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The Changed and Changing Landscape of Legal and Professional Publishing

Although personally it seems relatively recent, it was as long ago as in the mid-1990s that I was first asked to write on legal and professional publishing, by way of a chapter in a book entitled Book Publishing in Britain, (J. Whitaker & Sons, 1995). Pondering both forward and back around 20 years each way, one has a sense of the scale in which so much has changed, while at the same time there are areas in which things have remained the same. I was amused recently to be told with pride by a seasoned business owner, that their first electronic forays in legal publishing were in the early 1980s, the implication being that there is little that is new. Ironically, the fact is that in that particular business they are still firmly rooted only in print. There often remains a great gulf between words and actions. In my view, there is sometimes an absence of the obligatory “just do it!” culture.

As early as 1974, the prediction was that there would soon be:

‘readers’ and ‘more advanced methods of storing and retrieving legal material….being continually investigated and experimented with’.

Under a heading “Futurology”, the writers opined;

“It is possible that new generations of lawyers will be trained in new methods so that law books cease to be the essential tools they are in 1974”
(John Burke and Peter Allsop, Then and Now, Sweet and Maxwell).

I don’t really believe that there have been any cathartic moments when the general pace was changed or when the extent of mergers and acquisitions changed the landscape of the industry beyond recognition. However, there can be no doubt that a combination of corporate style and practice, continuing changes in ownership, the electronic revolution and the state of the economy in recent years, in aggregate, serve to describe and explain where we are. Perhaps not the most important factor but, like many, I rather regret the suppression, in whole or in part, of some of the great brand names of professional publishing, such as Sweet and Maxwell, Butterworths, Tolley, CCH, Carswell, Matthew Bender, Clark Boardman and others, in favour of somewhat faceless corporate identities that have less meaning.

At times it has been appropriate and at others vaguely embarrassing even to use the word “publishing”, depending on the corporate message that one attempts to be on. Sometimes “publishing” indicates precisely what is the nature of the activity, while otherwise it suggests a backward and narrow approach. At different times, words like “information” are used, as are “content” and “research”, evolving to “integrated workflow solutions” and suchlike. Personally, I favour the lack of reticence in parts of mainland Europe and Canada with “maison d’édition” and “casa editrice”. The major businesses are described in many ways but as typical as any would be, using their own words:

  • Thomson Reuters combine “world-class, expert-enriched content with technology to serve professionals in information-intensive industries. [They] inform and connect the professional communities at the very heart of the knowledge economy”.
  • LexisNexis is “a leading global provider of content-enabled workflow solutions designed specifically for professionals in the legal, risk management, corporate, government, law enforcement, accounting, and academic markets”.
  • Wolters Kluwer creates “value by combining information, deep expertise, and technology to provide customers with solutions that improve their quality and effectiveness”.

There is no doubt that significant evolution necessitates embracing, as part of the notion of publishing, the provision of information by all methods and media – print, electronic, audio-visual, all forms of learning and training, software, documentation, advice, guidance and much more. Still, for my part I’m happy to see it all as part of the publishing trade.

Such is the relentless drive to acquire and merge that in the UK only a handful of publishing houses can at present be described as broadly-based professional information providers. Partly in consequence of the smaller concerns having been already acquired, the same three that in varying degrees dominated at the beginning of this century are still in place.

Back in the mid-1990s, a commentator of the day, Michael Kavanagh, wrote,

Once the pastime of gentlefolk, the publishing of legal texts is fast becoming a business like any other—hard-nosed, competitive and occasionally vicious.

If these words appear typical of today’s corporate world, it is comforting to note the perceptions of John Burke and Peter Allsop of Sweet & Maxwell around 20 years earlier:

Law publishing, like almost everything else, has changed in the past three decades. It has become markedly more professional, with budgets, computerised accounting and sophisticated costing. Behind the editor, and tending to breathe down his neck, stands the accountant with advice, criticism and, occasionally, grim approval.
(Then and Now, Sweet and Maxwell).

Indeed, from a professional publisher’s point of view, the past several years have been challenging and every penny earned has had to be fought for, even though I have witnessed, maybe caused, too many self-inflicted wounds to believe that tough times are the determining factor. An effect has been to place further concentration on cost control, on maximum value from sales and marketing expenditure and on added-value to retain customers. In most cases, the impact and constraints on profitability and the difficulty in growing organically has been in evidence. This latter factor has in part driven the swallowing up of the smaller competitors and many second-rankers have folded. More consolidation is on the way, I am led to believe. If a consequence of this is any significant diminution in the volume of legal publishing that is undertaken, it will be disappointing. However, I would be surprised if an accelerated pace of change in formats and methods of communication, perhaps with, to some extent, a reduction in the amount of scholarly and regulatory/compliance publishing, are not likely outcomes. At the same time, I would hope that where the need to ensure certain levels of profitability might deter some larger publishers, smaller ones, at least in the medium-term, will see the benefits of lower profit ambitions, in their attempts to grow. In any context, I think it is reasonable and responsible for publishers at all times to try to grow and maintain or increase their own margins. To this extent I believe it is wrong to suggest, as some do, that just because an element of cost may be reduced, prices have to fall. If they were to do this, the outcome may be financially detrimental to the business. Market forces will normally determine the extent to which the publisher has calculated wrongly, in which case competitors take advantage.

Fortunately, moreover, legal publishing and the target markets are relatively resilient to difficult times if the publisher is competent and well-positioned, with well-trained and appropriate people and a commitment to high added value products and services. Advisers are normally sufficiently astute as to know that spending money on quality information is a genuine investment in professional practice. However, if one accepts its findings, it is noted that a specially commissioned LexisNexis report, ‘Survive or Thrive? suggests that UK independent lawyers and sole practitioners believe that the regulatory burden being imposed on their businesses is now a major business issue. 83% of those surveyed in report said that meeting the new demands of compliance is one of the biggest challenges they face. Keeping up to date with regulatory and legislative changes is apparently preventing independent lawyers from getting on with their primary focus, namely of practicing law. Maybe they need good publishers all the more to help them. I would speculate, though, as to the future and the extent to which lawyers may be happy to let the publishers work out solutions to their clients’ problems through the use of their electronic services.

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Comments

  1. Gary P Rodrigues

    As usual, Robert has provided provocative insights into the legal publishing community that could only come from a former insider. I particularly enjoyed his comments on the mission statements of the three multinational legal publishers and how the big three are embarrassed to be seen as legal or tax publishers. This is because all three have lost confidence in their core businesses as instruments for future growth.

    To me, the wording of the three mission statements, placed one after the other, demonstrate how the three companies have lost their way. The mission statements are equally vacuous and say next to nothing about where they are now let alone where they are going.

    In the past, I spent many hours of tortured angst developing and revising similar statements for Canadian businesses. The stated objective of the exercise was to provide a framework within which the local company could operate. In reality, it was an exercise in identifying the latest and greatest corporate fad or trend and adding it to the body of the text. Despite the best efforts of corporate strategists, no one was fooled. All in all, a pointless and unproductive exercise that continues to this day.

  2. Thanks Gary, for your kind comments. It’s interesting to see your views and mine alongside the recent ACLEA paper and presentation by Susan Munro, http://www.aclea.org/Portals/0/conferenceonline/2013Baltimore/Balt_25.pdf,
    where she too describes the language that is used by the big three legal publishers to describe themselves.