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WESTLAW® is an interactive computerassisted legal research service that is provided to subscribers by West Group, a subsidiary of Thomson Legal Publishing. WESTLAW provides access to a vast amount of legal information at both the state and federal levels, including the full text of legislation, administrative materials, executive decrees, and judicial decisions, as well as summaries of jury verdicts and settlements. WESTLAW also offers access to an array of nonlegal materials, including daily newspapers from each of the 50 states, telephone and address directories, death records, credit bureau listings, Secretary of State filings, stock prices, annual reports of public companies, profit and loss statements of private companies, and personal asset holdings.
WESTLAW subscribers purchase a software package that allows them to dial through their personal computers or over a telephone line into a central mainframe located in Eagan, Minnesota. The mainframe stores information in more than 16,700 databases that can be searched individually or in combination. For example, a tax attorney may choose to limit a search to an individual database containing only federal judicial decisions, or he may choose to expand his search to a combination database that contains treasury regulations, revenue rulings, technical advice memoranda, and federal judicial decisions.
WESTLAW has more than 40 specialized databases that group legal materials by area of practice, including International Law, immigration, health and medicine, Environmental Law, Securities, Bankruptcy, banking, Civil Rights, insurance, energy, entertainment, labor, education, and Intellectual Property. Secondary legal materials, such as law reviews, scholarly commentaries, and academic treatises, are also available on WESTLAW. All materials accessed on WESTLAW can be printed offline, downloaded to a floppy disc, or transmitted to a fax or electronic mail destination.
There are two principal methods of searching individual and combination databases, Natural Language and Terms and Connectors. Natural Language, known to WESTLAW subscribers as WIN® (WESTLAW is Natural™), allows users to search WESTLAW with sentences written in plain English. Terms and Connectors, also known as Boolean logic, is a search method that permits users to specify which terms will appear in retrieved documents, and their proximity to each other. Suppose an attorney is asked to research whether her client committed the intentional tort of assault, even though there was no physical contact between the plaintiff and defendant. An effective Natural Language search might be as simple as the following:
"Does the intentional tort of assault require physical contact between the plaintiff and defendant?
On the other hand, an effective Terms and Connectors search would require greater specificity such as the following:
"intentional tort" /p physical /3 contact /s assault.
Words in quotation marks are treated as phrases in Terms and Connectors searching and must appear in the retrieved documents exactly as they appear in quotation marks. Terms on each side of a /p must appear in the same paragraph; terms on each side of a /s must appear in the same sentence; and terms on each side of a numeric connector such as /3 must appear a designated number of terms apart. The sample Terms and Connectors search tells WESTLAW to retrieve documents in which the phrase "intentional tort" appears in the same paragraph as the term "physical," which itself must appear within three terms of "contact," which, in turn, must appear in the same sentence as "assault." The sample Natural Language search tells WESTLAW to perform a statistical analysis of the search terms for the purpose of retrieving documents in which the least common terms appear the greatest number of times.
Introduced in 1975, WESTLAW was designed to supplement traditional methods of manual legal research. In this regard, WESTLAW, along with its chief competitor, LEXIS-NEXIS, has made legal research easier, faster, more accurate, and more up-to-date. Although WESTLAW continues to add hundreds of new databases each year, traditional legal research has not been entirely replaced. Many legal materials remain accessible only at law libraries. Comprehensive coverage of other legal materials is not always provided online. For example, WESTLAW coverage of the United States Code Annotated® begins in 1989, though the print version of the U.S.C.A. was first published in 1927.
WESTLAW subscription packages can be expensive, and as a result, not all lawyers sub-scribe. However, by 2003 attorneys could access WESTLAW through their Internet browser software and use a credit card to purchase WEST-LAW access as needed. The development of the browser interface has been extremely popular, dispensing with the installation of special WESTLAW software that had to be installed on a computer before establishing a connection with the mainframe. This arrangement has also streamlined training on how to access WEST-LAW, as the user has experience using the browser. In addition, WESTLAW has added cite-checking software that ensures the accuracy of cited decisions.