Law E-Books Without Legal Publishers

Peter Martin, a law prof at Cornell, published a research paper on SSRN on possible futures of legal texts.  He gives a history of both the consolidation of the US publishers as well as the digital shift in law library collections.  He argues that legal publishers have missed an opportunity by shifting their commentary from print to a linear e-book format, which are in fact a step backwards.  This has left an opening for others to create commentary using blogs, wikis, and other online forms.

I don’t believe crowdsourcing in legal information works.  We’re not like the open source developers.  I identified a few examples and Bob Ambrogi looked at it recently and more broadly.  It is attractive to point at free online tools like blogs or wikis and intuit that they could take share away from commercial legal publishers.  It’s appealing to many of us who are currently spending millions on ephemeral legal content.

Lawyers will contribute content – see Lexology, Mondaq, and JD Supra – but there has to be a return on the investment.  In the cases of those sites, content marketing is the underlying goal.  Without some incentivization of authoritative authors to create content, replacing legal publisher content with open resources has no opportunity of success.

While you have some experts who create authoritative content, like William Patry did as cited by Peter Martin, it’s an ad hoc process.  It’s not always clear who the authorities are (or why some people shouldn’t be) nor any reason for them to continue to contribute except out of good will and personal interest. Those of us who connect lawyers with large amounts of information would be challenged to wrangle these sources; actual practitioners would be at a greater disadvantage.

E-books have a similar challenge.  I’ve dabbled with some – on law practice technology, confidentiality, and an annotated statute – out of personal interest.  For lots of contributors to make the long term commitment to do it, you’d need a funding source to ensure they’re kept up.  Legal publishers, despite the sorry state of their e-books, make an investment in a stable of authors.  As a counterpoint, CALI is an example of success using reputation and minor financial rewards to generate a body of free law school texts.  If only it happened to content available for practitioners.

I’m sympathetic to Martin’s approach but so far, e-book innovation in the legal information market will only happen when enough money is invested to create new, authoritative models.

Originally posted on LinkedIn

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.