It’s too easy to be negative about almost everything but for the most part it’s a lazy approach that requires little thought and analysis. Particularly when considering and discussing law publishing, the industry’s faults and downsides often come quickly to the fore. Sometimes this is justified. However, for present purposes the objective is to focus on what would be, for me, the ideal law publishing business. By “ideal”, I mean having those characteristics that make its objectives, efforts and results hugely satisfying and rewarding for customers, those working for such a business, its suppliers and in the interests of the law itself.
Not everyone will agree that law publishing is about providing legal information and content which is essential for professional advisers and corporate officers to excel in what they do but that is how I see it. In this discussion, largely I would exclude the overlapping area of the provision of software tools to undertake related tasks that are necessary for back-office and certain client-facing functions. It is certainly not to reject or diminish them but simply to suggest that they are closely related to but not the essence of added-value professional information provision.
My ideal law publishing business would target markets are at the top end, what I define as the international strategic planning and litigation sector, where I believe there is always opportunity for substantial development. It would have access to and serve information-hungry and wealthy customers who must have in-depth, high added-value research content in order to conduct their business. Typical of such customers would be the sort of practitioners who would be members of, for example, the International Bar Association or similar cross-border bodies. Operating in both Common Law and Civil Law jurisdictions, they tend to be senior and extremely well-paid English-speaking commercial specialists who are mainly involved in major transactions. Their interests are likely to span the legal, tax, financial and accounting aspects of their areas of practice. These potential customers, be they lawyers, accountants, corporate officers, etc., are likely to be operating at such a level of skill and importance that their requirements and willingness to pay are high, as their investment results in profit.
Markets and competitive activity continue to evolve rapidly, with the impact of ever-advancing technology putting most pre-conceptions in doubt. Add to this the changing international and European Union post-Brexit scene, the emergence of developing countries and the potential future superpowers, the blurring of lines between formerly quite separate professional functions and a host of other variable factors. It thus becomes clear that most thinking of the past will not necessarily apply in the future and, as the evidence consistently proves, no one can predict precisely what lies ahead. Many media and formats have their places in a complex and segmented market and blindness to any means by which to reach and satisfy customer needs is dangerous in the extreme. It is relatively easy for a publisher to capture, control and structure data, connecting what might otherwise be unconnected and making it ready for presentation to customers. It requires more skill and knowledge to decide what specific services to offer and how to do so.
In such markets, high quality of product and service are, I believe, obligatory. Combined with excellence in terms of speed of delivery, efficiency and overall effectiveness in turn justify acceptably high prices that convert to client billing charges. It is capable of being a classic virtuous circle, however unvirtuous its actors.
In the light existing competitive factors my ideal law publishing business would seek to be a wide-ranging professional legal, tax, accountancy and business compliance one, even if the focus were only on the international strategic planning and litigation sector. It’s really a question of following the money. One can appreciate the enormous commercial benefit of operating in places and markets at the top end and on an international basis, where English is the language of the law. I would be surprised if the dominant themes for these potential customers were not about the highly chargeable financial, commercial and corporate areas with, conversely, little interest being shown in domestic, private client and social law issues. I suspect that an ideal focus would be on such fields as, for example, international trade and transport, international commercial contracts, litigation and arbitration, banking, finance and accounting, corporate, commercial and business matters, takeovers and mergers, communications, technology and intellectual property, international construction and property and international and offshore tax strategy. By exploiting this position, it is possible to collect and publish top-class information, narrative and source material as well as other documentation, connecting each of the key areas of theory and practice.
There is nothing particularly novel in the approach suggested and it is to be found in component parts in many places. Nor is it inclined to represent anything resembling the more likely future of law publishing. Rather, such a model is progressively less in evidence, almost certainly indicating that the opinions expressed are not widely shared. On the positive side, as the number of research-focused legal publishing businesses lowers and the industry contracts in size, it is interesting to see occasionally some faith being placed in the sector, perhaps as in the recent disposal by venture capitalists of Larcier Holding to Editions Lefebvre Sarrut, in turn owned by Frojal S.A. Larcier has within its group, Bruylant and is well-known in Belgium and Luxembourg. Perhaps only Editions Lefebvre Sarrut appears to take a uniquely European approach to its publishing strategies, in ways that others, even Wolters Kluwer, are rejecting. Sadly, elsewhere we see evidence of good ideas being mismanaged and misunderstood, leading to negative outcomes. In the longer-term, though, Lefebvre Sarrut looks more like a European acquisition or merger candidate than a global buyer. The disposal by Wolters Kluwer of its French trade media assets is said to be in line with its strategy to focus on legal information and software solutions for law firms, corporate counsel, and other legal and compliance professionals. That said, “it has become a provider of software and services to the industry sectors it previously occupied……being a digital solution company”, professional information provision representing its abandoned past, with its annual renewal pricing policies perhaps helping to accelerate the shift. The recent acquisition by Lexis Nexis of Apriss, a US technology business, to some degree indicates the direction of the former’s strategy. Thomson Reuters’ intellectual property and science division has been sold to a private equity combination. The vendor’s stated intention for the remaining business is to “focus on the intersection of global commerce and regulation”, which sounds as if there is greater enthusiasm for its financial and risk management activities rather than its legal, tax and accounting publishing ones.
If that is the case, a not unrelated piece of news that has emerged in England is that its Judicial Executive Board has decided to switch from official use of Archbold: Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice to Blackstone’s Criminal Practice. The decision was taken without lawyers having been consulted but was done, it has been suggested, intentionally by a small review panel, perhaps to avoid significant lobbying. The panel was made up of judges from the Crown Court only but not those from the High Court. On this decision, an experienced member of the English Bar who specialises in criminal defence commented that, if he had been consulted, he would have responded that efficiency and effectiveness in sourcing and searching reports of cases and statutory materials online may be diminished in consequence. It might mean that counsel at court will be at a disadvantage. The move indicates how things may have changed and how what was formerly of enormous importance to the publisher, in this instance Thomson Reuters/Sweet and Maxwell, may be no longer so. Perhaps they just don’t care. I recall, several years ago, expressing concern to a Sweet and Maxwell senior executive about the rising market share that Blackstone, even then, was taking against Archbold but he shrugged it off, somewhat arrogantly, I thought at the time. Their loss is undoubtedly Oxford University Press’s gain.
So, with regard to my ideal law publisher, it’s hardly an egalitarian approach to legal and professional information, or one that makes for a better world, ignoring as it does many topics and the resolution of many jurisprudential issues. Nevertheless, as with the creation and delivery of high-quality products and services in other fields of endeavour, there is great satisfaction in doing something very well and especially in achieving substantial reward for it.