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West Group and Lexis Nexis are the McDonald’s and Burger King of the legal technology world. When one of them rolls out something new, the other usually isn’t far behind. That has led to some big battles. Within the last 16 months, both companies have added low-cost legal research Web sites and jumped aggressively into the case-management software market. Now the companies are competing on another front: electronic docket access. Lawyers often check dockets from cases they’re not involved in. They can check on an opposing counsel’s other cases or get a sense of how lawyers are handling cases similar to their own. Both companies think lawyers will pay big bucks for the ability to search and retrieve court docket sheets online. So they’re scrambling to build reliable electronic pipelines to the nation’s courthouses. Lexis Nexis, based in Dayton, Ohio, drew the first sword last fall when it bought the Bellevue, Wash.-based Courtlink Corp. At the time, Courtlink was the leader in electronic docketing. It offered the ability to search dockets in all of the federal courts and more than 3,000 state courts. Early this month, Eagan, Minn.-based West unveiled its own docketing service, called WestDockets. WestDockets isn’t as comprehensive as LexisNexis’ product (now called eAccess). WestDockets covers about 70 percent of the nearly 200 federal courts and just one state system: New York. But West got WestDockets up and running quickly. Last November, the product was only on the drawing board. At that point, Westlaw customers could actually access Courtlink through a link. But the link didn’t work flawlessly. Lawyers who used the freestanding Courtlink site only had to pass through one “gateway” — Courtlink’s — to reach court filings. But lawyers using Courtlink through Westlaw had to travel through both Courtlink’s gateway and West’s. The extra hurdle led to disconnections and error messages. Still, West liked Courtlink. So when Lexis Nexis announced the acquisition, West moved to renew the licensing agreement. “The negotiations went very smoothly and were totally in good faith,” says Linnea Grooms, the senior director of public records at West. “Unfortunately, we just couldn’t settle on terms we both liked.” When you can’t buy, you must make. So West plunged ahead with WestDockets. The earliest returns on WestDockets aren’t in yet. But Grooms hopes to have all of the federal courts on board by May, and a handful of the larger state court systems up and running by the end of the year. “Courts are becoming increasingly familiar with the concept of online docketing,” she says, “and we’ve developed a technology that lets us connect them very quickly.” Until then, Lexis Nexis will keep the upper hand. EAccess has, in one form or another, been up and running for years. It also has functions that WestDockets does not have, such as an “alert” function that sends users e-mails whenever changes are made to a docket. And eAccess is cheaper than WestDockets. West charges $30 per search; eAccess charges $5.50. “When we bought Courtlink, we bought the crown jewel of this industry,” says Ann Fullenkamp, the chief operating officer of Lexis Nexis/Courtlink. “And right now, West is playing a big game of catch-up.” Maybe so. But West knows what this battle holds. The company that builds the stronger brand name in docket access will likely gain a leg up in the race to sell access to other court documents, like motions and briefs. So don’t look for the wealthy West to give up without giving Lexis Nexis a run for its money.

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