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Fee-Based U.S. Legal Research Databases: Westlaw

This guide is created based on the research guide I have updated in NYU Globalex. It describes several providers of legal research databases, focusing on fee-based sources, both high-cost and low-cost


Westlaw is an online service containing more than 10,000 legal, financial, and news databases and is owned by the Thomson Reuters Corporation.  It is one of the two largest providers of U.S. legal information. 


What Westlaw Offers

Like LexisNexis (see above), Westlaw offers a full range of U.S. legal information, including materials from all 50 states.  In the U.S., primary authority consists of the federal and state Constitutions, statutes, administrative regulations, and cases.  Westlaw gives the researcher access to all of these sources.  In addition, Westlaw has large databases of secondary sources – commentary on the law in legal treatises, law journal articles, and legal encyclopedias.  While commentary is not a source of law in the U.S. legal system, it is often an efficient way to research.  Secondary sources usually explain the law more clearly than statutes and cases, while including references to the applicable primary sources.  "Secondary Sources" include: encyclopedias – American Jurisprudence 2d, American Jurisprudence Proof of Facts, Causes of Action, Corpus Juris Secundum, California Jurisprudence 3d, New York Jurisprudence 2d, Illinois Jurisprudence, Florida Jurisprudence, etc.; Black's Law Dictionary; American Law Reports (ALR); Restatements for case oriented areas of law; continuing legal education (CLE) materials for practicing bar members; Uniform Laws Annotated; U.S. law reviews and journal articles. 


Westlaw offers thousands of individual databases.  Some databases combine the contents of several databases.  For example, researchers can choose a database of New York court decisions.  But they can also search all cases from all 50 states at once.  Usually, it is best to search the smallest database that contains all the information you need.


For its databases of cases, Westlaw generally offers complete coverage back to the earliest case.  For example, the U.S. Supreme Court cases date back to 1790, and cases from the U.S. Courts of Appeal and the U.S. District Courts go back to 1789.  Its statute databases offer current, frequently updated laws and offer both codified statutes like U.S. Code Annotated arranged by 51 subject titles and uncodified public laws published chronologically.  Because researchers sometimes need earlier versions of statutes, Westlaw also has “archived” versions of statute databases.  United States Public Laws dates back to 1973.  Most of state statutes extend back to the late 1980s or early 1990s.  Westlaw provides database information here, although it is not in an easily used format.


CAUTION: Westlaw makes only selected databases available under its standard international subscriptions.  One primary part of its international subscription is a searchable database of West “headnotes” for U.S. federal and state case law.  These “headnotes” are Westlaw’s proprietary summaries of various points of law discussed in a case.  So, for example, one case might contain several different headnotes.  Westlaw provides the full text of cases and of statutes in a handful of topical areas:  banking, bankruptcy (insolvency), commercial law, intellectual property, securities, and insurance.  The collection also includes law reviews, practice texts, and treatises in those topical areas.  The databases are described here.  Researchers can subscribe to one or more topic areas.


Currency and Updating Tools

Primary authorities such as statutes, cases, administrative regulations and decisions are current and updated fast.  For example, the most recent public laws are available within 24 to 48 hours after a law is passed, U.S. Code Annotated reflects the current changes enacted by public laws from the current Congress session, Federal Register is updated daily, Code of Federal Regulations reflects changes made by Federal Register within a week, and U.S. Supreme Court cases are available online prior to West Advance sheets without editorial enhancement.  Researchers also monitor new cases, new statutes, new regulations, standards, news, and more legal developments, using WestClip.  After obtaining satisfactory search results and clicking on "Add Search to WestClip," researchers can receive email updates on a monthly, biweekly, weekly, or daily basis.


Westlaw’s KeyCite allows researchers to determine whether they are employing “good law.”  Furthermore, KeyCite Alert allows subscribes to receive regular updates on citing authorities that could potentially affect the validity of a law.  Coverage varies by country. In the U.S., KeyCite is available for case law, statutes, regulations, administrative materials, patents, and secondary sources.  For Hong Kong law, its coverage is limited to only case law, while for Canadian law; it covers case law and legislation.


