gave Mornin the ability to build the tools he envisioned, but not the ability to identify the problems with the platform and create Bestlaw as a response.
In my mind, there’s two big things here. First, the fundamental approach that Bestlaw represents flips the traditional way we introduce and educate lawyers-in-training about their tools on its head. That is, it treats Westlaw as malleable, subject to alteration and improvement. There is an underlying philosophy that the specialist should control their tools, and not the other way around.
That’s radically different from how we usually do it. Once I had the perverse pleasure of sitting in on a seminar where a Westlaw representative taught us a set of methodologies for how to reduce the number of searches we had to make on the platform. We were gently reminded that we should do so, because our future bosses would think well of it. That’s a mindset that takes the tools as fixed and lets them control the workflow.
Second, Mornin was in the trenches, and understands the frustrations of the tool we’re given. In this way, he is an expert. The slightly scattershot set of features incorporated into Bestlaw reflect the many small but cumulatively big pain points that would be difficult for anyone but a summer associate or law student to appreciate in full.
The problem? Mornin had to struggle against the system to make it better. Westlaw isn’t designed to be open to improvements and contributions from its users. Bestlaw kludges together an upgrade by wresting what control it can from the little that Westlaw provides.
This is a two-sided problem, requiring a two-sided solution. As educators of the law, I think there is much to be said for pushing students to think of their tools as something that can and should be built better, rather than a fixed reality that one must bend to. Without such a norm, we create a generation of lawyers that never demand for anything better.
As platforms, Westlaw and Lexis would be wise to be sensitive and supportive of people like Mornin by enabling and integrating contribution, exposing APIs, and supporting open experimentation on its platform. It means upfront investment, but like any investment it also means a huge upside in the untold improvements—small and large—that a platform might become a home for.
With any hope, we’ll end up with more Mornins, and more Bestlaws. And that, I think, is a universe we’d all benefit from having.