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‘Must see’ legal technology to deliver better answers faster

Eliot Wrenn
Reference Attorney Manager, Thomson Reuters

I recently had the opportunity to interview Erik Lindberg, Senior Director for Westlaw Product Management to get the scoop on Westlaw directly from somebody on the front line of new product development. Thomson Reuters Westlaw launched innovative new enhancements earlier this year that have received positive buzz in blogs and social media. That got me thinking. Why these enhancements? Why now? What can we expect to see from Westlaw in the future?

During the interview, Erik provided exclusive insight into how Westlaw has been leading the charge for decades to evolve and shape the future of legal technology, and why we should come along for the ride.

Q: For those who don’t know, can you tell us a little bit about the latest enhancements to Westlaw?

A: Essentially, we invested in new capabilities that will enable researchers to get their work done so much faster, and these new capabilities will also provide them with a deeper understanding of the law than they would have had without them. The technology behind the enhancements enables Westlaw to analyze in-session usage patterns and then make recommendations mid-session or within Westlaw folders. Not only do you get relevant answers more quickly, but Westlaw ensures you’ve performed accurate and thorough research to get those answers. This means time savings and a boost of confidence for legal researchers. It’s really a win-win.

Q: How will these enhancements improve legal research and create efficiencies?

A: Traditional legal research involves coming up with a few keywords and trying to understand what legal resources and authorities are out there based on those keywords. You run additional searches and keep looking for different ways to frame it so that you get a complete picture.

Westlaw’s Research Recommendations, Folder Analysis, and Westlaw Answers speed up the process of research because it’s no longer all on you to come up with different ways to think about an issue. The enhancements enable researchers to get that complete picture more quickly. Now, once you start researching an issue, Westlaw can pay attention to more of what you’re doing, connect the dots, and draw inferences behind the scenes. You are then given other suggestions as you’re going through your research without having to start from scratch each time.

Q: Why did your team choose to pursue these enhancements – and why now?

A: First and foremost, legal research is still really hard. Our customers still spend hours conducting legal research, trying to understand what the law is and how it applies to their clients, and we think we can reduce that substantially.

Secondly, both the business of law and the relationship between law firms, lawyers, and clients are continuing to evolve. There’s much greater emphasis on efficiency because everyone is trying to control costs much more aggressively. Because of that, people want to spend less time conducting legal research, so therein lies an opportunity for us to make researchers more effective.

And then thirdly, we’re in a period where technology is continuing to explode. This is the time to be laying the groundwork to take advantage of these kinds of step-changes in technological capabilities, so we can do much more behind the scenes to help our customers get to the answers they’re looking for much more quickly – and with more confidence that they have the full picture.

Q: Some of the Westlaw enhancements have been recognized in blogs as “cognitive computing” and “artificial intelligence”? Is that a focus area for Westlaw?

A: Yes. It has been for years, and it continues to be. We’re very excited about the potential of these technologies.

Q: Do you have any specific examples of how Westlaw already employs cognitive computing or A.I.?

A: Thomson Reuters Legal has applied elements of artificial intelligence (AI) with increasing sophistication since the 1990s. In fact, natural language processing and machine learning are two of the critical building blocks of Westlaw. When launched in 2010, Westlaw’s search engine, WestSearch, represented a significant leap in complexity in applications of natural language processing, machine learning, and information retrieval. The introduction of WestSearch was really a milestone event in advancement of legal technology, but we didn’t stop there.

Two of our latest enhancements, Research Recommendations and Folder Analysis, are also powered by technologies that are at the core of AI: machine learning and natural language processing. When combined with our 100-year collection of attorney-editor enhancements like the Key Number System, they can provide big time savings for researchers. We’re fast approaching a point where legal technology is going to make huge leaps forward. The amount of raw processing power has grown dramatically, and at the same time, the cost of storage has seen a dramatic reduction. We are going to see Westlaw taking advantage of those advances and making connections at greater speed and scale in the near future.

A: The new enhancements we’ve launched this year are just the first steps down a path of big changes in the legal technology space. Westlaw Answers is our first foray into trying to directly provide an answer to common legal research questions instead of just providing documents with answers highlighted, as other providers do when claiming to answer questions, and we will be doing a lot more there. We are leveraging cognitive computing technologies to go much deeper and broader, in order to address many different kinds of questions and more sophisticated legal questions. Instead of saying, “here are a bunch of cases that likely contain your answer,” we’ll be able to just give you the answer even more than we do today.

We continue to innovate in both improving Westlaw’s existing capabilities and in bringing new, exciting capabilities to Westlaw. Our R&D group continues to explore new directions and technologies that we are integrating into Westlaw to improve our natural language understanding capabilities and interactions, in addition to exploring new approaches in machine learning to improve Westlaw’s overall ability to discern user intent in order to give them the answers they are really looking for. We are researching ways to use cognitive computing to remove the pain points in legal research and make Westlaw more natural and intuitive, both in terms of how users interact with it and interms of the quality and presentation of the information we return to users.

About the author

Eliot Wrenn is graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Madison and the University of Minnesota School of Law. Before law school, he could usually be found in the wilderness guiding backpacking, canoeing, and kayaking trips and teaching environmental science. He still finds time to explore the local and regional wild with his family. Eliot has been a Reference Attorney with Thomson Reuters since 2007.