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Professional Information – Expertise or Answers

There have been times, as a legal and professional publisher, when I have mused on a life without troublesome and quirky authors who take holidays, have families and sometimes put their professional work before their writing commitments. I speculated as to how it would be in an entirely automated world in which the nature of the problem was entered into one end of the over-sized computer and out the other emerged the single correct answer, as was seen in films of a bygone era. Expressed in books, perhaps each chapter or topic would end with “the answer, therefore, is XYZ”

In reality, of course, I have never wanted this. The personal need for improving salary cheques is unlikely to be satisfied in a world of such simplistic certainty and one in which added value and expertise are key differentiators and a basis for improved pricing for publishers and billing for customers. One encounters the evidence frequently that the market agrees and that customers are not looking for the shallow and corner cutting. Professional advisers are serious people who value intellect, integrity, honesty and depth and they are prepared to pay for it. The evidence seems clear that the market is looking for quality, where perhaps for some time it has been missing. At the same time, I believe that authors, as practising professional advisers themselves, are unlikely to divulge all their secrets, strategies and carefully honed contracts, pleadings and precedents in any submissions to their publishers. Their own fortunes are hardly to be made from writing fees and royalties and a major objective in writing is to build reputations and drive paying clients to their offices, where the real work begins. The publication or service will therefore rarely and intentionally not, offer all the answers.

There is, nevertheless, pressure in the professional publishing industry – perhaps more internal than external – and a trend towards delivering such answers, however impossible, rather than offering the capability to apply professional expertise that distinguishes one adviser from another. We are seeing an emphasis on “tools” and the creation of answer-giving electronic services backed up by thousands of algorithms. Obviously there is great expertise behind them but some are essentially presented as a series of Yes/No processes supported by guidance towards particular documents, checklists, etc. It is perhaps not an entirely unbiased view, given the products they have on offer, with no reference to the underlying research, when Jack Lynch, latterly of Wolters Kluwer writes that lawyers, accountants and others “want ‘how-to’ guidance, decision support, answers and insights that will help them improve outcomes for their clients”.

I would take the view that context has always been a key component of how to do legal publishing in excellent and professional ways and that context is a hallmark of a legacy of more than 200 years of such publishing. The great legal tomes, subsequently delivered electronically and joined by even more sophisticated information services, seem to me to be characterised by their ability to bring together source content, cross-referencing, citation, with added-value expert comment and search tools, the only limitations being those of the technology of their day. Now we have the ability to add plumbing and engineering, expressed in workflow, linkage and search tools. That said, the core strength, I believe, remains in the genius of the writing and underlying expertise, combined with the talent and experience of the publisher in inventing, building and guiding the author’s output.

All the tools and technical innovation are truly wonderful but cases are won by the expertise of lawyers whose cutting edge is derived from the publishers’ offerings but much more as well, legal and contextual. The publisher has to be capable of knowing how to deliver the sort of information and workflow tools that allow the professional adviser to improve the quality and effectiveness of advice, the benefits of which should translate directly to billing opportunities. The better professional adviser is the one who knows how and why the goal is achieved, rather than having a mechanistic body of tools to achieve a result. It seems to me that there is little value in providing tools and solutions that allow everyone to offer up the same answers.

Perhaps the home for a body of tools, to a greater extent than commentary and source materials, is in compliance and regulatory markets, that include those qualified professionals who work as in-house counsel and the like. Admirable professional publishing businesses such as PLC seem to understand this well and tailor their information and guidance services in those directions. I’m aware that other such services are in development. For professional advice markets where the fee-earner and client relationship and the ability to sustain and increase justifiable billing are key, individual expertise appears to me to be the critical factor.

In commercial and financial terms, from the point of view of sustaining profitable publishing businesses, even in these sophisticated times, publishers, wrongly in my view, are still inclined to sell their wares on features rather than benefits, allowing customers to measure weight rather than value to the firm. Legal publishing’s historical high margins have been largely based on customers’ willingness to pay for added value, where they see the benefits in terms of additional profit. However, increasingly law publishers are offering lower value services that help achieve back-office savings rather than revenue growth. This appears to me to be simply less attractive.

Just as we know that any mechanised system that purports to give expert answers will almost always be constrained by its inability to address the strange and unusual aspects of a case which only an expert can accommodate and exploit, equally it would be wrong to dismiss them. As in so many scenarios, there is no one correct answer and I would not wish to be on the side of the Luddites who oppose all innovation. I certainly would not be deluded into looking backwards to some non-existent and idealised world when things were supposedly better but rather would hope for sanity and common sense in dealing with the present and future. I would be concerned, however, if the balance were to shift too much in favour of answers over expertise.

Perhaps LexisNexis UK have addressed all the relevant issues with their most interesting service, LexisPSL aimed at professional support lawyers, and they have indeed found the ideal balance between two potential extremes. Its ability to link from that service to deeper content looks appealing. It will be fascinating to see how well the market supports the innovation. It may be the case that, like PLC, they see potential markets on the periphery of mainstream fee-earners, hence the visible focus on PSLs and the types and sizes of firms that employ them. Their efforts certainly appear to have PLC a little agitated. The impact of these developments are predictably well analysed by David Worlock, who elsewhere challenges the idea, in a B2B context, that content quality on its own is of critical importance

Meanwhile, CCH’s acquisition of BSI Media appears to indicate a residual interest in content- based publishing businesses. It is interesting to note that the acquisition of the company, which is based in the UK, is by CCH’s US operation.

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