Westlaw has been more or less the same since the 1980s.
Lawyers often grow attached to the version of Westlaw that they grew up with; to take an extreme example, at least one judge on a federal court of appeals still uses command line Westlaw instead of the web version. Westlaw Next offers some handy annotating tools and a more modern interface, but also breaks key parts of Westlaw like database selection and a precise terms-and-connectors search where you feel you have control over what results are returned. I grew up with Westlaw and still prefer it to Next.
Lots of people have tried to compete with Westlaw on price: FindLaw; Lexis (formerly a major competitor, now not so much); Bloomberg; LoisLaw; Google Scholar. Others have attempted or are attempting to compete with Westlaw on search results: PreCyDent; Ravel Law; Judicata. PreCyDent used citations to weight search results, in an analogy to PageRank. Ravel Law uses an innovative (but not really useful in practice in its curent version) graphical interface to show how cases relate to (cite) each other. Judicata has a not-yet-unveiled technology for parsing cases and using the resulting structured data to improve search.
How does Westlaw compete with these challengers; how does it win despite being more expensive and providing worse search results? Content is Westlaw’s moat. The top of the market — great lawyers — that these companies are targeting cannot use a product that does not contain all the law that might be relevant: cases from all courts, going back to the dawn of time, and all statutes and rules in all their versions, going back to the dawn of time, at the very minimum. A search engine, no matter how good, that searches only 80% of the law (and most competitors have far less than that) is almost worthless — because a great lawyer can’t afford to have missed something that was in the other 20%.
(One way of putting this is as the difference between accuracy and recall. When you search Google, you want high accuracy, meaning that the results you get back and read, the first 10 or 20, are very much related to what you were searching for. You don’t care that there were many other also relevant things that you never see. When you search for primary law, you want high recall, meaning that if it exists, and its responsive, you will eventually get it, even if you have to spend a few hours reading through results to separate the wheat from the chaff.)
Isn’t this information, what lawyers call “primary law,” meaning the authoritative output of courts, legislatures, and agencies, freely available? Yes and no. It is relatively easy to get current opinions, statutes, and rules, although there is no standardized format and you would have to work separately with the many federal and state governmental bodies that promulgate primary law every day. But it is not as easy to get the historical stuff, opinions going back hundreds of years, earlier versions of statutes and rules, legislative deliberations, and the like.
None of this material is copyrighted, so a team with Google’s resources could simply buy and scan a complete set of books (an old school legal library), purge the scanned text of copyrighted material (annotations and the like) and thereby recreate West’s database of content. Or Google, which has perhaps done this for Google Scholar, could make its database public (mass content retrieval through Google’s APIs would violate the terms of service, and Google would cut you off long before you were done — a client of mine tried). Or the Government could undertake to create this resource, a free database of primary law, and release it to the public.
Until Westlaw’s competitors invest in creating or otherwise obtaining such a database, or until an enterprising technology company simply buys Westlaw for its content (and its customer relationships), I predict we will not see any serious movement of customers in the search space. Content is king.