Westlaw is the major competitor to LexisNexis in the online legal research service game. Now owned by media conglomerate Thomson Reuters, Westlaw was first introduced by a much smaller company way back in the 1970s before being bought out. Just like LexisNexis, it was originally run over dial-up modem line and dedicated terminals had to be installed in law offices, something that came with an enormous expense.

But also like LexisNexis, Westlaw quickly adapted to the broader availability of Internet services and introduced web-based access along with a variety of price points for different levels of access and a number of different areas of law.

According to the American Bar Association’s Legal Technology Survey, Westlaw has about 54 percent of the total market in fee-based legal research services, despite being slightly more expensive than the competition.

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Today, many law offices use both services together for more complete coverage and more flexibility. Paralegals are expected to walk in the door having at least some proficiency in how to use these tools to research case law, which means being familiar with the different interfaces for those services. Subscriptions are expensive, and time is money in the legal field like nowhere else, so paralegals who can’t efficiently search and collate findings in Westlaw are at a handicap.

Westlaw exists to provide at-your-fingertips references and the latest information on precedent and case law to lawyers and paralegals busy building their own cases.

The company collates and indexes content from almost every category of American jurisprudence, including:

  • Administrative case decisions and case law
  • Arbitration information
  • Statutes and court rules
  • Court orders
  • Trial transcripts and briefs
  • Legal encyclopedias, treatises, and reviews

The system also indexes current news on topics that would be of interest to attorneys and paralegals. It even let’s you track legislation in-process and access reviews and reports from experts about the implications of decisions made in the courts.

Like LexisNexis, Westlaw offers plenty of associated and supplementary services make available through the parent company, Thomson Reuters. Some of the most popular are:

  • WestCheck – Standalone software and word processor add-in that extracts citations from documents and submits them to Westlaw so you can access the full document that’s being cited.
  • BriefTools – Citation checking and link insertion software for word processing documents.
  • CiteAdvisor – Citation formatting and table creation software for citation lists
  • CourtExpress – Searchable court docket information
  • Westlaw Watch – A service that maintains keyword and other advanced monitoring of news and database services to alert users to the appearance of new articles or citations in their area of interest.

The company also has integrated and standalone solutions for other common legal tasks, like drafting forms and documents. Westlaw also has a service that lets you find expert witnesses in different subjects that you can hire to provide testimony in court.

Westlaw has always worked closely with law schools to integrate itself into the education process, providing heavily discounted services to law students. This means that a lot of legal professionals will already have extensive experience with the system before they even graduate. If you happen to still be in the process of getting your career off the ground and you’re comparing different paralegal programs, be sure to see if they include Westlaw training as part of the curriculum.

Key Features that Set Westlaw Apart From the Competition

Something unique to Westlaw—and one of the main challenges for paralegals learning to use the system initially—is the West Key Number System. Also called the West American Digest System, the key number system is the only current taxonomical organization system for American legal cases.

Similar in some ways to the Dewey Decimal system libraries use to organize books, the Key Number System breaks down topics of American law into more than 400 general topics like Civil Rights, Treaties, and Pretrial Procedure. Each of those topics is divided into sub-topics, each of them comprising a set of subjects within a particular legal concept.

At the bottom of these layers are those specific legal concepts, more than 100,000 of them, each with a key number. That number can be used to easily pull up relevant cases and information about that concept, providing a categorized index of cases that could be relevant to the case you’re working on.

This provides a powerful, intelligent reference source that combines the human editorial eye with technological indexing to provide the most relevant references for a particular topic. It evolved from a purely manual reference system created by company founder John B. West – hard to believe the entire database and system stems from West’s ambitious project in which he published sets of bound books organized by the Key Number System way back in the early 19th Century.

One powerful feature retained from West’s original digest system is the inclusion of headnotes with each case, a summary of the points of law covered in the case created by an editor and located at the top of the article. This allows you to scan quickly through a lot of cases while doing searches.

The Key Number System and other features have proven to be so effective and useful that they have become more or less standard in American legal research. Even if you are not directly responsible for working in Westlaw at your firm, an understanding of the headnote process, key numbers, and the Key Number System will be valuable to your work.

Learning To Use Westlaw and Getting Certified

As with any important and complex technical system, training is available for working with Westlaw. Thomson Reuters provides the only accepted certificates for Westlaw through their Westlaw Certified program.

The certification program consists of three courses, Westlaw 101, 201, and 301, and can be taken online or at various law school campuses. Unfortunately, access to this program is restricted to students currently enrolled in legal programs at subscribing schools. You will have to have a registration key provided by the school even to access the online training materials.

If you are not currently enrolled in an eligible program, Westlaw also offers a free, self-paced online course specifically for paralegals. This, too, has restrictions, however: you have to have either a current training account or a Westlaw OnePass logon, which is only provided to currently subscribed customers. The training is free, but only available to you if you are currently employed at a firm with Westlaw service.

The Westlaw Paralegals training has three different certifications available:

  • Westlaw Classic Fundamentals for Paralegals
  • Statutes Research for Paralegals
  • Case Law Research for Paralegals

Each of these has between 8 and 12 online lessons available covering topics in those subjects. You must complete at least 6 in the category you want to become certified in, and then take and pass the online quiz for that category.

Because of the restrictions on accessing the certification materials, most firms won’t necessarily require you to have Westlaw certification before hiring you. However, if you are certified, either from your time in school or with a previous employer, it’ll certainly make your resume pop. If you’re not already certified, chances are you’ll be encouraged or even required to become certified after you have taken a position at a firm that subscribes to Westlaw.