Will Client Companies Benefit from this Faster & More Precise Legal Research Technology? Or Will Law Firms Minimize Its Use?


The Point

1. With the launch of its new “Precision Research” platform, Westlaw  promises to cut in half the time lawyers take to do their legal research, and offers more precise results.

2. Law firms bill hundreds per hour for legal research by junior / trainee associates who are only one, two, or three years past graduation. And most bills of better qualified law firm attorneys are on an hourly basis as well.

3. Cutting the time for that legal research time in half would cut the hourly bill for that legal research in half.

4. Cutting that bill in half would be good for client companies, especially in a recession. But, in the dysfunctional world of the billable hour business model, it would be deemed bad for law firms — and possibly a dubious move during a recession.

This Matters to Your Business

(Since their founding in 1872, Westlaw and its predecessor companies have been the single leading source of legal research materials in the U.S.)

First, there’s the sheer speed — and resulting reduction of hours spent on a research task by law firm attorneys: “Testing with 101 lawyers found a research task that had taken 4.75 hours was reduced to 1.75 hours.”

Second, more precise research results come from the Westlaw Precision Research platform’s machine learning capability (a form of artificial intelligence). To structure data for machine learning, Westlaw hired 250 licensed attorneys to perfect the data’s organization into legal classifications by focusing, curating, and tagging tens of thousands of court opinions with associated facts and procedural outcomes. In processing that data as so structured, machine learning avoids wasting lawyers’ time with cases irrelevant to their search, and captures and brings to their attention relevant cases that otherwise would be missed. Thereby saving lawyer time.

Because …

My first instinct on learning about Westlaw Precision Research: When such an iconic source as Westlaw adds speed and precision to the legal research process on this scale — cutting time by 50% or more — it’s adoption should be a no-brainer.

But perhaps not.

Over the years I’ve come to view Jean O’Grady as one of only 5 or 6 individuals who I view as the best in the business of evaluating the effectiveness of legal technologies. She suggests that law firms’ billable hour focus may well pose a large impediment to adoption here:

How Do You Sell a Product That Reduces Billable Time During a Recession?

“The main value proposition of Westlaw Precision is in the promise of dramatic time savings.

“We are in a recession and law firms are concerned about revenue. (When are law firms not concerned about revenue?) The majority of law firm revenue is still driven by the billable hour. Is a recession the right time to sell law firms a tool that will cut associates billable research time in half?

“Maybe associate research time is often a ‘write-off’ anyway — the problem is that very few firms have this level of granular data on write offs and write downs. If I were [Westlaw’s] Mike Dahn, I would be talking to the executives at … Peer Monitor and Elite to see if they can help law firms understand and quantify the value of associate time that gets written down or written off due to research taking too long.”

Ms. O’Grady knows how law firms make decisions about technology, and she is correct (as usual) in raising this as a concern about the Westlaw Precision Research platform’s market viability. But only in the shadow of the legal profession’s billable hour business model would one need to ask if a recession is a “bad time”  to adopt an effective tool that saves the client money.  

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