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Celebrating 20 Years of Excellence with KeyCite on Westlaw

Nick Borger
National Client Representative, Thomson Reuters

It has been two decades since Thomson Reuters Westlaw launched KeyCite, the service which revolutionized the way attorneys verify the good law status of their authority. In honor of KeyCite’s 20-years in the marketplace, we have compiled a short history of KeyCite’s evolution into the market leading tool it is today.

The Beginning

Before the creation of the KeyCite, Shepard’s Annotations stood unchallenged in the market as the only relevant tool for attorneys to check the validity status of the common law. For over 100 years, legal research companies, including West Publishing and all major competitors, contracted with Shepard’s to provide customers with a service that simply was not available through any other provider. This service was so pervasive that “Shepardizing” became synonymous with checking the good law status of a case.

In the mid 1980’s West Publishing first entered the legal citation tool market with a product called InstaCite. This tool, developed using data from West’s print digests, provided the direct history on a case, as well as some negative history information. Though useful for its time, this service was inherently limited.


An image from Shepard's print index.

State of the art legal research jumped ahead on the evolutionary ladder with the launch of KeyCite in 1997. The project was spearheaded by Dan Dabney; a law librarian, Taxonomist and Senior Director of Research; and Forrest Rhoads; Chief Strategy Officer for Thomson Reuters Global Resources. Though involvement in the development of this project was widespread throughout the company, from reference attorneys to top executives, the project was labeled top secret and discussion of its existence with those not tasked with development was verboten.

While development of the project was both time consuming and costly, creators were able to massively leverage the Key Number System, a legal issue classification system that West created and has maintained for over 100 years, to quickly use interconnected primary authority and legal concepts to provide an accurate report on a case’s legal standing. When the project first debuted, KeyCite was accessed through a software program called WestMate and was the world’s first live online legal citator.


When KeyCite was originally launched, attorneys had the ability to confidently confirm that case law cited was good law in a single step for the first time. Prior to the release of KeyCite, the process for reviewing cited case law was several steps long and required users to scour several different sources to make sure authority was still the law of the land. Though originally available only for case law, KeyCite continued to add additional content and features, giving practitioners access to KeyCite information for statutes, pleadings, motions, and more. This innovation was one of the most significant updates in the legal citation market in the last century, and helped KeyCite set the standard for legal citation services.

Transition to Online:

As fast and reliable internet access changed attorney preferences at the turn of the century, KeyCite moved increasingly toward an online platform, which helped increase practitioner speed in research. In 2002, WestMate was discontinued entirely in favor of the online Westlaw platform.

Prior to online access to KeyCite, citation verification was traditionally the last step in the legal research process. An attorney would Shepardize their cases to ensure their good-law-status only after they had already written and edited their brief. KeyCite allowed an attorney to start their legal research by finding one good case and being instantly connected to a vast network of interrelated cases.


KeyCite standardized its flags to provide users with quick, easily understandable indications of the authority of a source. KeyCite also invented the Depth of Treatment indicator, allowing an attorney to determine the extent that a given case comments on the authority he is researching before even opening the document. Access to KeyCite online fundamentally changed the way attorneys do their legal research, making it both more accurate and more efficient.

KeyCite Today:

Today KeyCite is the industry’s most complete, accurate, and up-to-the-minute citation service. KeyCite provides more citing references for more types of documents than any other legal authority checker. And, it’s the only citator that clearly warns directly on the face of the document and on a result list that the case, statute, regulation, patent, trademark, or administrative decision has negative treatment, which allows an attorney to instantly view the cases which might have the most substantial impact on cited authority.

KeyCite provides users with an easy to read table that lists all negative citing references and describes the source material’s treatment, identifies the points of law discussed, and analyzes the depth of treatment the source authority is given by the citing reference. This allows the user to quickly and efficiently determine which sources she will need to review to analyze the current state of the law. KeyCite even determines which reference is the most severe negative treatment of all citing sources to immediately draw attention to the most important resource to determine the boundary of authority.

The Future of KeyCite:

West’s development team is constantly working to improve and expand KeyCite. All new content, including all Practical Law content, goes through Keycite, so the volume of resources available is always increasing. Our development team is also working on leveraging the vast amount of data available to expose resources that may be related to KeyCited content even if no direct link exists. Despite 20 years of development and constant efforts to improve KeyCite, the driving force behind the service remains the same. KeyCite was built using the West Key Number System, a framework for categorizing legal doctrine which our team has maintained for over 100 years. Thomson Reuters’ experienced editorial team reviews and analyzes the law as it is made, then work in conjunction with cutting edge technology to provide practitioners with updates about the current state of the law as quickly and efficiently as possible.

About the author

Nick Boger

As a National Client Representative with Thomson Reuters, Nick regularly works with attorneys at many of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the country. Nick leverages his years of experience in practice to assist customers in finding the most efficient ways to conduct their research. Prior to joining the team, Nick was in private practice for 5 years, focusing mostly on commercial litigation.