The coordinated protests across multiple campuses this fall have left law schools in an unenviable position, caught between meeting student demands and accessing resources at the center of the controversy – LexisNexis and Westlaw – which are the subject of critics for contracts with the police.
The LexisNexis and Westlaw research databases are vital to the law schools and the students they serve, who will use these tools throughout their legal careers. But contracts with the Department of Homeland Security require students to demand further scrutiny of LexisNexis and Westlaw and to demand that law schools exercise their political power to forgo those ties. The students also expressed the wish that law schools invest in alternative legal research tools.
At the heart of the problem is how the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement deploys these tools. Critics say the ICE uses them to aggregate data from multiple sources to build records on those who may be deported, assembling profiles from criminal records, credit and employment histories, utility bills and license plate numbers, among many other data points. Since ICE would use these legal databases in enforcing immigration laws, some students say their peers are beholden to programs that work against their own community.
“If you are a person who cares about immigration law, or an undocumented student, or if you have undocumented parents, you are essentially forced to use these programs,” says Sam Sueoka, a student at the Seattle University Law School. “You are forced to use a program that will perpetuate evil against people who are dear to you, maybe even members of your family.”
LexisNexis, which previously had deals with ICE, signed a new five-year contract valued at more than $ 16 million in March 2021, which the company says will provide ICE with investigative tools. Prior to contract award, a notice posted on a federal government website seeking a vendor for a law enforcement investigation database subscription read: “Investigating officers of the ‘ICE need a robust analytical research tool for its in-depth exploration of people of interest and vehicles. “
Thomson Reuters, the parent company of LexisNexis and Westlaw, categorically denies that its products are used in the ways that law students and researchers claim. The company has also created a website that aims to explain the services provided to the US government.
“With respect to our investigative solutions and the work we do with law enforcement, our solutions do not contain data on an individual’s immigration status or ability to work or live in the country. United States, âDave Moran, spokesperson for Thomson Reuters, wrote in an email. âThey don’t contain information about whether an individual is a US citizen or contain data about non-US residents. Our solutions were not designed to be used for mass illegal immigration investigations and are not an effective tool to solve this problem.
However, student activists and researchers argue that the ICE uses these massive databases to create cases, which are ultimately used in cases such as deportation cases.
Moran added that Thomson Reuters special services analysts “are working with officials to enable them to manage information during law enforcement investigations.” He adds that such cases “include cases of terrorism, national security and public safety, drug trafficking, organized crime, transnational gang activity, child exploitation, human trafficking and human trafficking. human rights, illegal exports of technology and controlled weapons, money laundering, financial fraud, cybercrime and theft of intellectual property.
What students want
Law students organized around this issue in more than 20 law schools organized a week of action in October. Students demonstrated in a variety of ways, displaying banners, sending open letters, and physically demonstrating outside the LexisNexis offices in New York City. The organizing group, nicknamed End the Contract Coalition, is made up of law student sections that stretch from coast to coast.
According to the End the Contract Coalition website, the students are asking LexisNexis and Westlaw to terminate contracts with ICE. They are also demanding that law schools end contracts with LexisNexis and Westlaw and publicly condemn their partnerships with ICE, add alternative research tools to the law school’s curriculum, and educate students on ICE’s connections to these companies.
New York University Law School student Marisa O’Toole wants NYU to “move away from these research giants” and come up with other options, but she also hopes to see more transparency if Law schools continue to rely on these tools.
“It would be very easy and, I think, essential for NYU Law in part of its program for first year law students – if we are to continue to use the services – to present the facts very clearly on what these services have.” also support when it comes to helping ICE, âsays O’Toole.
How Law Schools Respond
Law school administrators are now faced with a delicate balance between appeasing student demands and continuing to provide services that are integral to legal education. So far, students say the scales have tilted sharply towards the status quo, with their demands largely unfulfilled.
NYU declined to answer any questions related to the protests that took place earlier in the semester. Likewise, NYU law students say they haven’t been able to speak to law school leadership about it.
âWe were really disappointed that our dean didn’t engage with us. We specifically asked to have a meeting with him so that we could talk about it, âsays O’Toole. âFrom our point of view, we’re trying to figure out how we can even open the door to a conversation with our dean. “
But some institutions have made changes. At Seattle University Law School, students met with university officials in the spring to raise issues with the LexisNexis and Westlaw contracts. The school says it responded by making some changes over the summer, although students say they weren’t aware of the changes until their October protest.
According to details shared by the University of Seattle, these changes include no longer requiring first-year law students to attend sessions with representatives from LexisNexis and Westlaw, not requiring students to use platforms. -specific forms in legal drafting, to sensitize students to alternative legal research tools, and to share information with legal drafting students during class hours on “the problem with ICE” to enable them to “take informed decisions âin legal research.
At Cornell University, one of many campuses to have attended protests on this issue earlier in the semester, management highlighted the university’s efforts to provide legal aid to marginalized communities through the The university’s Immigration Law and Advocacy Clinic, established in 2017, as well as Cornell’s own clinic. Legal Information Institute, a free online legal research platform.
“While the circumstances that led to Cornell’s innovative legal representation programs and support services have evolved since 2017, we recognize that there is still work to be done here at Cornell, in the academy and in the legal profession. as a whole, âJens Ohlin, Dean of Cornell Law School, wrote via email. âNow is the right time for the law school and university to assess the current model of service delivery and assess how best to increase these services in a sustainable and responsible manner. To this end, we explore all aspects of the support services we provide, from recruiting lawyers for our immigration clinics to regularly reviewing the terms of our contracts with online legal research providers.
The monopoly of legal research
If law schools aren’t doing enough to appease students, it may be because there isn’t much they can do given LexisNexis and Westlaw’s outsized market share in the legal research world, according to experts, noting the broad influence of these platforms which stretch decades back.
âThe problem with an information monopoly is that there is no alternative,â says Sarah Lamdan, professor at the City University of New York School of Law and former law librarian. âWe are all dependent on these systems, even though they are bad and ethically heavy. “
Not knowing how to use research tools like LexisNexis and Westlaw will end up hurting students’ career prospects, she says, so law schools are unlikely to stray from those platforms. But Lamdan sees the benefit of developing and investing in alternative platforms that can help shape the future of the legal field. While law schools wield some political power, she notes that students have their own influence as future consumers of legal research products and may be able to shape the market through their purchasing decisions.
âI think in order to end a monopoly without any regulatory intervention, we have to try to promote competition,â Lamdan said. “We need to be more open to trying new things, trying alternatives and also supporting those alternatives.”