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Legal Publishers Are Not Playing to Their Strengths

If you have not read Ruth Bird‘s post at the Slaw Blog (Aggravation due to (dis)aggregation), you should do so.  It’s a great review of the issues currently arising from some particularly poor business decisions being made by legal publishers.  I attended a presentation by Nigel Holloway, VP of ALM’s Legal Intelligence group, that discussed this same disaggregation According to ALM’s 2011 law librarian survey, respondents indicate that large law firm library directors were sometimes doing research more suited to associates because of the widening number of databases and lack of familiarity of lawyer researchers.

The thing that amazes me is the the seeming failure to appreciate the legal publishing landscape on the part of some smaller publishers.  In Canada, we have seen both Canada Law Book and Irwin Law pull their content out of the LexisNexis database in order to run their own electronic product.  Canada Law Book has now been aligned with Thomson Reuters Carswell and Irwin continues its standalone e-library.

I’m talking about CLB and Irwin but only as examples, perhaps not even the most egregious, of the disaggregation that Ruth Bird mentions.  Lawyers have shown they want comprehensive resources – in fact, most publishers wrongly claim that comprehensiveness – so this disaggregation is opposed to what the customer would appear to want.  As law library directors and research librarians are experiencing, the fragmentation of resources is a time sink, a less efficient (and more costly) way to perform research.  Not only do you spend time going from resource to resource, you spend time relearning the interface and search syntax of each tool.

This highlights the fundamental problem.  The smaller legal publishers do not have the technical or financial wherewithal to create or license the sorts of interfaces that they need to make their information easily accessible.  It is not a question of being unable to but that, to date, most of the smaller print publishers that have rolled their own online legal research tool have done so poorly.  How?  Here are the top reasons that occur to me:

  • Weak, unfaceted search;
  • Failure to convert analog print formats into something other than a digital vomit of the print content.  It’s like the whole e-book issue; just because you can make an electronic text that looks or works like a print one doesn’t mean you should;
  • Dated and unintuitive browsing organization and navigation.

A better decision by these companies, who perhaps were not happy with revenue splits with LexisNexis and Westlaw or, as likely, saw their content license as a precursor to their corporate acquisition, would have been to exert control over their content but license the content to someone with the interface, tools, and more realistic comprehensiveness aspirations.  I’ve talked about APIs in relation to software development and I believe the same concept works for small legal publishers.  Own your own content.  Mark it up and make it highly functional.  License access to your content pipe.  Let some other company develop the user interface.

As a library director, the small legal publishers are making a challenge that Ms. Bird’s post clearly outlines:  purchase overpriced access to poor quality electronic resource with limited high quality content . . . . or don’t.  And I think it’s the latter choice that many legal information purchasers will make.  At the end of the day, much of this content is a nice to have.  If I am still purchasing the print volume, I don’t even really need the electronic because I’ve already got access issues for my print.  If I am not purchasing print, I can do so.  The cost of creating the electronic interface and resource is a significant one and, I’m guessing here, is probably a bet the business decision for most smaller legal publishers.

In light of recent budgetary pressures, though, I’m increasingly likely to not buy either the print or the electronic access and look to leverage already licensed content from one of the two major vendors.  Because that is what is going to be used by my researchers (lawyers and librarians) at the end of the day.  The small legal publishers who have attempted to show their independence and who have failed to be innovative and to consider the realities of pricing their now much smaller offering, will wither on the vine.  When push comes to shove, I think many purchasers will be having a much closer assessment of these new resources and the content they hold and decide that they can live without them.