Column

Then There Were Two

The sale of Wolters Kluwer’s remaining Croner/CCH publishing assets in the UK did not, of itself, significantly affect the bigger picture of law and tax publishing there, primarily because of the residual size and scope of its activities and failure to compete immediately prior to the sale. To some romantics and self-delusionists, it may be thought to be the end of an era, with wistful memories of Croner’s heyday in the last century; to others, for its, at times, unhinged, incompetent (or perhaps worse) and at top level, obscenely and inconceivably justifiable overpaid management and self-serving nitwit advisers and resulting sad decline, welcomed euthanasia. While hopeful wishes are due to the remaining people, what was at one time known as Croner.CCH can be happily forgotten. Lexis Nexis and Thomson Reuters won’t even have noticed that it has disappeared. However, it did put focus on what remains in and of the market, aside from the still sizeable but shrinking Thomson Reuters and Lexis Nexis historical duopoly to which we return. Bloomberg Law does not feature at all significantly outside the USA and it seems likely that it has no measurable growth ambitions in the legal information markets.

Among business-to-business specialists with historical interests in legal information, the news is bleak, as predicted. The UK’s Wilmington PLC is exiting from the legal practice support market and has closed its periodicals, Solicitors Journal and Trade & Forfeiting Review; the former has been published for 160 years. Wilmington’s ARK businesses were unsuccessfully offered for sale, apparently and as a result, the periodicals in question, Waterlow’s Legal Directories and a range of other legal publications are closing, it seems. From Wilmington’s rival, Centaur, its legal magazine, The Lawyer, dropped from weekly to monthly frequency not long ago.

Although nowadays more peripheral, Williams Lea Tag, owner of TSO, which was from 1786 to 1996 in the UK’s public sector, risibly entitled “Her Majesty’s Stationery Office” has been sold, now for the third time, by Germany’s Deutsche Post DHL to the U.S. private equity investor, Advent International. TSO works, inter alia, with the UK’s National Archives as the official publisher of UK legislation and produces www.thegazette.co.uk.

The demise or purchase of the smaller contenders is a continuous process and some of them are extremely small or perhaps just beneath my own sights. Those remaining, purely personally and subjectively that I perceive to exist, of quality, size and range, are Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, Bloomsbury Professional/Hart Publishing and Informa law/i-Law. There are others, of course, including professional and trade bodies, professional firms, charities/not for profit, specialist, niche and micro-businesses, some doing commendable work.

Of the four, the two most substantial are university presses, having the character thereof. Their objectives, history, approaches to profit and the protection that they may be afforded, possibly give them their character, potential for unique future and their raison d’être. In my opinion, their products appear to be of excellent quality, though I fail to understand why they operate in professional and business markets rather than more narrowly in academic and scholarly ones. I wonder if their funding arrangements with their respective owners allow them a degree of financial indulgence that might otherwise make them not viable as practitioner information providers.

That leaves Bloomsbury Professional/Hart Publishing and Informa law/i-Law. The former would not exist, certainly in its current guise, but for Butterworths/LexisNexis. Beginning as Tottel Publishing, it was a management buyout and a perceived convenience on the part of the former owners to do a clearance of sorts, allowing them to lose some people, non-core products and the burden of being actively in the Irish and Scottish markets. Bloomsbury Professional went on to acquire Hart Publishing and some assets from Jordan Publishing. The latter has its roots mainly but not exclusively in Lloyd’s of London Press and Routledge (once part of the same company as Sweet and Maxwell) but is now part of Informa PLC. Some of its products use the strapline “Informa Law from Routledge”; I detect a degree of identity confusion. The portfolio appears to find itself split within Informa’s Academic Publishing Division and its Business Intelligence Division, below which sits Transport Intelligence, then Maritime Intelligence and finally i-Law. Much of the academic division’s output is aimed at professional researchers.

Both Bloomsbury Professional/Hart Publishing and Informa law/i-Law have online services which are targeted at legal and professional users. However, they appear to remain closely tied to the legacy print products and distant from the idea of them being online workflow solutions providers, to the extent that they have not yet evolved into having become primarily software specialists. In my view, unless growth and profitability are not key performance indicators, as might be the case with some university presses, there appear to be primarily three options for those commercial professional information providers which are of scale and substance but below that of the global duopoly.

