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Valuing Legal Information

The problem with trying to value legal information is that we mostly just talk about its price instead of its value. The value of anything is subjective, and correct legal information at the perfect time is worth a great deal, general legal information that isn’t needed at a particular moment is worth much less. This is important because the people who make decisions about how to fund legal information are often not the people who use it regularly and are generally not faced with urgent legal matters at the moment of making decisions about how much to pay for it.

Things are valued based on different attributes, and before I proceed I would like to invite you to consider “The Elements of Value Pyramid” from the Harvard Business Review below:

Eric Almquist, John Senior, & Nicolas Bloch. “The Elements of Value” (2016) Harvard Business Review. <https://hbr.org/2016/09/the-elements-of-value>

As you can see, the pyramid is based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. With functional attributes of products, corresponding to the physiological needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid, and social impact, corresponding to self-actualization at the top. It may seem disingenuous to link sales to concepts like self-transcendence, but products can make your life better — think of a pair of good stout shoes that will let you walk in comfort, or of the life changes a man may experience when he gets a fine new coat. It may even be possible for a product to provide hope or a sense of belonging (though in my experience products that promise those things are almost always disappointing). That said, things that do provide more value to the people who use them than those that don’t.

The problem with how we value legal information is shown by the way we talk about it. We tend to focus on the bottom tier of the value pyramid: how much it costs, its quality, that it saves time, or reduces effort. These values are the primary parameters that information professionals are trained to use to value information products and its generally how funders evaluate them too. They are rational and measurable.

Imagine instead a research tool that confers confidence in having the right answer, and what that is worth.

There is little wonder that the designers, marketers, and sales people who develop legal information products want to communicate directly with legal practitioners who are the targeted consumers rather than going through the centralized evaluation and comparison based on those same criteria that library managers carry out.

Having been in the position of evaluating these tools, I can tell you that much of the time the new products being sold have little or no content the library doesn’t already provide access to, and that cancelling the products that are being acquired already will inconvenience others. There is often no dispassionate reason to purchase these additional tools, yet people want them.

For producers of legal information, be they publishers, authors, or libraries, moving up the pyramid would facilitate the creation of more compelling products that focus more on attributes like design, reducing anxiety, and potentially even belonging, but without the end users getting to choose what tools they use these things are not valued in the way they could be. One of CanLII’s great advantages as a legal research tool is that because there is no payment for use there are no gatekeepers for it. Researchers can use it whenever they want to and do.

For many tools, there are multiple steps of selling that must happen before they are integrated into people’s work. In big firms new products must be sold internally at the publisher to be developed. Then their value must be explained to the sales people who must sell them in turn to decision makers at libraries, and finally the librarians have to sell them to people at the firm — repeatedly as new people join.

Commercial legal information products have to be “marketed” by many different people beyond the people who have anything related to “sales” and “marketing” in their job descriptions. It takes effort to change the way people work, especially when they have habits of long standing and the change may not affect the core of what they do. Lawyers don’t go around citing old versions of laws because they don’t feel like changing. Many do however resist pressure to make them look up information differently, when their current methods work fine, and I’m inclined to sympathize. This means that anyone who wants to change the way lawyers use information has some convincing to do.

Libraries too are valued in different ways by different people. The problem for libraries can be when people ascribe emotional values to libraries that revolve around preserving the past or theoretical knowledge without integrating them into their behaviour in ways that deliver value now.

Comments

  1. Interesting to see more detailed visualization of the value hierarchy and how it may apply to information.
    How do we value “truth”, information as the single source of “truth” or evidence as the starting point.

    If we place higher value on the “method” of obtaining the evidence or “truth”, then for difficult truth /evidence/information-seeking strategies, we might be eliminating information that may be useful. Lack of time regardless of cost and expertise, might be the most compelling reason.

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