Column

A Most Ordinary Curriculum Vitae

The really interesting and exciting people that one encounters have been everywhere, done everything and remain on the move. Not for them the conservatism of a monochromatic career in a single industry sector or one spent with a small number of employers, as has happily been the case for me to date. Still, it occurs to me that my own cautious path presents an opportunity to offer, for those interested, an entirely subjective, probably biased and personal description of much of the legal and professional information scene in the UK and Ireland and to a minor extent in mainland Europe.

Armed with my law degree at the beginning of my career, I found myself, more by accident than design, working as a legal editor at Sweet and Maxwell in London; I was fortunate indeed. Founded in 1799, Sweet & Maxwell, with its associated brands such as Westlaw UK, Practical Law (PLC), W. Green in Scotland and Round Hall in Ireland, is now Thomson Reuter’s legal publishing business in Ireland and the UK. Its history up to 1974 has been recorded in a book, Then and Now published to celebrate the company’s 175th year, with Now and Then, published in 1999, marking two centuries of the core business. Chapter six in particular of Then and Now offers not only something of the history of Sweet & Maxwell but also of the origins and development of the legal publishing and bookselling industries themselves. Chapter 5 of British Book Publishing as a Business since the 1960s, by Eric de Bellaige, offers a fascinating insight into the background to and process of the sale of Sweet and Maxwell’s previous owners, Associated Book Publishers, to Thomson. What is now Thomson Reuters (ProfessionalUK Limited, embracing its many businesses, has grown significantly, in part by acquisition, though Sweet & Maxwell remains recognisably attached to the activities on which its renowned reputation is based.

Over the years, the business has made many such acquisitions and a few disposals, among the former being what had been FT Law & Tax, which itself had several name changes prior to its sale. Much earlier the business was Oyez Publishing, then owned by the Solicitors’ Law Stationery Society; it was later sold to Pearson. Many other acquisitions have included Lawtel, Incomes Data Services and Ellis Publications and a disposal that I am sure that they were delighted to do was of Gee Publishing, acquired in the mid-1980s, to Wolters Kluwer.

Sweet & Maxwell publishes a number of the legal profession’s most important and relied on services, notably Archbold’s Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice, the “The White Book”, Encyclopedia of Planning Law and Practice and “Westlaw UK Insight”. Like Lexis Nexis, once thought to be unassailable, it is now confronted by a dynamic range of competitors and innovation to challenge its hitherto somewhat comfortable market position.

Being part of Thomson Reuters, Sweet & Maxwell is and for a long time has been, inter alia, a sister business to Carswell in Canada.

After an embarrassingly long time in my first job, where I had become publishing director, I accepted an appealing offer at Tolley. Tolley Publishing was established in 1916 and for its centenary year I was delighted to have been asked to contribute to an updated written account of its history.

During my time there, Tolley acquired Fourmat Publishing, Payroll Alliance, National Law Tutors and several other businesses that focused on legal, tax and adjacent sectors. Tolley’s fundamental strengths remain in tax, where it is the UK’s market leader and publishing on tax at all levels and media.

When its then owners, now UBM PLC, decided to sell Tolley, it seemed to make sense that the successful bidders were Reed Elsevier, now RELX PLC; more specifically that meant Lexis Nexis (Butterworths). Founded in 1818, Butterworths, as the UK forerunner brand to Lexis Nexis, is generally regarded as the UK’s leading law and tax publisher. As part of RELX it is thereby linked to an ever increasing number of similar businesses in all parts of the world, owned and acquired by the parent conglomerate. Recently it acquired Jordan Publishing, which itself has been in existence since 1863. However, following UK Competition and Markets Authority scrutiny, certain assets were sold on to Bloomsbury Professional, which already owns Hart Publishing. Bloomsbury Professional too has its origins in Butterworths/Lexis Nexis having been, in its earlier Tottel guise, a buyout from its then parent company.

The Butterworths imprint is rich in history and in the quality and importance of many of its services. Among them are Halsbury’s, the Encyclopaedia of Forms and Precedents, LexisPSL and the New Law Journal. Indeed, it was written of its proprietor from 1905 to 1943 that “Stanley Shaw Bond introduced professionalism into law publishing, and it took the other law publishers nearly half a century to catch up with him in this respect”. For those wishing to have a full and detailed understanding of the origins and development of Butterworths from its origins until 1980, this has been chronicled in great detail in Butterworths – History of a Publishing House.

