The Law as Commodity

I’ve approved the payment of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years to buy electronic legal research information from publishers. The strange thing is that the bulk of the information I buy is in the public domain. I have been paying for (a) access to a single (ha!) point of research, (b) for the enhancements the publishers add to the content, and (c) for the currency of the information, among other things. The push from many areas has been to get this information onto the Internet, as a free public good. But this is unlikely to change the legal publishing world, where case law – judicial and other opinions – and statutes and regulations are largely becoming commodities. The future for legal publishing is going to be less concerned with the content and more concerned with mediating – and charging us – for our access to it through workflow, awareness, and integration.

It may be a much more common notion in the United States, because free judicial opinions are so readily available, whether from the courts or from other sources.  You can even get “unpublished” opinions online in the U.S.  Publisher sites like Lexisone or Thomson Findlaw, or public sites like Justia.com, PreCydent and Cornell provide a remarkable array of content or new ways of accessing it.  The alliance between Public.Resource.org and Fastcase, for a large U.S. Federal case law archive to go into the public domain, is an interesting development.

But case law is case law.  Publishers – and individuals – can walk into a court house and read these opinions.  In fact, without walking into the court house, one may never see some opinions, if they are not delivered to a publisher or uploaded to a Web site.  There is nothing proprietary in the actual opinion.  When you can go to CanLII (or any of the other LIIs:  AustLII, BAILII, etc.) and pull off recent judicial opinions, it becomes clear that publishers will have a harder time selling what has been their core value proposition.

I read this piece on Times Online (UK), which quoted the CEO of Reed Elsevier as saying that LexisNexis was seeing an increase in usage by focusing on the workflow of lawyers as opposed to just providing content.  [Thanks to the House of Butter for catching it]

LexisNexis and Thomson have been collapsing a variety of international publishers and law sources into single, monolithic systems (albeit still often silo’d by country of origin).  It’s becoming easier to access content through a single platform, even if interfaces still vary widely and subsidiaries of the publishers aren’t aligned within the overall business.

If workflow is providing that kind of return, or alternatively, if content is providing that little stickiness for using their system, it would seem to make sense that workflow is where the investment will be going forward.  It would also seem fair to say that the accretion of additional content, across multiple jurisdictions, has become such a basic operational function that most major publishers can afford to spend more on the enhancements, the added value.

Freely accessible case law and statutes are going to reduce the perceived value of the core primary content in most fee-based services.  Publishers who don’t add sufficient value to electronically accessible information – even if they add some – will probably end up going out of business or being bought out.  Workflow tools, things that save time (clipping services, alerts, RSS feeds) and improve accuracy (citators and note up tools that cover more than case law), and eliminate content-specific (primary v. secondary, case law v. forms) and scope-specific (jurisdiction, practice area) silos, are the obvious next step.  It will be interesting to see if Thomson and the other legal publishers (there are so few these days!) go the same direction as LexisNexis.