I thoroughly enjoyed Susan Munro’s recent Slaw column “Show me the Money” in which she forcefully and unabashedly made the case for the value of high-quality legal editorial work. She stands on firm ground when in defending the professional standards of paid editors she argues that “when the job is done properly, enormous value is added”. To this I would add that in such circumstances, professionals are very happy to pay for the result. As Susan notes, unquestioned quality permits reliance, efficiency and cost savings to lawyer and client.
But she misses the point.
Her article was a response to recent posts on Slaw and elsewhere, from authors with long histories in legal publishing and legal scholarship who had written on the subject of the growing scope of “free and open”. Those articles discuss, among other things, the public benefit of free and open sources, the increasing quality of these sources, and the opportunity for growth in the face of uneven quality and value from some commercial sources. In that context, the benefits that flow from the best practices of the best providers are not the counter-argument or even immediately relevant because this is a demand-driven reality.
“Free” and paid services exist side-by-side in many markets and in nearly every conceivable digital information market. The better the free service, the more the paid service needs to do to differentiate and demonstrate value. Complacency, even if beginning from a position of high quality, is not an option for paid services. The distance between a free service that is “good enough” and one that is a direct and acceptable replacement for a paid service is not very far. In any event, it would be wrong to conflate “free” with an assumption of lower quality. On this point, consider the “free” Wrongful Dismissal and Employment Law e-text authored and updated by Lancaster House that has, since it was placed on CanLII in May of 2012, consistently attracted thousands of page views each month.
With respect to legal information resources, best practices often call for relying on multiple highly similar, but overlapping resources. As law firms, law societies or anyone else currently managing a library budget knows, you can’t always get what you want. The cost/benefit equation dictates what resources will be dropped. The day we announced the availability of the Lancaster House text on CanLII, I was approached by a law librarian who advised that she now no longer needed to buy a third employment text for her library. I’m curious how many other purchasing decisions were changed that day or since? How many others did not buy the third, or second or even first book because this resource was out there?
Even if you accept that “free” has a place and an opportunity, Susan asked a very fair question – where will the money to develop these sources come from? Her column concludes with the following paragraph:
As we all know, the Federation of Law Societies supports CanLII. Other possible funders include for an open secondary source project may include the law societies, law foundations, or even the government. Do we believe that any of these bodies is willing to support development and maintenance of secondary legal content?
Yes, yes I do.
The groups she describes are among the biggest spenders on legal information services. In light of their successful investment in CanLII why wouldn’t they consider moving into secondary legal content? It almost seems foolish not to.
Every dollar CanLII received in 2013 from law societies supported nearly 40 minutes of legal research. This strikes me as good value. Is it really a stretch to believe that the law societies might be interested in funding development of secondary sources if the value-for-investment equation?
Let’s not forget the profession, the universities and even the commercial publishers.
Their contribution may not come in the form of money, but if the project and circumstances were right, they are very well suited to provide the intelligence and analysis behind both creation and editorial. Many provide it now in a volunteer capacity, for very small honoraria, and even for business development purposes. Given the opportunity and, ultimately, a platform that assures the creators of professional credibility, visibility and influence on par with other publication options, it’s highly probable that willing and competent contributors will stand at the ready.
CanLII is taking the first steps in drawing out the goodwill of the legal community towards this end. Within a couple short weeks, we will roll-out “CanLII Connects” – a website that harnesses case digests and commentary from those with competency to provide legal analysis. Currently in private beta testing, this site will launch with nearly 30,000 documents contributed from national law firms, major regional firms, academics, leading practitioners and legal bloggers, research specialists, commercial publishers and law societies. It may not immediately replace the third or second subscription to a commercial digest service or database, but give it time. And then imagine what could come next.
Recall that the main CanLII site began with just 20,000 documents and has since grown to 1.3 million. It went from a good idea to an indispensable tool over the course of a few years and is now the first and often only stop for most lawyers searching primary law. Looking at the more than nine million visitors in 2013, it’s clear that the law society investments that make CanLII possible routinely save the profession (including thousands of public sector lawyers and justice officials) millions of dollars that would otherwise be spent searching commercial services and thereby inflating the cost of legal services for everybody. As a public site, this law society investment in the most comprehensive free-to-use legal information resource in Canada concurrently serves up perhaps the most significant contribution to access to justice ever made by the legal profession.
Why stop there?