Lastly, Westlaw provides access to legal news and current awareness databases.  Researchers can search for articles by title, topical highlights, and publishers like American Bar Association, Aspatore, LegalWorks, M. Lee Smith Publishers, National Legal Research Group, RIA, Seak, Inc., Thomson/West, West Group, etc.


How its Databases are Organized

Westlaw organizes its databases in a hierarchical structure, which can be best utilized by click "Directory" from the navigation bar at the top of the page.  Major headings include:

·       jurisdictions (e.g., federal, states, country, and region);

·       types of documents (e.g., cases, briefs and court documents, court transcripts, statutes, administrative materials, court rules, jury instructions & jury verdicts, treatises, CLEs [[6]] Practice Guides[[7]], journals, and law reviews; and

·       legal subjects (e.g., taxation, bankruptcy, and labor & employment).


For a typical U.S. state, Westlaw divides its database offerings under nearly twenty headings.  For example, California databases are divided into Cases; Statutes & Legislative Materials; Court Rules & Orders; Dockets; Briefs; Petitions; Administrative & Executive Materials; Law Reviews, Bar Journals & Legal Periodicals; Public Information, Records & Filings; Forms, Treatises, CLEs and Other Practice Material; Jury Instructions, Jury Verdicts & Judgments; News, Newspapers & Periodicals; some topical databases (for example, insurance materials, securities materials, tax materials); and a few other categories. 


Within a category, such as Cases, the researcher can choose from several databases.  For California state cases, for example, Westlaw offers California Reported Cases, West's California State Cases, California State & Federal Cases, California and California Appellate Cases, California Civil Rights Cases, etc.  By clicking on the "Scope" button next to the database name, a researcher can determine the scope of coverage of each database.


While the categories and database names on Westlaw differ from those on LexisNexis, both providers offer mostly similar coverage of primary sources.  The two providers vary more in the secondary sources they offer.  For example, they often have different treatises on similar topics. 



Overall, searching in Westlaw is not intuitive for beginners.  Thus, it is highly recommended that researchers complete Westlaw Training, available at here .


Basically, researchers should choose an appropriate database(s) by the "Search for a database" function or by browsing by jurisdiction, types of documents, or topical practice areas.  Then, they can search by terms after selecting the search type of "Terms & Connectors" or "Natural Language."  By default, search results are arranged in reverse chronological order and cannot be further narrowed.  However, researchers can search again within the search results by utilizing the "Locate in results" function free of charge.  If researchers have a citation(s), a party name(s), or docket number(s), they can retrieve a document by the "Find by citation" function.



The design of Westlaw is more user-friendly than LexisNexis, but is still complex and confusing since users are provided with many navigation bars, tabs, search boxes, and options.  Even if a researcher knows to choose a proper tab, choose a database, and type in search terms; once logging on to Westlaw, she/he may have a steep learning curve.


In the U.S., Westlaw launched the new WestlawNext platform in 2010.  This new platform is much more usable and intuitive than Westlaw, and allows users to perform Google-like searches.  Westlaw provides one simple search box, where researchers can choose a scope and simply click the search button.  Then, users can further narrow their search results according to relevance.  WestlawNext is not yet available in foreign markets.



International subscribers can choose from a relatively small number of databases, via Westlaw International.  Access to Westlaw databases that are outside of a subscriber’s Westlaw International subscription is available on a transactional charge basis.  In other words, the researcher is charged for each search or other transaction.


Westlaw offers a bewildering variety of subscription plans.  Some plans are based on hourly usage and database cost, while others are based on a discounted rate for specified databases.   Smaller law offices often pay a flat monthly rate for a few specified databases.  The cost of databases differs considerably, depending on factors such as the size of the database and whether the underlying data comes from another vendor.  Additional charges for printing, downloading, or emailing documents may apply.


Only U.S.-based organizations can subscribe directly to the U.S. version of Westlaw.  That is, a foreign law office can subscribe to the U.S. version of Westlaw through its U.S. office, if it has one.  If not, it must work through Westlaw International.


Technical Information

Westlaw’s technical specifications can be found here.  For international accounts, Westlaw customer support telephone numbers are available here.