When I started practicing law in the early 1990s, legal research often took place in a law library. Nowadays, legal research almost always occurs on a computer on the desk of a lawyer's office, accessing a service like Westlaw, Lexis or Fastcase. But sometimes, you need to do legal research when you are outside of the office, such as when you are at trial — perhaps looking up a case cited by an opponent, or perhaps doing some quick research on a legal issue during a break in the proceedings. You can certainly use a laptop computer for your legal research, but for over a year now, West has offered a version of WestlawNext for the iPad. Although I've used this app in the past, I first gave the app a vigorous workout when I was in a long trial last month. I was very impressed with the app, so much so that I started to find myself using the iPad app to do research even when I was back at my office.
The WestlawNext app is a free app, but you must be a WestlawNext subscriber to use it. (West provided me with a free account to try out the app last month.) One of the things that makes next generation legal research tools like WestlawNext and Lexis Advance so useful is that they provide a simplified "Google-like" interface. You are presented with a single search box in which you can type just about anything — a citation, search terms, etc. — and then the service is smart enough to show you what you are probably looking for. Simplicity is a virtue of WestlawNext on a computer, and this is even more so on the iPad app thanks to a minimal, clean but very functional interface:
Type some search terms and select a jurisdiction and you will see search results. Cases are first, and the first few cases are listed on the right, but the column on the left side of the app shows you the number of hits in other sources such as statutes, secondary sources, briefs, etc. I would often start a search thinking that I was interested in cases, but the helpful links on the side would remind me that I might find just what I need in some other set of documents.
Tap a case name to bring up the full case. I love the way that WestlawNext displays a case on the iPad. It is very easy to read the case. Search terms are highlighted in yellow and easy to see, and arrows at the bottom make it easy to jump to search terms in the document. You can even adjust font size and typeface. All of these screenshots are in landscape view, but I often found reading a case easier when I turned my iPad to portrait view.
I love that it is easy to select text, either to copy the text (with or without a cite reference), highlight the text or add a note. I frequently found myself highlighting the most useful cases, and then I would use the Tools button to save the case to a folder. Thus, I might go through a dozen or so cases and quickly build up in my folder the two or three cases that are most useful to me, with the key passages highlighted for easy reference.
When you are researching you can use all of the normal WestlawNext filters, such as restricting by date, by jurisdiction, by judge, searching within your results to further narrow your search results, etc.
The WestlawNext app provides a clean and efficient interface for using Westlaw when you are on your iPad. But why not just use the "full" version of Westlaw on a laptop computer? In court, I actually find it much more powerful to use an iPad instead of a computer for legal research. First of all, one thing I don't like about using a laptop in court is that the screen creates a barrier between you and the judge and jury. Those looking at you see the back of your laptop screen, creating a sense that there is something between you and them. With an iPad that lies flat on a desk or at a slight angle, there is no barrier between you and the judge or jury.
Second, if you need to stand up and argue to a judge, it is awkward to pick up a laptop to walk to a podium and it is awkward to read off of a laptop screen. But holding an iPad and reading off of the iPad screen is similar to holding and reading off of a legal pad — much more natural. In an ideal world, you would have done all of your legal research before you entered the courtroom and you already have every relevant case or statute with you, either printed out or in a PDF format on your iPad. But of course, things are not always ideal in trial. Your opponent may mention a case that you have never read, or you may have to research a legal issue that you didn't think about beforehand, and when that happens, finding a case and puling it up on your iPad, and then holding the iPad while you argue to the court, is almost as good as having brought the case with you in the first place.
I noted above that I found this app so useful in trial that I started to find myself using the app to do legal research even when I was out of the courtroom. Doing legal research on a computer with a large monitor and a keyboard is usually the ideal, but sometimes you need to change your perspective. Using an iPad to do legal research gives you the ability to step away from the computer and free your mind a little. You can lean back in a chair, run some searches, and think creatively. Eventually you may decide to move back to the computer, but you can easily switch back and forth between the WestlawNext iPad app and WestlawNext on a computer. Plus, sometimes it is useful to have one screen (your iPad screen) focused on doing legal research while another screen (your computer screen) displays the brief that you are writing. The iPad turns into a sort of second monitor.
The WestlawNext app only works on the iPad, but if you need to access WestlawNext and all you have is your iPhone, you can launch the Safari app and go to https:/m.next.westlaw.com to access a mobile browser version of WestlawNext. I've used the Fastcase app on an iPhone in court in the past, and while legal research on an iPhone does work in a pinch (and has even helped me win some arguments in the past), the larger screen of the iPad makes the iPad infinitely more useful than an iPhone for legal research.
The WestlawNext app is a brilliantly designed and incredibly useful app. The interface is simple enough to be intuitive and to not get in your way, but the app is powerful enough to satisfy all of your legal research needs. In the courtroom, this may be the best way to do quick legal research. In your office or at your home, it is nice to be able to lean back in a chair and run searches or read cases and statutes. If you already subscribe to WestlawNext, you need to download this app. If you don't subscribe, this app provides a strong argument for doing so.