Legal “Publishing” Companies & People: That’s What We Need

It has occurred to House of Butter that in 2010 there now appears to be a singular lack of imagination at senior management levels at the major legal publishers.

Plenty of the usual tinkering and re-imagining of existing content and products and more of the we’ve bought this and look at the our latest JV with one or other technology based company to help “streamline” content management and flow at law firms. Woop de doo.

HOB wonders if this lack of imagination has its roots in fact that both Lexis and West currently see themselves as “content” database storage and re-distribution organisations rather than employing that remarkably resilient word, Publisher.

Would Henry Butterworth or John B. West and their immediate successors have found a way through the quagmire that is today’s legal information market. Or would their fate also be the constant chase for the next quarter’s figures and a general floundering about hoping that the next big idea in legal publishing will come down from the heavens as a eureka moment lightening strike.

From the periphery it appears that the bolt from the heavens option is the one that most senior management figures at both companies are opting for.

All at once we hear cries of. What about Westlaw Next? What about LN’s integration of Word with their product? What about the technology leaps both companies have made under their ownership by Thompson & Nexis in the last 20 years? What about their understanding that practice management, electronic discovery and much more has been understood and integrated into both companies as saleable product to the existing market?

We don’t doubt that both companies have made the necessary leaps with regard to technology integration, content management and distribution in markets around the world over the past decade and a half.

Yet, for all the big technological changes that have revolutionized the legal information market both revenues and human IP at Wexis have been hit hard by the global slowdown in general and specifically by fierce cost cutting at law firms and other clients.

Remember this: only 18 months ago both companies were recording double digit percentage growth, quarter in and quarter out but look how quickly circumstances have turned everything a full 180 degrees. 

Wexis and other publishers somehow have to combat the current big idea, free legal information for all. Actually, not only do they have to confront it they have to tackle it head on and convince their markets and clients that they have the ideas, desire and capacity for invention to take legal information to the world in the 21st century.

Google, Lii and others are pushing the concept of free legal content for all but the reality is the information they distribute is designed for the general unwashed or as a back up for law firms or for government departments and tertiary institutions who need desperately to find ways to control spiraling budgets for legal information. As far as we can see these free legal information suppliers are still in the business of distribution and haven’t as yet decided to put their intellectual capital into invention.

This, we suggest, still leaves a lot of maneuvering at the 2 majors as well as the bigger legal information publishers such as Kluwer, Justis, Hein and others. All of them need find ways to consolidate and even build on the current revenues through publishing invention rather other than relying on technology and delivery methods as the never ending profit savior.

One North American colleague has told us that no longer do Lexis & West have “Publishing Directors” rather VPs in “Business Development” and similar titles. He also suggests that there has actually been a conscious decision to denigrate the publisher concept in the corporate structure of Lexis & West. We hasten to add that this philosophy hasn’t permeated all corners of these organizations, Butterworths (UK) still has a “Publishing Operations Director”. Did they have to fight to keep a title like that, we hope not.

As HOB sees it, and we readily admit that not everybody will or should see it like us, there needs to be a series of new ideas in the sphere of legal publishing that will keep current legal information consumers spending and encourage new consumers to the table. 

The death knell of the literary publishing market has been sounded repeatedly over the last 30 years yet that industry has managed to reinvent itself almost on an annual basis to grow and become stronger than anyone thought possible at the turn of the century.

HOB won’t be giving away our big ideas. You never know somebody might actually pay us for them some sunny day. 

But ……we would love to suggest that a great step forward for the industry would be to widen its appeal with some clever commissioning for new titles, or content, if you prefer to call it that. It is time to tackle from a legal standpoint the big ideas, problems and issues facing us all as we enter the second decade of the 21st century. 

Concurrently the industry could or should raise awareness of its important role by creating an equivalent of the Booker Man, Turner or Pulitzer prize thus giving wider credence to the world of law and the legal issues via publishing.

Most of us, have in one way or another at some point in our lives, been touched by the law. We see and hear it daily via drama, documentary and current events on our televisions and radios. We read about it in newspapers and magazines (and yes on our i pads and laptops). Our leaders tell us it is the cornerstone of our democracies yet we don’t garner any of this information from our industry in the same way we now read about history, science, politics and technology amongst a myriad of other subjects. Where is our Richard Dawkins, Simon Scharma or Douglas Copeland ?

Let’s start at the publishers by hiring commissioning editors whose remit isn’t to find a legal academic they don’t have to pay much to write a slim over priced title on securities law in Mozambique or re-arrange yet another database to create a saleable product to existing clients.. Instead let these commissioning editors fly a little and think laterally about what a legal title could mean over the next decade. 

Allow them to hone skills and make mistakes and maybe just maybe in a few years time one of these individuals will stun their CEO with a concept that could change the fortunes of an industry and in the meantime introduce a whole new purchasing readership.

You never know, a publishing state of mind may well save a publishing industry.


  1. Sean,

    I would add to commissioning editors the idea that publishers need to start talking to designers. WestlawNext, for example, is a very nice interface, clean, easy to use, with better search. But it’s unremarkable. It’s the Henry Ford “faster horse” problem. Publishers need to stop asking lawyers what they want, start looking at what they’re doing, and innovate.

  2. Gary P. Rodrigues

    Sean Hocking has hit upon the fatal flaw in the vision the major legal publishers created for themselves when they decided to embrace online technology: in mastering the means of delivering existing legal content online, they consciously or unconsciously abandoned their core mandate as “publishers” of legal information.

    With numbers flat, and the failure of technological gimmickry to hold the attention of its customers, Sean suggests that the senior managers of the major legal publishers are left with nothing more than a hope and a prayer that “the next big idea in legal publishing will come down from the heavens as a eureka moment lightening strike”. Not good enough.

    He suggests that a more viable option would be for the publishers to return to their roots as “publishers” and focus on the development of new talent capable of real innovation through content generation. Not a bad idea if the major legal publishers wish to stay in the business of providing access to legal information.

    For those who have not yet heard of Sean Hocking and his infamous website, the House of Butter, you should know that he is the man who singlehandedly opened up the secretive world of legal publishing to the legal research and law librarian communities. It is his belief that greater transparency can benefit the legal publishers as well as their customers by providing a forum for dialogue between the two solitudes, thereby enabling the industry to access the intelligence it needs to succeed in the future. For this, and for the humour and thought provoking style he uses to deliver his message, he has earned our gratitude and respect. Slawyers are fortunate indeed to have him in our ranks.

  3. I’ve been asking impertinent questions of the publishers for years – “How are e-Laws, CanLII and other free sources of information changing how you approach your work?”, and I’ve been getting blank stares. The lack of imagination is disturbing, because I think that the legal publishing world still has much to offer us.

    We need analysis. We need authors who can distill the issues, identify changes in interpretation, and point us to the leading cases. The platform doesn’t matter so much as the quality of the content.

    The door is open now – but it won’t last forever, I’m sure.

  4. This post has been picked up by the Law Librarian Blog with some further comments

  5. Much to the legal publishers or rather legal information providers credit they are now listening or reading their customers demands. They’ve the resources to discover and collect customer insights and feedback. From all this it appears what has been gleaned is that the customers want “more” information. After all, the legal publishers want to compete with the free information providers.

    And their response, from all this, is to head towards becoming legal information aggregates; they’ve surmised that the customers want “more” easily accessible content and are not necessarily concerned with substance and style. Hence, “publisher” has become outmoded.

    If, however, the customers demand more than “more” content and include substance and/or style they should speak up, blog up, tweet up, or whatever. Customers can’t be vague, you’ve got to spell it out. And, that’s how I see it.