Tectonic plates are shifting in the world of legal information. The sale of the Bureau of National Affairs to Bloomberg surprised me. I worked with BNA a bit back in the pre-Internet days. I was a great fan of U.S. Law Week, a research tool that I felt was much undervalued. I even made a promotional video for them when they began to transition from offering solely a print product into adding a digital platform. Being employee-owned and devoted to high quality editorial content, BNA was easy to like. When Bloomberg came on the scene I saw the shades of LEXIS’s purchase of Matthew Bender, a move guaranteed to bring respected content-centered expertise into the world of gargantuan retrieval systems.
The barriers of entry for any other major player in the American online legal research market are high. Both LEXIS and WESTLAW, and the newest iterations thereof, have boots on the ground in American law schools. In the earliest days of a new law student’s life at a U.S. law school, she is given 24/7 access to both systems. Access and training is provided by a representative of the system. That rep will train the new student, give her a t-shirt, a coffee cup and entree into a world of prizes and promotions. The rep makes the system real and inevitable. For years I have told first year law students that they are living in golden times. They are the object of competition between large corporate enterprises. As such, they will be wooed. It is nice to be wooed.
This enormous investment in training is made in order to seamlessly ease the law student into seeing LEXIS and WESTLAW as the reality of legal research. Research on WESTLAW or on LEXIS is real. We can train them to use other types of research tools, even paper ones, and we do, but everything other than the mighty data bases is a variation on a theme. Then, when our intrepid student graduates, her employer must offer one of the ‘real’ systems to her for her to work efficiently.
There are smaller systems nibbling at the lower end of the market and heroic efforts by advocates of free access to information to provide fully reliable systems, but how could anyone beat the sheer power of LEXIS and WESTLAW in the law schools? Bloomberg may have found the way to do it. Large law firms quite likely already have a Bloomberg terminal. The system is already a part of the furniture of research life. It is an established, reliable source. And Bloomberg is coming up with a flat rate, rational pricing structure for its legal materials, a far cry from the arcane deals now worked out on an individual basis by WESTLAW and LEXIS. Trying to find out the pricing structure of LEXIS and WESTLAW contracts with law firms so that we could explain them to our Advanced Legal Research students has been rather like asking the descendants of Colonel Sanders for his secret recipe.
Bloomberg is going for the law firms, not the law students. Its search engine is snazzy. Now that WESTLAW and LEXIS have created interfaces that resemble Google, everyone might meet on the same ground in appealing to the new law student who begins to research. Skills imparted by the LEXIS and WESTLAW reps will transfer easily. The reality of the bottom line in law firms may mean that students will be asked to port the skills learned on the other systems to the newly christened BLAW.
Bloomberg is big enough, with smart enough management, to pull this off. If they do, it may spell the end for one of the old systems. Large law firms may stick with one of the old standbys and add in Bloomberg, or maybe, after enough credibility has been built up, maybe just Bloomberg.
No matter how it plays out it will be interesting. Legal information in the United States moves further and further from being inherently legal and closer and closer to being information. It will be fun to watch.