Today, Lexis Nexis UK, probably to a greater extent than its competitors, succeeds in having considerable, rather than lesser, footholds in each of the professional and business segments in and adjacent to law. It is a formidable publisher of legal, tax and accountancy content, process and tools.

During my own period at Lexis Nexis I had the pleasant opportunity to work at Lexis Nexis Canada, doing a business development project to map out particular strategies in that jurisdiction.

After Lexis Nexis I took on the role of the first-ever managing director, national publishing at The Stationery Office (now TSO), which immediately prior had been the UK government’s official publisher as HMSO (now part of The National Archives – TNA). At that time the internal view was that, based on size and scale, TSO could become a publishing market leader in more than ten sectors including business and professional, science, education, culture and heritage and public sector. Although it was obvious that such an objective was absurd, shamefully it seemed not a time and place for heroic protest.

An aim at the time was to take the business from a previously non-profit environment into one of market leading margins built around radical business re-engineering, product management and development but in my honest view it was wrong to privatise the UK government’s official printer and publisher. Nowadays TSO is owned by Williams Lea Group which in turn is owned by Deutsche Post DHL, the German logistic group. TSO these days appears to have no aspirations or strong positions in legal publishing, though it publishes legislation in all formats for The National Archives under a contract to capture, transform and disseminate legislation. It seems to be more of a contract printer/publisher and technical support function than a market-facing one.

Quite a number of times working in my three previous roles, we were approached by directors of France’s Editions Francis Lefebvre to partner in the establishment of a new UK-based tax, accountancy and business compliance publishing entity. However, we always refused. Then, in my own right I joined them in setting up a new business, FL Memo, then partly and later wholly owned by EFL. The “FL” was obviously an abbreviation of “Francis Lefebvre” and the “Memo” a shortened version of “Memento”, a word much used by the mainland European members of the Group but which I thought did not carry sufficient gravitas in an English-language context. I was persuaded by mental images of long-since cast-aside miniature post-vacation Eiffel Towers. These days, EFL, established in 1930 is part of Le Groupe Editions Levebre Sarrut, a French business that is privately held by Frojal SA.

FL Memo employs an internal formulaic writing approach based on the French model, heavily scrutinised for quality and adherence to corporate style. Now combined with Indicator as Indicator-FL Memo, the combination produces content predominantly for directors, owners and managers of small and medium-sized businesses. Despite my involvement and participation though, in my personal opinion, at its inception not enough was done to understand the UK market, much of the focus being on reproducing the formula.

On leaving FL Memo I joined ABG (Accountancy Business Group) which was the professional publishing arm of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW). It was a substantial business but my purpose was to participate in the process of sale and our preferred acquirer at the time was Wolters Kluwer UK, which then used the brands Croner and CCH. Eventually working on the CCH side we brought together elements of about five or six product brands to create CCH Professional Information, publishing in tax, accountancy and regulatory compliance. Since then the business has shrunk significantly and appears to be less competitive against Tolley. Recently Wolters Kluwer sold the Croner Group to Peninsula Business Services Group, in effect finally taking the brand completely out of what might be called legal and regulatory information publishing. It is hard not to imagine the imminent end of an era for CCH UK as well. Perhaps its shame might be disguised in the short-term by further restructuring it in the WK legal and regulatory solutions or tax and accounting division, the latter interestingly recently reorganised to separate publishing from software.

Thereafter Taxbriefs, now part of Centaur Media, was where I played an enjoyable and rewarding non-executive director role. Taxbriefs delivers expert content and personalised marketing material for financial advisers and accountants and is relied upon particularly in relation to UK Budget tax information.

Focusing on these selected pearls of professional information, learning and compliance and working with, rather than for legal and professional publishers, one might imagine where they are going and indeed converging. I would certainly not be surprised, if Bloomsbury PLC tire of information that has little entertainment value, that Bloomsbury Professional will find a home within Thomson Reuters, perhaps together with their metaphorical 3rd half-cousins-in-law, twice removed, Globe Law and Business and TaxationWeb. Maybe there they will be joined by CCH UK and/or Justis. As to Taxbriefs, maybe at some stage Centaur Media will combine with one of its UK competitors such as Wilmington, Informa or Incisive Media, the last of which has recently sold its Legal Week magazine to American Lawyer Media and thereby quit the legal market.

