Vol. 40 No. 8
ByShawn G. Nevers
Shawn G. Nevers teaches legal research and is head of reference services at the Howard W. Hunter Law Library at Brigham Young University.
While LEXIS spearheaded the change in legal research, it too has changed over the years. It eventually abandoned the capitalized “LEXIS” and became LexisNexis. Various versions have come and gone until today it has arrived at its newest iteration, Lexis Advance, which attempts to move the legal research system into the 21st century.
The first evidence of this movement is Lexis Advance’s Google-like focus on the search box. The “big red search box,” as Lexis employees call it, is prominent on the homepage and is available on every page within Lexis Advance. The new search box allows users to search all of Lexis Advance’s content simultaneously without having to select a database. This has allowed Lexis to clean up its interface, which was quite cluttered with databases.
While the search box certainly helps the appearance of Lexis Advance, its main contribution is under the hood. Lexis has developed a sophisticated search algorithm to power the Lexis Advance search and bring back relevant results. To this point, little explanation about the search algorithm and what factors it considers is available to users. While Lexis will understandably keep many of the details private, it would be useful to researchers to have more of a sense of what is being considered in a Lexis Advance search.
The new search box handles both natural language and terms and connectors searching. Whichever is used, results in Lexis Advance are ranked by relevance—which law students will no doubt find to their liking.
To demonstrate how the Lexis Advance search box functions, let’s run the same search I ran when profiling WestlawNext in this column in December 2010—affirmative action higher education. Before searching, Lexis Advance users will want to select a jurisdiction from the drop-down menu beneath the search box. In this case, we’ll search US Federal.
The search results give us a number of cases that are relevant to our topic. In this instance, however, the actual relevance ranking leaves something to be desired. The top two cases listed are Penk v. Or. State Bd. of Higher Educ. and Hopwood v. Texas, both federal district court cases and neither the preeminent case on the topic of affirmative action in higher education. The standard-setting cases on this issue are the US Supreme Court’s decisions in Regents of Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke and Grutter v. Bollinger. These decisions ranked fifth and twenty-fourth, respectively, in our search, making them findable but not providing them with the “relevance” they deserve. (Lexis is consistently improving its search algorithm and is working to address this problem. I have been told better results are on their way.)
One way for the researcher to remedy this problem is to create a terms and connectors search by adding the word “and” to our search. If, for example, we search for affirmative action and higher education, Bakke and Grutter come back as our first two hits—just like they should. Additionally, this search returns 428 cases, a much more manageable result set than the near 2 million we got the first time around. This allows us to more effectively rank and sort relevant results.
The Lexis Advance search engine does show better with natural language in other instances. For example, if I search for freedom of speech flag burning, my number one hit is Texas v. Johnson, which is the preeminent case on this issue. Other key Supreme Court cases, Street v. New York and U.S. v. Eichman, follow 2, 3.
This means users may have to toggle between natural language and terms and connectors searching to make sure they are getting the best results.
Users will notice that natural language searches on Lexis Advance often bring back an extremely large number of results. Lexis Advance works off the idea that it will return a large result set and then users will whittle down those results through a variety of narrowing features. While the goal is not to miss anything useful, the sheer number of results can be overwhelming.
One new feature that brings Lexis into 21st century research and that students will love is the addition of “My Workspace.” Here users can create folders where documents can be stored to help better organize research. Additionally, the History function has been enhanced to show history for 90 days. Lexis Advance also adds an innovative new feature called “Research Map” that allows users to see their research history in graphical form. This is a nice feature that allows you to see what you’ve done click by click.
Another of the innovative features in Lexis Advance that I’m quite interested in is the legal issue trail. Once the legal issue trail has been activated in a case, Lexis Advance highlights various sections of the opinion. Clicking on these passages leads you to a list of the various cases that have cited your case on this specific legal issue.
This is very similar to Shepardizing the headnotes found in a case, but the legal issue trail has a broader reach. For example, in Texas v. Johnson there are 14 Lexis headnotes that can be Shepardized, but there are 74 issues identified in the legal issue trail.
At this stage, the legal issue trail’s performance is still hit and miss. At times the cases linked to the legal issue selected are quite relevant and at other times they are not. It appears to still be a work in progress, but one that may eventually be a very helpful research tool.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of Lexis Advance is that the price is right for existing Lexis customers. Lexis is upgrading all of its current customers to Lexis Advance without charge for the duration of their current contract. This is undoubtedly in direct response to Westlaw, which is charging a premium for adding WestlawNext to a Westlaw.com subscription and has faced some resistance as a result.
This is important for students because if your employer subscribes to Lexis.com, it is likely that they will also have access to Lexis Advance. That means you can turn your focus from Lexis.com to Lexis Advance during law school. That’s not the case with Westlaw.com and WestlawNext, where students face the prospect of encountering one or the other and, so, should be familiar with both.
This should allow students more time to explore Lexis Advance. Try it out and see how far electronic legal research has come in 40 years.