Legal Stewardship of Knowledge by Publishers

The publishers in the legal industry often get a bad rap, either for their lack or insufficient level of innovation, the cost of the services they provide, or the reluctance to transition entirely to digital.

We gave the publishers an opportunity to weigh in on these issues at the Ontario Bar Association’s TECHxpo 2017, where Colin Lachance, CEO of Compass (formerly Maritime LawBook), Eric Wai, a Managing Director at LexisNexis Canada Inc., and Fred Glady, Vice President of Customer Segments at Thomson Reuters, joined us.

The first myth we dispelled was that print was dead in the legal industry.

There are signs of a general cultural shift in print publications generally. Last year, Postmedia undertook a restructuring to address declining print sales, and incurred significant debt. It was only able to post a profit earlier this year by cutting employee benefits, giving rise to talks of unionization in Sept. The Toronto Star also went through a round of layoffs and closures last year, finding their stock rapidly falling.

Although The Lawyers Weekly transitions to The Lawyers Weekly this past year, this was more about meeting the needs of the legal market in bringing timely and pertinent news to them. The traditional print publication cycle did not allow for for them to get commentary to lawyers at the same speed of competing social media.

There are others who suggest that the time of print has not yet come to an end. Cara Barer wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review last year,

ROGER FIDLER IS A FOREFATHER of digital journalism. In the early 1980s, he wrote and illustrated an essay on the future of news… In Fidler’s vision of the future, news and information were headed to the nascent internet, where stories would be instantly published from one computer to millions more, eliminating the need to operate an expensive press run by expensive workers.

Now, Fidler wonders if he was wrong. “I have come to realize that replicating print in a digital device is much more difficult than what anybody, including me, imagined,” he told me this summer, and he wasn’t just referring to tablets. Fidler is equally concerned about the reading experience and economics of all forms of digital news. Now retired from teaching journalism at the University of Missouri, he has watched newspapers struggle to move their content and business online. The idea of interactive advertising has clearly not panned out, he says. Readers are annoyed and distracted by it, so many block it with browser extensions. He and others have observed that print offers a limited amount of ad space, which is infinite online, driving down ad prices and sending publishers racing around a hamster wheel. To make money, they need more content to advertise against. Some of this content is—how to put this?—lousy, giving readers another reason not to pay for news.

Lawyers, in particular, don’t seem ready to abandon their print. Although they might be willing to receive the news in digital updates and snippets, when it comes to traditional forms of legal knowledge there is a very strong demand for print resources. The panel agreed that this demand transcends age groups and demographics, and likely has something to do with the tangible feel of paper and the practical use of these resources in court.

This may eventually change once courts and proceedings become fully digitized, perhaps with easier reference to digital resources in court (think of “sharing” a source live with a judge and opposing counsel, simultaneously), but for the time being there will continue to be a strong market for print publications.

Despite the connection to print, legal publishers are still using the Internet to communicate with lawyers, and to collect more relevant information for them. Some of the products under development source broader information sources that lawyers would not effectively or efficiently be able to access.

Although cost remains a hurdle for some lawyers, most legal publishers offer packages for different size firms. At the lower ends of the market there is still a very strong demand for free resources, and about half of Canadian lawyers still report using free databases like CanLii.

The challenge then for many publishers is to find the niches where they can provide value to the market, but do so in a way that makes business sense. The amount of investment put into the development of some products necessitates charging some fees in order to recuperate costs. In some instance, this has been met by a growing demand of self-represented litigants, who find it more affordable to purchase publisher solutions than to pay for legal fees.

We often see the greatest advances are in the U.S., where a myriad of different companies and vendors have developed innovative solutions for the legal market. One of the main areas of growth and development has been in machine learning and artificial intelligence, and it’s in this area that Canada is uniquely positioned. The Kitchener/WaterlooMontreal corridor is quickly becoming a global hub for artificial intelligence, and these developments are also spilling over into the legal industry.

At the same time, machine learning tools have long been employed in the search engines of traditional publisher databases. What is changing is the new applications, and the sophistication of the tools being used.The greatest limiter for their broader adoption is what I’ve called “the big data problem,” where the volume of available legal information in Canada is comparatively scarce. This was one of the barriers that Lex Machina encountered in the Canadian market.

Given the technological shift that is underway, legal publishers can still play an important role in the transition. They still perceive themselves as companies for lawyers primarily, as see themselves as sharing a vested interest with the legal profession. Although legal publishers may have their own internal push-pull over how digital to go, the overarching consideration is one of stewardship.

Legal publishers know that change is underway, and are investing in its development. At the same time, they’re acutely aware that too rapid or widespread a disruption may actually destabilize the legal industry, and could even result in worse outcomes for clients and the public. That equilibrium will be the stuff of closed door strategy meetings for many years to come.

From Left: Fred Glady, Omar Ha-Redeye, Colin Lachance, Eric Wai.


  1. Thanks for this roundup. On the topic of the “big data problem”, take another look at this outstanding article by Robert Parnell: