Legal Research Paywall

Subscription law libraries are doomed.  The costs to run them substantially outstrip the ability to generate revenue.  I’m unaware of any voluntary membership libraries funded entirely by dues.  Many rely on endowments to offset the operating costs that exceed their membership income.  Others have a public access focus that enables them to tap into government or grant funding.

Law Libraries Aren’t in the Workflow

The question I have been rolling around in my mind is whether a legal research service using a paywall model would be  possible as an alternative.  You might argue that legal research is already behind a paywall, since the only way to access some information is by paying a content provider like Thomson Reuters for its Westlaw products or Reed Elsevier for its LexisNexis products.  But those companies are moving out of the straight content play into what they have been calling workflow.  This shift has had some recent attention but it’s been the direction for legal publishing for years.

Legal publishers have this opportunity because legal research is only a small component of what the average lawyer does.  Publishers can take their content and link it to tools that their compatriots in the broader business – creating practice management, customer relationship management, search, and other tools – are also selling to law firms.

Membership libraries lack the ability to inject themselves into the subscriber’s workflow as effectively.  Their relationship is largely reactive, since there is generally not a good mechanism to engage regularly with the member base.  Many subscribers to libraries are buying insurance.  Just as they do with their legal research products, it is to ensure they have access to information if they need it.  In some cases, subscribers are very heavy users and step beyond the law-library-as-insurance to actually take extensive advantage of the services and collections.  But, based on my experience, that is a minority of the overall membership.

A survey done about 5 years ago indicated about 15% of newspaper users would pay to use news content behind a paywall.  It made me wonder if a subscription law library could survive based solely on 15% of its membership base, and whether the ability exists to more closely connect the cost of delivering the service to its value.  The assumption being that those who are paying would only continue to do so as long as there was a value.  My guess is that most subscription libraries are not levying dues or charging a fee that is really market-driven and based on actual costs of services.

The answer to a legal research paywall is almost certainly a resounding “no, that wouldn’t work”.  In part, it’s because the model that seems to be successful for newspapers is based on additional revenue sources, like advertising.  It may be possible for some law libraries to use advertising to offset the costs of delivering services but legal research services and collections are not entirely Web-based and so advertising could be challenging to insert into interactions and communications.

Redefine Core Collection

What other changes could a library take that might make a paywall concept more workable?  I was inspired, again, by a newspaper.  The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism did a piece that highlighted 4 newspapers and how they were adapting.  The in-depth look at the Deseret News, based in Salt Lake City, Utah, caught my eye.

The change that the Deseret News made that most resonated was their increased focus on a core set of editorial topics.  Instead of covering every possible content area, they were going to focus on a narrow set of topics that they knew would resonate with current readers and, potentially, enable growth nationally.

Contrast that to a law library, which collects across a wide number of practice areas.  The worst scenario is the law library that continues to collect “just in case” and stocks shelves or licenses databases that go unused.  But even the best managed membership law libraries, using a “just in time” model of collecting and licensing is probably collecting far more broadly than is necessary.

If a library were to analyze the resources that are being used, which it may be doing for responsible collection management in order to weed unused content, there are likely to be core areas that are used more than others.  It is worth distinguishing those core areas from what law schools and others might describe as core areas – “first year” or 1L concepts, like real estate, criminal, constitutional – and those that practicing lawyers are actually using.  Placement of many subscription law libraries in or near courthouses usually encourages a high degree of criminal law, family law, and civil litigation content use.

Content for practice areas that you could add the words “boutique law firm” after – like intellectual property, or class actions, or entertainment law – are used substantially less.  A law library that took the narrow focus that the Deseret News did might eliminate all but a select number of content areas.  These might be based on the current heavy users of the library but an entrepreneurial library might make the selections based on likely regional or national growth of user access.  The fact that most subscription law libraries don’t have a national focus doesn’t mean they couldn’t.

Here’s the rub, though.  Once you’ve stripped back your core collection so that, rather than broad and shallow it is now deep and narrow, how do you handle the requests that come in outside scope?  The easy answer is that you don’t.  Your paying library users are most likely to be paying because of the value of the collection, and so the user base are less likely to veer into uncharted – or uncollected – areas.  However, there are a variety of resources that could be tapped “just in case” on a transactional basis.  The library would have to determine how to budget for these one-offs but the cost is likely to be less than it would be to collect and maintain access to a book or subscription database on the topic.

No One Will Pay for Content at a Law Library

I’ve mostly focused on content here.  Content is fungible, as the legal publishers are showing us.  At the end of the day, law libraries would need to supplement their content with services that created value for the paying customers of this legal research service.  This is a different kind of challenge.  Staff costs increase less rapidly than collection costs, which may be in the double digits annually.  It is probably easier to create value through the selection, training, and use of the right staff than it is to add content to a collection.

If law libraries look at the services that legal research attorneys provide, both in law firms and as freelance researchers, there is a good example of what paying customers would want.  These services would take law libraries significantly up the value chain but to a place where many librarians are  uncomfortable going:  providing analysis and work product to support the lawyer’s research.

These sorts of services, focused on a core set of content, could potentially create a marketable solution. I expect that legal research attorneys are utilizing nearby free-to-them legal research content themselves, so it’s not like this is a great leap.

The services and collection would need to shift more closely to the paywall concept being deployed by newspapers.  It needs to all be online.  It’s almost embarrassing how many of the potential tools in this environment – extranet-like personalized storage of scanned chapters, bookmarked or downloaded files, research memos – could be easily deployed in this sort of environment.  I wouldn’t have deployed anything like this for a 1,000 member law library because the cost to do so would outweigh the 50 people who might actually use it.  But if the 1000 members were paying to support the library at a going rate, not just a charity donation, making those services available and making them valuable would be more important.

What that price would be, I don’t know.  Some lawyers feel hard done by when they are paying $100 a year or $200 a year but no law library is sustainable at that level.  A subscription to a legal research database would probably set them back $1500 a year.  1000 members paying $1000 a year would create a strong law library, but it would require a very different mindset in relation to the cost of legal research as a component of law practice.  It would also encourage legal publishers to price closer to the law library’s dues to encourage purchase of a service rather than a library subscription.

It also needn’t be a 100% paid service.  Law libraries tend to be 95% free services, with a handful of paid add-ons.  The flip side might be 5% free and 95% paid add-ons for free users, and 100% free for paid users.  The freemium model seems to work in some environments like museums.

Who Knows

This is an idea that I’ll continue to ponder.  I don’t have any current application for it but some of the ideas might make sense even in a more traditional subscription law library that is looking to streamline. I still wonder whether 15% of any law library’s users could be induced to pay a membership fee that would be sufficient to cover the actual costs of running the law library.