Comments

  1. Very interesting – you have indeed been heavily involved in the evolution of the legal and professional information services industry in the past decades.

    It strikes me from this account that much more energy has been going into the corporate shell games than into figuring out what the readers of the products may want – a long way from Stanley Shaw Bond or even what Sweet & Maxwell did a half-century ago. Everything is about leverage and combination rather than editorial content.

    But maybe that’s just because of your position in the organizations, and the purpose of your structural overview of the industry. Is there such a thing as an author of a legal text any more, or writing with personality as well as reliability? I guess that’s a different set of questions.

  2. Thanks John

    There is no doubt that my views aren’t objective or comprehensive and they do carry bias. Still I don’t think I’m terribly wrong in thinking that the role of the author is much subdued and that not a great deal of support is given to authors to maximise their worth. I am not convinced that either reliability or personality are greatly valued. I pondered on some of this in an earlier Slaw contribution http://www.slaw.ca/2015/08/26/quality-in-legal-and-professional-publishing/.
    Nor do I think that much effort is put into finding out what readers want but finding out with accuracy may be not an easy task, see http://www.slaw.ca/2014/04/29/the-customer-is-sometimes-right/.

  3. Thanks Robert. The ongoing changes in ownership in legal publishing can leave customers feeling like they are the last thing the owners care about; that the product is another profitable widget from which large margins can be extracted… There was, thirty years ago, a relationship of service between publisher to purchaser; now it is a sales person trying to flog a title of which s/he knows little and cares less, as long as the sale is made. Just keep the brand profitable enough for the next sell off… And the author is squeezed somewhere in the middle…

  4. Very many thanks Ruth.

    I suspect that you’re like me, to the extent that the future is far more interesting than the past and the latter tends to be steeped in much rose-tinting. However, I am pretty certain that there is truth in your observations. I too am frustrated by the reports and evidence of lack of knowledge and customer intimacy. I expressed my own preferred position in http://www.slaw.ca/2011/10/19/just-trying-to-keep-the-customer-satisfied/.

    My next Slaw contribution, presently in draft only and in consequence of being amused by the “Project Management Triangle” hopes to consider the possibility of providing all customers, rather than just the largest ones, with innovation/quality/service, fair pricing and speed/efficiency, rather than forcing them to choose some in favour of others.

    As to authors, I am contacted, not frequently but every now and again by authors frustrated by their dealings with professional publishers, in order to discuss how to manage or rather avoid the sort of treatment to which you allude. Increasingly it’s a question of having low expectations in terms of support, adding value and sales/marketing activity. This leads to publishers saying that they can’t find decent or willing authors and authors not wanting to deal with ignorant and uncaring publishers. Where that leads seems obvious.

  5. Robert
    Wonderful tour d’horizon of occasionally shared battle fields.
    Looking back – I wonder why self publishing and crowd sourcing expertise hasn’t had more impact on the duopolistic price gouging world you have described?
    Warmly
    Shane

  6. Hi Shane,

    Good to hear from you. Very many thanks.

    Interesting points but I wonder if in some respect the former in fact operates. Look at the amount of publishing that is done by legal and other professional firms with and without publishers, some for marketing purposes and some not. See also http://www.slaw.ca/2015/11/05/publish-and-perhaps-be-famed/. I can thank of a reasonable number or law books and projects of a larger scale, think of https://www.emplaw.co.uk/ or more significantly PLC and Legalease in their beginnings. Thing is, they soon get acquired as the duopolists are awful at innovation.
    As to the more humble process of writing a law or tax book, most lawyers or accountants simply aren’t competent to do so and normally wouldn’t have the time in any case. The best of them have had no problem in finding a publisher so there is little need or incentive to self-publish. Nowadays the ease of blogging deals with it in any case. On top of that, there is no shortage of law books on every topic and little money to be made in producing another one.
    It was interesting that a lawyer approached be recently asking advice about publishing his book. We found a publisher immediately on the back of a single cup of coffee.
    On crowd sourcing, I have personal experience, as my partner Jenny has written a social history book that we are now self-publishing and funding, that the costs of making a couple of hundred copies of a book are low. It’s hard to imagine and lawyer having to use this channel. Maybe I’m wrong.
    I trust that all is going well at http://www.elgin.org.uk/en/about-us/team/.

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)