Column

Bloomberg Law: The Wheel Turns

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.

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Comments

  1. Susan Hackett

    Mr. Berring: I remember you from BNA – thanks for your thoughtful article. My reaction is not to controvert your thoughts on what is or will be the state of play for the big research companies, but to query whether those kinds of services – large scale research – will be the dominant services of the future. I see a lot of lawyers turning to other sources of info and intelligence that are not focused on research or caselaw – they are looking for benchmarking experiences – looking at what others, similarly situated, have done to respond to a similar problem or matter. Benchmarking is researched on a more “micro” level, and through collaborative or sharing arrangements. See, for instance, a recent feature I submitted on this subject that appeared as part of the ABA New Normal column. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that, since there may be some intersection between major research services such as West, Lexis-Nexis, Bloomberg, etc., and micro-experiential sharing between lawyers in practice.

    Susan

  2. Love the Colonel Sanders line!

  3. If anyone could compete for the legal research market, Bloomberg is probably the most likely player. Although they haven’t fallen on their faces this time like they did during the BLAW Terminal days (btw, you’d probably be surprised by the number of big firms that don’t have terminals today), they are still stumbling out of the gate this time around, too. The BNA purchase was smart, and the speed in which they integrated the content was nothing short of spectacular, but they still have a long hill to climb in getting any significant market share away from Lexis or Thomson Reuters. Their pricing is unique, but high (especially over the long haul.) Their selling points are unique, but completely foreign to the way lawyers conduct legal research today. In ways, the Bloomberg sales staff are trying to sell as if law firms are financial firms, and that just won’t work. I’ve seen three different promotions of the product, and each time they’ve presented it in three different ways:
    1. Legal Research Tool
    2. Docket Research Tool
    3. Business Development Tool
    The marketing of the product comes off as not bi-polar, but tri-polar… add in the new angle of wiping out BNA contracts if you bring in Bloomberg, then it will become a quad-polar marketing campaign.
    All this said, the best thing about Bloomberg is the fact that Mayor Mike is so stubborn, and has a lot of money and patience. Eventually it will get market share. Eventually, it will woo the law students. Eventually, firms will put it on an equal footing with Wexis. It will just take a few years and a few billion dollars from Mayor Mike.

  4. In competitive terms, Bloomberg/BNA still looks a bit irrelevant as against Lexis and Thomson, so long as it remains almost entirely focused on N. American markets and not global markets.

    To change that it needs an acquisition, probably of all or parts of Lexis or Wolters Kluwer.

    Even allowing for factors to have changed as time has passed, my bets would be on a model something along the lines as suggested in

    http://www.slaw.ca/2011/03/04/professional-publishing-mergers-and-acquisitions-why-not/

    particularly if they could extend their pricing, quality and customer care standards in those directions.