Column

Profound Thoughts From a Visionary

It was suggested to me, not unfairly, that I should be more forward-looking when writing on the topic of legal and professional information publishing. The point, though hardly seriously, was put in terms of whether I might personally consider exploring the role of “visionary” for the law publishing business sector, which was coded language for, to date, my being more negative than positive; those who see themselves as insiders are supposed to be upbeat and enthusiastic. In my defence, previous columns have included such dynamic titles as: An Exciting Time for Legal and Professional Publishing; Publish and (Perhaps) Be Famed; My Ideal Law Publisher; The Good Guys of Legal and Professional Publishing; A Round of Applause for the Middle Men and Women of Culture!

The vision for the future, however, no matter how much we would like it to be, cannot always be a joyous one. Visionaries are generally expected to plot paths to better worlds, yet some might think that their frequent dishonesty, arrogance and narcissism are necessary functions of the role. For myself, I’m more inclined to be amused at the absurdity of being thought to have the profound thoughts of a visionary or worse, to have visions. I prefer the view that events such as the Trump lunacy, the 2017 UK Parliamentary Election and Brexit should teach us about the foolishness of making predictions about the future; more than likely we will be wrong. Often, we opt for the positive because it sounds as if we are on message or are articulating the outcomes that we would prefer to see, however contrary the evidence.

Nevertheless, with best intentions, it seemed appropriate to search more intently for new initiatives and positive trends that appear to work in and around the provision of legal and professional information. My starting point is Gary Rodrigues’ comment that “The legal publishing business as we knew it has come and gone. We were fortunate to have been a part of its dramatic growth and then its transition to the digital world. Others will take it forward in new and unexpected ways. Therefore, primarily, one must look in newer and different directions. Law publishing endeavours which, in the past, were about creating and delivering intellectual and informative ideas have moved to a legal technology and software model which processes them. Examples of such technical innovation might be in Judicata, Casetext, recipient of the AALL’s award for new product of the year, which recently launched CARA Brief Finder and others, providing competition against the old guard. Fastcase has announced that it will expand the reach of its legal research service to compete more strongly. However, if, as I do, we accept that the major former law publishing businesses have evolved into powerful technology and software businesses that serve professional and corporate markets, their potential to develop and produce significant products and services remains great. They can continue to create connected tools, applications and services to help their customers streamline their processes and collaborate with colleagues and clients. With their varied resources, they can measurably support customers in back and front office functions, with focuses on research, business efficiency, analysis, productivity and cost reduction, time management, billing, risk assessment and management, client relationships, etcetera. Moreover, these technologies are transferable across a range of businesses, professions and entities. The various means by which to measure relative success among the providers in these markets include the speed of their transformation and repurposing towards their intended goals, their management of positions and degrees of specialisation within markets and their successes and failures in mergers, acquisitions, disposals and organic growth.

We see the shift towards these directions frequently, suggesting clear-thinking and strategy underpinning it, with unambiguous plans. As predicted, LexisNexis has acquired Ravel Law. It has added product enhancements to its InterAction CRM software portfolio and presumably with a focus on core objectives, disposed of its Occupational Hygiene and Occupational Health and Safety Divisions to NOSA Global Holdings. Wolters Kluwer’s Corsearch, the trademark and brand protection solutions firm, has announced a strategic alliance with INCOPRO to provide online brand protection services to brands and their advisers, although concurrently WK announced that it is exploring potential divestment of the Corsearch business. Wolters Kluwer revealed plans to strengthen its intellectual property content and workflow solutions through a strategic alliance with ktMINE, an IP data and information services firm, has introduced a new Legal Service Request application for its Passport Enterprise Legal Management platform to help corporate legal departments manage and monitor the internal legal service requests they receive from across their organisations and has launched a new design and added new features to its regulatory and SEC filings research and workflow solutions, RBsource and RBsourceFilings. Along more traditional lines, it has also introduced “Corporate SmartTasks” which follows their launch of a free Federal Regulatory Knowledge Center beta site, the next generation of Kluwer Arbitration and CCH AnswerConnect, an answer-oriented, tax information service. Thomson Reuters and Deloitte have created an alliance to combine the former’s global tax technology and intelligence with the latter’s direct and indirect tax services. In Canada, Thomson Reuters and Law Made announced a strategic relationship to accelerate innovation in legal technology.

A consequence of these moves is likely to be a continuation of changing pricing methodologies, compounded by the complications of free and commoditised content. The suppliers’ thinking must be that pricing is not so much the issue as the amount of cost that can be taken out of the business or firm in consequence of the application of the technology and tools. However, the current and future pricing model obviously is a software creation, installation and long-term support one. There is little doubt that models will change but I imagine that there must be quantifiable value perceived in these products and services and customers can make calculations on a case-by-case basis.

