Listening to law librarians at their recent annual meetings, it is apparent that online services are now seen in the same light as loose-leaf services. Both are sources of increasing consumer frustration that is triggering the cancellation of services that were once seen as essential to the practice of law.
The fall from grace
In their prime, online services and loose-leaf services were each seen as the panacea for all that was wrong in the world of legal research. Given the inflated expectations as to what each format could deliver, a fall from grace was inevitable.
It is hard to believe that as recently as 1989 law librarians asked Carswell to consider converting the bound Case Law Digests volumes of the Canadian Abridgment into a loose-leaf format, believing that a format change would solve the problems with supplementation that led to the Quebec Riot. Just imagine the riot that would be held today if that suggestion had been implemented.
As loose-leaf services fell into disrepute, online services came to be seen as the answer. All a legal publisher had to do was make its content available online and everyone would be happy. This too proved to be a fantasy. Today we hear some law librarians call for the end of loose-leaf services, while others say that they plan to cancel one of the basic online services.
Interestingly enough, the concerns voiced about both formats are remarkably similar. They include uncertainty about the product, concerns about the cost, and the desire of consumers to acquire something new and different, rather than continue to pay more for what they already have.
Uncertainty about the product
The consumer expectation is that the content of both loose-leaf and online services will always current. A more realistic expectation is that the content will be current as of a specific date. While legal publishers use their best efforts to deliver current content, economic reality and human fallibility impose practical constraints on what is delivered.
The minimum expectation for a loose-leaf service is that there will be one annual supplement that updates the entire service. Consider, however, a massive publication such as the Canadian Encyclopedic Digest, with more than a hundred Titles and currency dates, where even one complete annual update seems impossible. In such a case, clarity as to currency of the content of every page or numbered paragraph is essential. If this information is not readily provided, the confidence of the user may be lost.
In the online world, weekly, or even daily, updates of case law and legislation are expected, as well as specific information regarding the scope of a database. Here one finds that legal publishers use vague expressions to such as "current" or "comprehensive" to describe the contents of a database. The use of such expressions usually means that the publisher does not know for certain, or is unwilling to say whether a database includes every judgment or decision decided by the specific court, board or tribunal from a specific date. Auditing the content of each database is an option for publishers to pursue to address this issue.
Concern about the rising cost
The ever increasing cost of maintaining loose-leaf and online services is the major concern for consumers of legal information.
Initially both subscribers and legal publishers welcomed the publication of loose-leaf services. The publishers liked the prospect of a steady revenue stream that a loose-leaf could provide. (Internally, the publishers referred to loose-leafs as "annuities"). Subscribers on the other hand liked the physical aspect of a loose-leaf, the generous page layout which usually includes numbered paragraphs, and its ease of use when compared with a standard text book. For that matter, they still do.
Where legal publishers and subscribers part company is with regard to the updating program. Subscribers expect a reasonable number of supplements, published at reasonable intervals per year, at a reasonable cost, that are relatively easy to file. Instead, they receive an annual flood of year end releases with high prices, and time consuming filing requirements. The reputation of loose-leaf services has been unnecessarily damaged as a result, causing the cancellation of many subscriptions. Loose-leafs deserve better.
Acquiring something new and different
The startling news for legal publishers coming from the TALL Spring Meeting and CALL Annual Meeting is the number of subscribers that plan to cancel one or other of the basic online services in order to free up resources to acquire new legal information products. Bloomberg Law, Justis, the Carswell Legal Memoranda Collection and Court Documents, and Halsburys Laws of Canada and Juris Classeur Quebec published by Lexis Nexis, can expect to benefit from this development.
With budget constraints and pressures to do more with less, or at least get more out of the existing budget, the only way to move forward is to cancel existing services. Loose-leaf services are an easy target and have faced declining subscription lists for years. The willingness of subscribers to both the Westlaw Canada and LexisNexis Quicklaw basic services to consider dropping one of them should create a sense of urgency on the part of the legal publishers to revisit their current publishing strategies and develop an appropriate response.
Time for a moratorium on looseleaf supplements
One recommendation that I would make is a moratorium of the publication of supplements in the final two months of the year, to take the time to rethink and recalibrate the updating program for every loose-leaf service. The cycle of ever increasing price increases followed by more cancellations, followed by still more price increases, needs to be brought to an end, and new thinking is needed to do it. It can be done.
The key is to stopping the seemingly irreversible pattern of cancellations is to eliminate the irritants that exist with the established loose-leaf services. Some "old" but still "fresh" ideas for doing so include the following:
- introducing "easy to file releases", such as one complete volume at a time in the case of a multi-volume set, or an annual complete replacement in the case of a single volume loose-leaf, instead of scores of single pages to interfile in the body of the text,
- reducing the page count through the pruning of gratuitous appendices containing un-annotated statutes and regulations that are readily available online,
- introducing definite publication schedules announced in advance to subscribers, with supplements published no more than four times a year,
- pricing supplements to reflect the real value of the secondary content being added to the loose-leaf rather than simply the number of pages in the supplement,
- issuing newsletter style updates periodically between the large scale supplements that revise the core body of a publication, and
- streamlining the publication by eliminating correlative cites in the Table of Cases if the cites appear in full in the body of the work.
More sales at lower prices really is the better way to generate revenue and maintain profit margins. More loose-leaf services are cancelled because of the untimely arrival of too many invoices at the same time than for any other reason. This practice is one of many irritants can be eliminated by careful planning on the part of the legal publisher.
Time to rethink the content and pricing of online services
A similar cycle is now at work with the basic online services. As subscribers cancel services, the publishers revenues and profit margins are reduced. Like loose-leafs, price increases were the initial response. The advent of real price competition between the major online services that are now seen as virtual clones of each other, is fast bringing that practice to an end.
Where prices cannot be raised, the option has been to reduce costs by outsourcing and offshoring, with the possibility that the quality of the content of the online service will also be reduced. The cost savings that can be generated in this way also has limits.
I would suggest that something more is needed. Ruthlessly redefining and refocussing the basic services, by dropping unused databases while significantly enhancing others with value-added content, is the option that legal publishers should pursue.
For example, should LexisNexis continue to invest in its legislative databases? Should it drop them altogether given the decline in usage that has taken place since governments offered access to the same content for free? Alternatively, should it shift its focus to annotating its statute collections while de-emphasizing currency? Personally, I would pursue the latter option. Future commercial success will depend on the quality of the information provided, and not merely on the number of primary documents included in a database.
Listening to law librarians
Listening to law librarians and developing an effective strategy to respond to their concerns is essential if legal publishers are to limit the effects of the cancellation of loose-leaf and online services. The short term pursuit of revenue targets and profit margins is not the answer.
Listening to law librarians and developing an effective strategy to meet both their present and future needs is essential if the major publishers of legal information are to continue to flourish and grow.
Legal publishers and law librarians are both facing major challenges in difficult times. Listening carefully to customers and acting on their concerns is the key to future success.