It’s 2014: All Change? or More of the Same?

Looking at the current contents of my ever expanding inbox, I see January has been a month of conflicting messages from the legal information world.

One moment it appears we really might have a real sea change in the way that legal content is perceived, published and prostituted.

Then, in the flash of an eye, a slew of endless press releases from Thomson Legal & Regulatory and LexisNexis praising themselves for the fact they are themselves; combined with their endless desire to control and purchase every and any new company (mainly tech based these days) that may actually have products that could compete with them sometime in the future or at the very least provide some modicum of balance in the market just quashes any hopes I had for the year.

Anyway, let’s start with the good news. First up Gary Rodrigues’ piece dated 23 December in this august publication about his encounter with a German tax lawyer and the aforesaid’s use of Wikipedia to research a certain aspect of his country’s tax law. Like Gary, I’d never thought of Wikipedia as an obvious source for legal information. My mind has always veered towards what Google may do in the legal sphere rather than the obvious choice that is Wikipedia. I presume the mention of this site will elicit howls of horror not only from the big end of town but also at the LII community too. They’ve (LII) invested a lot of time and some fair amount of government funds around the world to achieve an independent free source for legal information. Unfortunately for both ends of town Wikipedia makes perfect sense to us. There now must be enough unemployed or at least underemployed legal editors, academics and dare we say it, lawyers, out there who’d be willing to initiate the process of getting case law and legislation up onto the site. The question is; how do we herd them all together and get them operating as a real community with a shared goal and vision. Ten years ago I may have put my hand up to be that individual but now I’m too old , lazy and cynical. Somebody else out there must care about these issues. I feel somewhat like Wayne Coyne at a Flaming Lips concert where he’s always cajoling the audience with a “C’mon C’mon C’mon”. In Hong Kong he was met with a deafening silence whereas in Portland (OR) last summer he was met with a roar of approval. So my guess is that, as always , somewhere between San Francisco & Seattle someone will see that a Wikipedia type solution to the cataloguing, editing and free distribution of legal information is of benefit to a functioning democracy in the 21st century.

Second piece of good news was a wonderful article penned at 3 Geeks & Law Blog entitled Commoditizing Legal Research or Reinventing Legal Research? Not a big piece but I think one of the more important articles I’ve read in the last 18 months about the legal information market. I really do suggest that anybody interested in the subject read it at least 3 times and mull over what he’s driving at. It’s worth reading the comments too. The concluding paragraph still has me thinking that we might be in for a brighter future with a more balanced market as new ways of thinking about not only the dissemination of legal information. But the actual content itself as new ways of thinking about content comes to the fore. He concludes by saying:

…So back to my question of reinvention without commodity status. Does commodity status drive invention, or does invention drive commodity status? I think there are arguments for both sides, but I’d say that we’ve probably hit a tipping point where reinvention and the promise of more elequent methods of making primary law into something new and unique and useful in unexpected ways will drive whatever information has not slipped into commodity status into that category very soon.

I suggest we sit on the words tipping, eloquent and unique and use those three to guide us all forward this year.

The final part of our trilogy of good is something I’ve been hinting at for years to a generally empty room, but I’ve noticed literally in the last six weeks that others are now bandying the idea around that the onus should be on the law firms themselves to take over the job of legal publishing from the publishers. To be honest I’ve never understood why a group of firms hadn’t got together years ago and created an independent company to collate and disseminate legal information at a price to their competitors and for free to themselves. Instead they’ve spent their not so hard earned cash on marketing and branding managers who if they were told they were about to be hurled into the abyss still couldn’t string together a proper sentence to save their sorry hides. Fifteen odd years later I’m thinking and hoping that some of these firms have realised that clients no longer want fluff; they want help solving problems quickly. And as we all know ( but still have to explain to some partners) well-presented information that is simple, concise and relevant is always going to help get the job done better than the suggestion of “excellent” services. If only Slater & Gordon could tackle this issue I’m sure it would be “problem solved.” The single mindedness that they have employed to illustrate that a floated law firm could succeed and succeed spectacularly should, if I had their ear(s), be put to tackling the legal information issue. They’ve shown how firms don’t need to operate as partnerships; now my fantasy world believes that they should turn the current supply chains on their heads through new and innovative approaches towards suppliers. Floated firms will need to be meaner and leaner in order to survive and therefore they are going to need a new game plan for suppliers and especially database information suppliers. As I’ve already referenced Kevin Coyne, let’s throw in some Sam Cooke for good measure..:”It’s been a long, a long time coming…But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will”

So, you ask dear reader, what bad news is there? Just the usual hubris from you know who and you know who. I was about to list a number of rather dull press releases that I’ve seen in the last few weeks to illustrate the “plus ça change” attitude of the bigger end of town, but actually why spoil all the positiveness above with the sort of record I’ve played to you year in and year out. So let’s just look forward to a positive 2014 in the world of legal information and maybe, just maybe, it is a watershed year.

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