Rumors have been circulating for some time now about Project Cobalt, Westlaw’s internal code name for its most significant overhaul since it moved to the Web. Now we know that Project Cobalt’s official name is WestlawNext and that West will formally introduce it to the public on Feb. 1 at LegalTech New York.

Recently, West gave me a preview of WestlawNext and supplied me with a password to try it out. This is no mere cosmetic redesign. WestlawNext completely changes the search interface and the search engine behind it. In fact, the change is so dramatic that West has given its new search engine its own name: WestSearch. This new search engine does not just look at the terms you enter, a West executive said. Rather, it tries to identify the issue of law based on the terms you searched.

The most striking change from the former Westlaw to WestlawNext is the disappearance of the database directories. No longer need you select a specific database to search. Instead, the front page of WestlawNext is Zen-like in its sparsity – or, I should say, Google-like. Atop the page is a search bar which invites you to “enter search terms, citations, databases, anything.”

Your search – Boolean or natural language – will run across everything in the Westlaw database and return a page showing an overview of the most relevant results from each group – cases, statutes, secondary sources, briefs, whatever. If that sounds daunting, it isn’t. On the left of the screen is a menu for refining the search by group. Click to see only caselaw that matches your search or only statutes or whichever. After you select one of these filters – say, cases – a new submenu appears allowing you to further filter the results by any number of parameters, including court, judge, party, topic and Key Number.

This is much simpler and more intuitive than having to choose a database to search, if for no other reason that you don’t always know which database is best suited to your search.

At the same time, WestlawNext makes it simple to limit your search by jurisdiction or to a particular library. Within the search box, a drop-down menu lets you choose as few or as many jurisdictions to search as you want. You can also browse any of the various libraries by jurisdiction and topic.

The same search bar works to KeyCite a case. Just type “keycite” and the cite to bring up the subsequent history of a case. Whenver you view a case, the KeyCite information is displayed across the top of the page, in tabs for Negative Treatment, Citing References, History and Filings.

Currently in Westlaw, the default ranking for search results is by date. In WestlawNext, the default ranking is by relevance. At any time, you can reset the default to whatever ranking you prefer.

The new Westlaw makes a number of changes in how documents are displayed, including all new settings for fonts, margins and other styles. The user is able to customize these settings to their liking. A notable change is that headnotes no longer display automatically. Instead, the user can opt to display the full set of headnotes for any case by clicking on a button. This makes it easier to get right to the meat of a case.

Another change is that a case’s most negative citing reference is shown right on the same page with the case. The previous version of Westlaw would show a yellow flag but provide no explanation.

As you view search results, a panel on the right of the screen shows relevant entries from treatises and other secondary materials. For example, a simple search, “Massachusetts open meeting law,” revealed secondary sources such as relevant entries from the Massachusetts Practice series, briefs filed in open meeting appeals and pleadings from open meeting lawsuits.

There are many smaller enhancements that fall into the category of nice touches. For example, select a block of text and a pop-up menu appears allowing you to highlight it, add a note, copy it with its reference, or add it to your research. All of your research can be saved and organized in folders. WestlawNext will also keep a history back a year of every search you do and allow you to search within your history.

The bottom line is that WestlawNext brings the experience of searching the Westlaw database in line with what users today expect from a Web-based tool, making it simple and intuitive.

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.