The first is to grow organically and by acquisition and merger, shedding non-core functions and assets as appropriate. The future, without being realistic competitors to Thomson Reuters and Lexis Nexis and without going aggressively and expensively along the road of market relevant and profit-generating legal technology as an evolution of publishing, appears to me to be grim. The era of the pretence of wanting to be traditional law publishers has long-since passed. If the results of recent Thomson Reuters research are to be believed, more technology and knowledge tools are key to meeting the needs of the critical market of law librarians, at least in large and mid-sized US firms; it may be different elsewhere. Hugh Logue, of Outsell, in a recently published report, Follow the Money to Protect Revenue: Corporate Counsel Buyer Profile, concludes that there may be opportunities in the corporate counsel market for legal solution providers. He asserts that work traditionally performed by external law practices continues to shift in-house and if legal solution providers are to protect their current revenues, they should focus on that market’s technology needs with smart contract, automation and artificial intelligence tools.

The second is to concentrate on the hope and expectation of being acquired, particularly where niche services or reputations may be thought to be attractive to larger competitors. Of course, this is a risky strategy as time passes and the lure of the unique selling proposition fades. Timing is important, as can be seen by the sale of Wolters Kluwer’s UK assets and when the distant hope of high multiples reduces to that of a “fire sale”.

The third is to “milk the cash cow” for so long as it is feasible and then withdraw or rather allow the portfolio to evolve in such ways that products, services and markets disappear. It is entirely conceivable that each of the four providers in question, because of their varied information-provision interests, might view matters legal in such a way. The same might be said of RELX, Thomson Reuters, Wolters Kluwer, Bloomberg and others, with their varied and wavering enthusiasm for the market, in favour of medical, risk and financial solutions, although it may be worth reading a view of the future, specifically of product management, from a relatively new Lexis Nexis appointee.

In my view, the first option is a most unlikely one and I cannot see the parent organisations in question seeking to increase their relationships with professional markets in this way. Therefore, some version or combination of the second and third options might be predicted. I find it difficult to imagine the fortunes of OUP, CUP, Informa or Bloomsbury being significantly pursued in content, process software, analytic and predictive tools and/or other services for lawyers.

Comments

  1. Robert, Thank you for your entertaining potted recent history of life and times in the legal publishing game. For my part, I have almost given up following the corporate machinations of Wolters Kluwer, Lexis Nexis and Thomson Reuters.

    The concern that I do have is with the legacy publications, some of which originated more than a century ago, that require careful nurturing and updating in whatever format, if our legal heritage is to be preserved. Seeing major treatises dumped in large topical databases and half forgotten, is not a fate that they deserve.

    The university presses and the smaller presses you mention may be the ideal home for these publications. I would encourage the expansion of the university presses in the traditional legal publishing field, if possible, by acquiring the key titles from their current owners who have replaced legal publishing as we knew it, with “solutions”.

  2. Thanks Gary. I take your point and indeed CUP, OUP, as great university presses, as well as Routledge, Bloomsbury and others have done just as you suggest. My only point is that there is a clue in the publishers’ brand names with “university”, “academic” etc. suggesting what are the target markets. As we know, practitioner and academic markets are quite different and I’d have thought that the academic one is both less appealing from a commercial point of view and has less of a future. I may be wrong.

  3. Robert, my thinking is that expanding their lists of quality practitioner texts was a way for the university presses to strengthen their bottom line and enable them to publish more strictly academic works than would otherwise be possible.

    For my part, I always saw Oxford University Press as a successful publishing business that used the “University” brand as a cover.

    Regards, Gary

  4. Thanks Gary. I agree with you to a large extent and it should not be forgotten that many leading practitioner works such as Palmer’s Company law but several others as well, began their lives as academic works and evolved into practitioner ones. It could be argued that, to start with, something of great academic scholarship is or has been a route to practitioner success and higher profits.

    Law publishing is rightly never out of the news. This is a timely topic as the UK Parliament only yesterday heard calls to have Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice, originally published in 1844 by Charles Knight & C0. but latterly by Lexis Nexis, made available free to access online, as it is a parliamentary authority. The same could be said of other works published commercially. One wonders how new editions would be sustained in such circumstances. See: https://www.metro.news/country-clamours-for-parliamentary-rule-book-to-go-online/805536/.

    It’s nice to think of the core output of the great academic presses being financially sustained by their law publishing activities, as you suggest.

  5. In a not unrelated context I see also the continued significance of major law books that are no longer even current editions. See https://practicesource.com/1999-supreme-court-practice-more-popular-than-the-iphone10-a-lot-cheaper-too/.

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