Coordinated multicampus protests this fall have left law schools in an unenviable position, stuck between meeting student demands and providing access to the resources at the center of the controversy—LexisNexis and Westlaw—which are under fire for contracts with law enforcement.
The LexisNexis and Westlaw research databases are vital for law schools and the students they serve, who will go on to use these tools throughout their legal careers. But contracts with the Department of Homeland Security have students calling for greater scrutiny of LexisNexis and Westlaw and demanding that law schools wield their political power to renounce these ties. Students have also expressed a desire for law schools to invest in alternative legal research tools.
At the heart of the issue is how U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deploys these tools. Critics say that ICE uses them to aggregate data from multiple sources to build dossiers on individuals who may be targeted for deportation, stitching together profiles from criminal records, credit and employment history, utility bills, and license plate numbers, among many other data points. Given that ICE reportedly uses these legal databases in immigration enforcement, some students say their peers are beholden to programs that work against their own community.
“If you’re a person that cares about immigration law, or a student who is undocumented, or have parents who are undocumented, you’re basically forced to use these programs,” says Sam Sueoka, a Seattle University School of Law student. “You’re being forced to use a program that is going to perpetuate harm against people you care about, maybe even people in your family.”
LexisNexis, which previously had deals with ICE, signed a new five-year contract reportedly worth more than $16 million in March 2021, which the company says will provide ICE with investigative tools. Before the contract was awarded, a notice on a federal government website seeking a vendor for a Law Enforcement Investigative Database Subscription stated, “ICE investigative agents require a robust analytical research tool for its in-depth exploration of persons of interest and vehicles.”
Thomson Reuters, the parent company of Westlaw, and RELX, which owns LexisNexis, both deny that their products are being used in the way that students and legal researchers claim. RELX has also established a website that aims to explain the services provided to the U.S. government. (This paragraph has been updated to clarify the ownership structure of LexisNexis and Westlaw.)
“In terms of our investigative solutions and the work we do with law enforcement officials, our solutions do not contain data on an individual’s immigration status or their ability to work or live in the United States,” Dave Moran, a spokesperson for Thomson Reuters, wrote in an email. “They do not contain information on whether an individual is an American citizen or contain data on non-U.S. residents. Our solutions were not designed to be used for mass illegal immigration inquiries and are not an effective tool for addressing this issue.”
However, student activists and researchers argue that ICE mines these massive databases to build dossiers, which ultimately are used in matters such as deportation cases.
Moran added that Thomson Reuters Special Services analysts “work with officials to help enable them to manage information during law enforcement investigations.” He adds that such cases “include terrorism, national security and public safety cases, narcotics smuggling, organized crime, transnational gang activity, child exploitation, human smuggling and trafficking, illegal exports of controlled technology and weapons, money laundering, financial fraud, cybercrime and intellectual property theft.”
What Students Want
Law students organizing around this issue at more than 20 law schools held a week of action in October. Students demonstrated in various ways—unfurling banners, sending open letters and physically protesting outside LexisNexis offices in New York. The organizing group, dubbed the End the Contract Coalition, is made up of student law chapters stretching from coast to coast.
According to the End the Contract Coalition website, students are calling for 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 curriculum, and educate students about the ties between ICE and these companies.
New York University School of Law student Marisa O’Toole wants NYU to “move away from these research giants” and offer 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, critical for NYU Law in part of its curriculum for the first-year law students—if we’re going to continue using the services—to very clearly present the facts about what those services also support when it comes to helping ICE,” O’Toole says.
How Law Schools Are Responding
Law school administrators now face a delicate balancing act between appeasing student demands and continuing to provide services that are integral to legal education. So far, students say the scales have tilted heavily toward the status quo, with their demands going largely unmet.
NYU declined to respond to any questions related to the protests that took place earlier in the semester. Likewise, NYU law students say they’ve been unable to have discussions with law school leadership regarding this issue.
“We’ve been really disappointed that our dean hasn’t engaged with us. We specifically asked to have a meeting with him so we could talk about this,” O’Toole says. “From our standpoint, 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 School of Law, students met with college officials in the spring to raise the issues around the LexisNexis and Westlaw contracts. The school says it responded by making certain changes over the summer, though students say they didn’t know about the changes prior to their October protest.
According to details shared by Seattle University, those changes include no longer requiring first-year law students to attend sessions with LexisNexis and Westlaw representatives, not requiring students to use specific platforms in legal writing, making students more aware of alternative legal research tools, and sharing information with legal writing students during class time about “the issue with ICE” to enable them to “make informed decisions” in legal research.
At Cornell University—one of numerous campuses to see protests on this issue earlier in the semester—leadership pointed to university efforts to provide legal help to marginalized communities through the university’s Immigration Law and Advocacy Clinic, established in 2017, as well as to Cornell’s own Legal Information Institute, a free online legal research platform.
“Although the circumstances which led to Cornell’s innovative legal representation programs and support services have evolved since 2017, we acknowledge that more work remains to be done here at Cornell, throughout the academy, and in the legal profession as a whole,” Jens Ohlin, dean of Cornell Law School, wrote via email. “This is an appropriate time for the Law School and University to evaluate the current service delivery model and assess how best to augment those services in a sustainable and responsible way. To that end, we are exploring all aspects of the support services we provide from attorney staffing for our immigration clinics to regularly reviewing the terms of our contracts with online legal research providers.”
The Legal Research Monopoly
If law schools aren’t doing enough to appease students, that may be because there isn’t much they can do given the outsize market share of LexisNexis and Westlaw in the legal research world, experts say, noting the broad influence of these platforms stretching back decades.
“The problem with an information monopoly is that there aren’t any alternatives,” says Sarah Lamdan, a professor at the City University of New York School of Law and a former law librarian. “We’re all kind of dependent on these systems, even though they’re bad and ethically fraught.”
Not knowing how to use research tools like LexisNexis and Westlaw will ultimately harm students’ career prospects, she says, so law schools are unlikely to move away from these platforms. But Lamdan does see value in building out and investing in alternative platforms that can help shape the future of the legal field. While law schools wield a certain political power, she notes that students have their own leverage as future consumers of legal research products and may be able to shape the market through their purchasing decisions.
“I think in order to stop a monopoly without any sort of regulatory intervention, we have to try to foster competition,” Lamdan says. “We have to be more open to trying new things, trying some alternatives and also supporting those alternatives.”