Often, new students are not introduced to WestLaw or Lexis in the beginning of their first semester even though they have free access to the services. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve heard some schools don’t want students to know how to use these services right away out of concerned that students will do online legal research rather than learning traditional legal research methods. Regardless, WestLaw and Lexis can be valuable to new students for many reasons:
1. WestLaw and Lexis allow students to lookup entire cases. Casebooks often include only excerpts of cases. Including the entire case would be too long. However, sometimes the case losses so much text that it becomes unclear. Students benefit from having the entire case accessible.
2. WestLaw and Lexis provide case summaries. Some students use these to replace reading cases for class. That’s not smart because the summaries may not include the lesson the casebook is intending to emphasize. However, the case summaries can be very helpful providing an overview of the case. Some students read the case summaries from WestLaw or Lexis before each case in their casebook to get a preliminary overview of the case. This allows students to focus on the deeper points of the case when reading the casebook.
3. Westlaw and Lexis allow students to go deeper. Westlaw and Lexis include links to Restatements, treatises, and other resources that allow students to read more about a topic that is unclear to them. Of course, it’s a rare student who has time for additional reading during law school. However, occasionally this can be very helpful. For example, a case on promissory estoppel may provide a link to the Restatement of Contracts section providing the blackletter rule (the legal rule without any fluff) for use in an outline before an exam. (We recently discussed the benefit of using the Restatement of Contracts before exams here: Law School Final Exam Tip 5: For Contracts, Review the Restatement.)
How do you learn to use WestLaw and Lexis? First, you can try them out yourself once you receive your username and password from your law school. Once logged in, lookup a case by entering a citation to a case in your casebook. The citation is normally listed under the name of each case. For example, in this case — U.S. v. Hatcher, 323 F.3d 666, 60 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 1412 (8th Cir. 2003) — you would enter “323 F.3d 666″ or “60 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 1412″ in WestLaw or Lexis. Either citation would bring up the case. After submitting this, your case should appear.
Another way to learn WestLaw and Lexis is through WestLaw and Lexis on-campus resources. Often WestLaw and Lexis hire students. Just introduce yourself to a WestLaw or Lexis representative and ask them to show you how to do the basics, like look up a case and find what authorities mention it (called Shepardize and KeyCite). They probably will also have a pamphlet with this information. Or rather than talking with someone, just get the pamphlet, which is probably located near the WestLaw or Lexis printer in your law school library.
Not only will WestLaw and Lexis give you an edge during the first semester, but you will already be familiar with them when your legal research and writing course covers these online tools.