Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Westlaw and Lexis in Contrast: One Example

Despite their differences in design, Westlaw and Lexis often seem like two ways to get to the same content. They both have vast databases, which results in significant overlap, particularly in primary law like cases and statutes. The temptation is to evaluate them based on their appearance and usability, pick the one you like best, and ignore the other. But Westlaw and Lexis do have different content, and you can miss valuable information if you limit yourself to only one when both are available. Consider the following example, shared by Scott Burgh, Chief Law Librarian at the City of Chicago Department of Law Library, via the Law-Lib Listserv:

In the course of helping a patron, we needed to check the court file for the trial court in the case of Phillies v.  Byrne, 732 F2d 87.  To pull the file at the National Archives, one needs the docket number, but the trial case from ND Illinois is unreported.  The reporter volume and Westlaw list nothing of the lower court's docket, so that was of no help.  However, Lexis came through because a [search for] 732 F2d 87 gave us the trial level docket number [in the prior history field].  This Lexis result with the docket number allowed us to proceed to the National Archives . . . .

The point of the example is not that Lexis is the go-to source for federal district court docket numbers--Lexis does not always include the lower court docket number in the prior history it provides for an opinion. The point is that for any given research task, Lexis may have information that Westlaw does not, and vice versa. When conducting legal research, you should consider all the resources you have available.  If you focus on a single information platform, you may lose sight of the information you need.

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