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Professional Publishers in Professional Practice

Sean Hocking’s recent article Law Firms Should Have Become Legal Publishers Because Legal Publishers Are Now Becoming Law Firms, although prompted by the news of the establishment of Jordans Corporate Law Ltd., a new offshoot of The Jordans group of companies, brings into question an opportunity that for a long time I have thought feasible. Love or hate them, legal and professional information publishing entities for hundreds of years have been a critical component of the education, training of lawyers and their competence to practice. It is almost surprising to see that, at least since the beginning of the 1800s, they have not integrated themselves more fully into practice. No ancient or modern image of the typical lawyer ever depicts them without a law book in hand, for without the books or their evolving alternatives, they are, essentially, unable to do their jobs. Even so, in contrast, the image of the publisher/printer is more likely to be that of the bowing, hand-wringing Dickensian gofer, simply there to do the lawyer’s bidding.

That Jordans have taken the innovative step is no surprise. For several years I have held the view that, whether by accident or design, their combination, particularly in corporate law, compliance, documentation and processes, makes them appear a genuinely integrated, “end-to-end” cohesive solutions provider. Whereas several years ago they may have seemed to be just engaged in a random body of unconnected activities such a publishing, conferences, stationery, company formations and suchlike, in an electronic, post-print/stationery world they appear more focused. Now, in my opinion, the odd piece of their jigsaw is their Family Law publishing imprint, together perhaps with some other small sub-units, which looks like a candidate for disposal to somewhere else. This might allow them to be perceived as the real experts in corporate and insolvency information, compliance and practice.

The concept of publisher turned law firm is not new or untried. For example, for many years Europe’s Editions Francis Lefebvre, whose UK business I founded jointly with them, had related law and accountancy firms. The firms mirrored the strengths and characteristics of the publishing business, with a strong tax bias. However, as time passed, these went on to be transferred into existing professional firms, notably creating CMS Bureau Francis Lefebvre, the accountancy firm becoming part of PwC. As highly-regarded publishers, clearly they were considered appropriate matches for the best of the best in legal, tax and accountancy practice. In the UK, Croner, presently part of Wolters Kluwer and sister company to CCH, though not a law firm, is a significant provider of employment litigation services. They offer a complete suite of related services in that market and, I believe, have litigation lawyers on the team.

There are other related examples, particularly on several occasions where assets, information products, software and consultancy services have been traded back and forward between publishers and professional advisers. Publisher/firm partnerships are frequent around the world, with all the main publishers engaging in branding deals with firms to exploit the mutual benefits of each. Clearly, personnel in many cases, find themselves moving from one to the other with great frequency.

Certainly in the UK but no doubt in many places, most if not all the law, accountancy, tax and financial services franchises, membership organisations and networks have direct partnership relationships with publishers. These ensure a range of outcomes, such as all franchisees using similar functioning and/or branded software, the same information upon which to advise clients and client marketing literature packed with the publisher’s content but purporting to come from the firm. To take one UK example, the UK’s ICPA provides all its members with online access to Bloomsbury Professional’s Core Tax Service as part of their membership package. In that case the arrangement is by way of a membership body. Others such as TaxAssist, are professional advice franchises that have similar arrangements. From the point of view of smaller and medium-sized firms and their commercial clients, the benefits seem obvious.

Ask any experienced professional publisher at the top of the market to identify their strongest competitor and they are unlikely to respond with Thomson-Reuters, LexisNexis and suchlike. It is more likely that it will said to be the Big 4 accountancy firms and/or the major international law firms themselves, as clients and competitors at the same time. These bodies are huge and powerful in terms of expertise, available talent and resources and it is largely because they have more profitable activities in which to engage that they don’t just do the publisher’s jobs for themselves. Often they are happy just to pass some monetary crumbs to the publisher to organise legal and tax content and deliver back to them structured content for themselves and their clients. It all works out amicably but the publisher knows where he stands in the master/slave relationship.

I’ve pondered for a long time on the value of CCH, Westlaw, Bloomberg-BNA and LexisNexis-type branded firms, maybe full-blown, franchised or endorsed ways. Rather like the BSI Kitemark™ system that works in the UK, the registered certification mark owned and awarded the British Standards Institution or the International Organization for Standardization or the Better Business Bureau, it is possible to imagine law, tax, financial advice and accountancy firms being visibly branded under the large national and international publishers’ banners and logos, in forms of ownership, franchises or endorsements of quality. Unlikely in relation to ordinary consumer clients but for corporate, government and institutional ones, the assurance of uniformity of standards, quality, sources of expertise and of back-office support systems might be appealing. One might speculate as to how various medium and large multi-office firms might be better able to compete against the giants within Westlaw, CCH, LexisNexis structures. Against that, of course, would be the question and extent of loss of business from all those who would be outside such groups and considered to be corporate enemies. Passage of time might see the largest publishers joining the ranks of the ranks of the largest professional firms, perhaps a healthy and competitive outcome.

In a world that has created a law firm from the Eddie Stobart trucking company, it might be comforting to see the legal and professional publishers extending their spheres of influence. Perhaps it makes sense for Jordans to take the plunge, given their particular characteristics, though time will tell if it makes them even more appealing as the acquisition target that they must be. It will be interesting to see if the acquisition by Bloomsbury Professional of Hart Publishing will be a trigger to other similar takeovers.

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Comments

  1. Couldn’t agree more. This will ultimately become a data/information play. The practice is being commoditized like all industries and so the groups with the most and most easily searchable data and ability to manipulate, store, reproduce, recreate and “massage” this data to meet the client’s needs will be the big winner. Most law firms are horrible storers and reusers of their data whether that be memos, opinions, precedents (although on this one there is some success). They are sitting on a gold mine of information. Maybe there should be some publisher/law firm mergers discussed and not just mega-mergers going forward.

  2. Thanks for the comments, John.

    At the very top level, the possibility or merger, as you suggest and further down a franchise/licensing model.

    Probably pie in the sky, of course.