Not So Fast!

What’s the right pace of change? A ridiculous question, I know; change is usually foisted upon us and we have little control generally. But for the few things we can control, it’s a great challenge to ensure that the pace of change we introduce is just right … not too fast and not too slow.

Our thinking over the past 20 years about what should change and when has been supported by a couple of core assumptions. But some recent information has challenged these beliefs.

The first assumption is that print is on its way out and dead as a dodo, soon to be completely replaced by online publications, ebooks, and the like. This has been received wisdom for a good many years now. I recall at the 2009 O’Reilly Tools of Change conference, a couple of leading publishers spoke of the future of print books as beauty or art objects.

It’s true that we’ve seen the steady rise of ebooks. Some legal publishers have started publishing in this format, including a few of my American CLE colleagues. But sales of legal information in this format haven’t been strong.

A couple of recent articles suggest that the transition away from print may not be as smooth as we had expected. The Guardian tells us that ebook sales have plateaued, and even Waterstones (a leading UK bookshop) has stopped selling Kindles, preferring to use the space to sell print books. The American market is experiencing a similar trend, as reported in this informative New York Times article.

And I have some of my own data: surveys of CLEBC practice manual customers over the past couple of years show that over 90% of those responding to the surveys always or frequently use the print version of our publications, while only 22% always or frequently use the online version. There may be plenty of reasons for these results (for example, is our online interface as excellent as it could be?). But I found this information staggering. It certainly challenges our assumption that print is dead.

The second assumption is that digital natives intuitively know or can easily learn how to use any technology that is put in front of them. An excellent two-part column over at the Three Geeks and a Law blog (The Myths of the Digital Native, parts one and two) thoroughly demolishes this notion.

As it turns out, many digital natives just do not have the specific skills needed to do simple technology tasks. For example, a group of law students performed poorly when asked to perform simple Word tasks such as inserting page breaks and formatting text. A group of lawyers and staff who had been trained did much better. In the words of the blog: “the fundamental fact [is] that using technology properly is a collection of acquired skills, not some innate talent …”.

I’m pretty sure that digital natives are having a different experience to those of us who came of age in the time before. It’s important to get a handle on their reality; we know that their experience of technology is different, but exactly how? It’s also clear that all our users need training, and that we cannot assume that any of them will just intuitively understand how to use our resources. Part of our job as legal publishers is to provide lots of training, in various formats, developed to meet their needs. I expect that consulting some actual digital natives would be a clever move as part of this process. (Reviewing Susannah Tredwell’s recent column Training Users to Get the Most Out of Electronic Resources would also be wise.)

And what does this mean for our future as legal publishers? Although we should continue to plan for an online future, that online-only future isn’t arriving as rapidly as we thought it might. Our challenge is to make the online legal research experience better, but continue to serve those who prefer the print experience. Decisions about publishing platforms need to take into account that we may be holding on to print technology for longer than we originally thought. On the other hand, we may see some change from outside our legal word that affects information delivery in a way none of us can imagine. After all, who would have predicted 20 years ago that we’d be using our phones as cameras?


  1. Thanks Susan

    Another great article. Couldn’t agree more, even if, obviously, law publishers’ reported revenue and profit from print are declining. For me, the important thing is that lawyers continue to be incentivised to write and are enthused about doing so. As is often said, the delivery medium and tools are far less important than the high quality content itself. I would be concerned if legal authorship were in decline.

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