On September 24th, Joe Mornin, a Berkely Law School student, released Bestlaw to the public-at-large (see the The Lawyerist‘s and The Recorder‘s admirable coverage of this story). In a nutshell, Bestlaw is a browser extension that improves upon the Westlaw Next interface. Remarkably, Joe Mornin designed the browser extension himself, and makes this piece of software freely available to download on his website (http://www.bestlaw.io/). Bestlaw’s website states the software accomplishes the following:
THE CURRENT VENDOR SYSTEM
Legal research procedures are driven by vendors. At a basic level, getting to be a good researcher involves memorizing two bodies of knowledge: what legal information resources exist out there, and which vendors create those resources. Dovetailing into all of this, access of resources is controlled by the vendors as well; each vendor has their own, unique, separate interface. This environment makes practical sense because legal research is a commercial enterprise. Accordingly, vendors resemble information silos: their information is their capital. Would legal research be more efficient and effective if there was an incorporation of federated searching, which would enable searching across all of the vendor interfaces simultaneously? Of course! But, the current legal research business model necessitates individual, isolated research interfaces, with individual content collections accessible only via one point of access.
This current legal research business model introduces various problems for the user. Two of the more salient problems are: what information is actually unique inside a vendor interface, and how do vendors charge the user for non-unique content. Westlaw and Lexis, for example, charge transactionally, meaning every pull of information comes with a price tag. This is acceptable when a user pulls information that is absolutely unique to these specific vendors. However, users do not always pull unique information; commonly, they incur extra transactional fees by pulling information they could get for free from somewhere else. The issue, really, is the convenience of the interface: users are already inside a vendor’s specific pay environment, and it becomes really easy and convenient to pull resources inside the pay environment, rather than jump out and search for a free (and trusted) copy of the same resource.
PULLING INFORMATION FOR FREE
Bestlaw, remarkably, incorporates the ability to jump out of the Westlaw Next environment in order to get free copies of resources. As stated above, while inside the Westlaw Next interface, a user can pull free documents from free services like CourtListener, Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, Casetext, and Google Scholar. The convenience factor of being in Westlaw Next’s environment becomes partially moot. Just to step back: Bestlaw adds a toolbar to the Westlaw Next interface, when a user is viewing a document. The toolbar enables the user to pull the exact same document they are currently viewing from one of the above mentioned free resources (so, in my understanding, a user would have already induced a find and view charge, but could circumvent the print charge).
IMPLICATIONS OF BESTLAW
Again, federated searching is the concept of inputting a single search into a single interface, and having that search performed across a multitude of databases. Think of inputting a case law terms and connectors search into an interface, and having that particular search run across Westlaw Next, Lexis Advance, Fastcase, and Bloomberg Law simultaneously. The results could be sortable by some combination of relevancy and cost, meaning the user would get highly relevant results at a lower cost. Rather than be information silos that require users to log into their specific, isolated interfaces, vendors would have to compete in a new technological environment, one where open competition would require the highest relevancy at the lowest cost. The user experience would be improved.
Bestlaw’s ability to jump out and pull from free resources while the user is in the Westlaw Next environment is a step in the direction towards federated searching; Bestlaw is forcing a mash-up of Westlaw Next and a handful of free legal information sources. The user, despite being in the Westlaw Next environment, is no longer restricted to pulling just Westlaw Next content, thus enabling the user the ability to circumvent “print” fees they would typically incur. This is a very intriguing development, and all credit has to go to Joe Mornin for getting the ball rolling.