While many of the developments in question are to be found initially among dynamic, small technical innovators that are subsequently acquired by major providers, I wonder if the smaller legal and professional suppliers are doing things differently. In my view, with exceptions, a small company has two functions. The first is to become a larger one. The second is to be sold to a larger one or merge to create that result; we see the latter with the combination of Compass, vLex and Justia, of which Colin Lachance writes, “with the continued departure of small independent publishers and the nascent state of the legal tech startup market, the need for strong and innovative commercial competition to LexisNexis and Thomson Reuters [……] has never been more pressing. Maybe it will bring all three closer to the UK’s Justis, given its recently announced relationship with vLex. It’s of genuine interest to read Colin Lachance’s thoughts on the future. Perhaps we are seeing the seeds of a future acquisition by Thomson Reuters, Lexis Nexis or, more strategically, Bloomberg Law. The extent to which smaller companies distinguish themselves may be temporary and reflects their financial, technical and skills limitations until they can compete on the same terms as larger ones. Few businesses that want to be successful see their futures as small, niche boutiques. They want and need to industrialise. Therefore, where we see smaller business characteristics that seem attractive specifically because of their size, they are almost inevitably temporary and by certain measures an indication of relative commercial failure. It’s hard to imagine that there is any significant rebirth of legal analysis and commentary particularly in an era in which legal blogs are being increasingly accepted in courts as legitimate sources to support judicial analysis and reasoning. Still, with evidence that the printed book is alive and well, as is legal scholarship, law books of all kinds will continue to some extent to be published and to transform, even if legal knowledge has been abandoned within the publishing houses themselves. I think, however, that this will be a niche activity carried out by smaller law publishers for so long as they remain thus. Hardly in that category but it is interesting to note that, slightly remotely, in regulatory and business-to-business markets, Incisive Media, ALM’s former owner, is the subject of a management buyout returning it to private ownership. Perhaps this will be a trend among other information businesses that form part of larger corporations. At Informa, the reorganisation of its Business Intelligence Division appears to relegate its law publishing activities to near invisibility, perhaps an indicator of a disposal to come.

As I speculate on whether or not the reflective approach to the legal publishing sector is primarily the stuff of the jaded commentator, it’s fascinating to see, albeit in a musical and comedic yet barbed format, the views of some people at the early stages of their careers, as users of the products and services of the major publishers. Columbia Law Revue’s “West Law Story” might cause some of the legal information providers to pause for thought. Likened, by House of Butter, to boxers who are past their prime, they watch leaner and fitter competitors, keen to flourish, the salvation being that, as with Ravel Law, once they are established, the challengers can ultimately be bought. Regarding tools and methodologies to support legal research, providers and others might benefit from reading “New Wine in Old Wineskins: Metaphor and Legal Research” by Amy E. Sloan and Colin P. Starger.

Comments

  1. Do legal information providers assume that they are acting within a vacuum? That is, do they assume that their actions and decisions have no effect whatsoever on the world at large? You’ve mentioned the results of the US and UK elections and Brexit – but these are only symptoms of something else – vision without wisdom. It is not enough to add novelties, that is what innovation is, novelties without thought of their consequence on society as a whole can be devastating.

    There is an awful lot of vision, innovation and technology being offered up to the legal services but how are they serving to better the system for everyone and not just a few? Will more subscription services lead to a more equitable system? Will all the innovations make justice more accessible and allow the public to become engaged once again in the democratic process? Or, do they have the opposite effect? One former Chief Justice once stated: “There cannot be a rule of law without access, otherwise the rule of law is replaced by a rule of men and women who decide who shall and who shall not have access to justice.” (British Columbia Government Employees’ Union v. British Columbia (Attorney General), [1988] 2 S.C.R. 214 at para. 25, per Dickson C.J.)

    I think looking at what the legal information/publishing industry is offering up there is nothing more visionary than Simon & Garfunkel:

    “And the people bowed and prayed
    To the neon god they made
    And the sign flashed out its warning
    In the words that it was forming
    And the sign said “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
    And tenement halls
    And whispered in the sound of silence.”

  2. Thanks very much, Verna, for your comments and reactions.

    I’d be interested indeed to see your various questions specifically being answered against the sort of innovations you describe. I suspect we would have to sing the whole Simon and Garfunkel back catalogue.

    In my next Slaw column, presently in draft, I could not help using the much overused expression “a solution in search of a problem”

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