Butterworths was founded in 1818 by Henry Butterworth. I know that this momentous anniversary is being marked and celebrated far and wide. Now more frequently but not always described as Lexis Nexis, the business, with its classic brand name, remains by any measure or description, one of the handful of information icons of the Common Law world.
My own direct connection to Butterworths was fleeting, having worked for it for a short time only in London and Toronto in consequence, in 1996, of its acquisition of Tolley Publishing, where I was divisional chief executive of Tolley Professional Information. However, whether as an employee or competitor and despite its undoubted flaws, it was and is impossible not to respect and admire the history of the business, the quality of its products and services and its importance in legal practice and the study of law. Very much dependent in early days on the expansion of the British Empire and its legal system, Butterworths, no doubt replete with the English and Christian values of the day, followed it from the British Isles to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India employing a mix of structures, acquisitions and partnerships of various degrees of success and some failure.
Not by any means the oldest law publishing entity, even at 200 hundred years-old, a few others pre-date it. Among them, leaving aside the great university presses, Tottel (the original and not the reinvented one that evolved into Bloomsbury Professional) was created in 1553; Lloyd’s List, the baseline for Lloyd’s of London Press (now Informa Law/i-Law, including, since 1919, Lloyd’s Law Reports), began in 1734; Shaw and Sons dates from 1750, Sweet and Maxwell from 1799 and Stevens and Sons from 1810, all three, one way or another, having found themselves within Thomson Reuters. In the USA, Banks-Baldwin was founded around 1804 and was “America’s Oldest Law Publishing House” until bought by West in 1993, putting it too in the Thomson Reuters’ stable.
The history of Butterworths is, of course, extremely well documented, not least in 1980 (second edition 1997) with the publication, under the authorship of H. Kay Jones of “Butterworths – History of a Publishing House”.
One might try to imagine a world that had not had Butterworths and its key competitors. Lexis Nexis might not have become a global brand but have evolved very differently under the Mead Corporation. Perhaps even more significantly, there would not have been the great Butterworths products and sub-brands such as Halsbury’s Laws, Simon’s Taxes, All England Law Reports, Encyclopaedia of Forms and Precedents, Atkin’s Court Forms, English and Empire Digest, Stone’s Justices’ Manual, Erskine May, “The Green Book”, New Law Journal and countless more. Not all have continued to the present day, but their influence and reputations are to no extent diminished, despite the need to break away from the book idiom.
The traditions of law publishing brands run deep and have great quantifiable value, few more so than of that other renowned work, not on this occasion from Butterworths but Sweet and Maxwell, Archbold, as we anticipate the possibility of litigation following the English Judicial Executive Board’s decision that Blackstone’s Criminal Practice rather than Archbold: Criminal Pleading, Evidence and Practice should be the standard legal reference work in the criminal courts. It might be suggested that the era of innovation and entrepreneurship which these renowned titles reflect has long-since passed and that, more recently, reliance has been put on corporate deep pockets to acquire innovators, but views will differ on this. In addition to the sale by Bowmark Capital, of Law Business Research to Levine Leichtman Capital Partners and of Avvo to Internet Brands, it will be interesting to watch, in the wake of, as long-expected, Informa’s agreed takeover of UBM, if the enlarged and more focused entity will continue to embrace Informa Law/i-Law or if that unit, as with others, will make its way to Thomson Reuters, Bloomberg or indeed, Butterworths/Lexis Nexis. If Tolley was non-core to UBM, logic dictates that Informa Law/i-Law will be viewed likewise by the reconfigured Informa. Bloomberg looks unlikely, as it takes the route of alliances to build more legal content rather than create and manage its own. Conversely, Thomson Reuters’ disposal of a majority stake in its Financial and Risk business is accompanied by a statement of its intention to invest in its Legal and Tax & Accounting units and make selective acquisitions, although the veteran commentator, David Worlock, again speculates on the possibility of Thomson Reuters exiting the law and/or tax markets. If Thomson Reuters were genuinely considering relevant acquisitions, they might consider, in the UK, Bloomsbury Professional, Informa Law/i-Law, the CCH-Croner-i tax and accounting portfolio now owned by Peninsula, Justis and others.
What is clear is that, when it comes to delivering legal information and solutions, certainly in the UK, that a key factor that has existed for most of the last 200 years has not changed. It is that the market continues to rely primarily on the duopoly of Butterworths (Lexis Nexis/RELX) and Sweet and Maxwell (Westlaw/Thomson Reuters). It is disturbing or reassuring, depending on the point of view, that over such a long period of time, despite all the comings and goings, no other providers have consistently challenged and beaten the two giants and their magic mix of characteristics, with any degree of long-term success. I would suggest that the reasons lie not just in the fact that these two have rich parents but rather that they are just better, more focused, committed, expert and experienced than others and the latter will continue to struggle to compete. While past performance is no guarantee of future success, for now they still seem to be smarter, however flawed, geriatric and clumsy, than others. Rather like comparing a Tesla to a German executive cruiser and predicting their respective futures, I would have no hesitation in knowing where to place my medium-term bets. Hence, for relevant smaller, newer, more exciting entrepreneurs and legal technology businesses, in my view, the honest and not self-righteous plan, aspiration and dream should be to be acquired by RELX or Thomson Reuters (the latter being my irrational preference), rather than maintaining the pretence of higher motives. That said, will the Butterworths imprint be around 20 or 100 years from now,? After all, as James Ashton of The Daily Telegraph writes, “Less exciting is current trading in the legal sector, served by the LexisNexis database”. I would say, not a chance, unless a future owner, after RELX, wisely but improbably decides to revive the name.
When I was gaining experience of law publishing as an employee of Sweet and Maxwell, my perception of ourselves as compared to Butterworths, back to the posh car metaphor (further mixed and tortured below), was that we were the Bentley to their Rolls Royce. We thought of ourselves, although not the UK market leader, as less stuffy and formal, more youthful in attitude and faster on the move, perhaps a little less conservative. However, no doubt our opposite numbers perceived the situation, in part, in reverse. I wonder if today’s Lexis Nexis chauffeur(se)s, relative to their key competitors, see themselves at the cutting edges of access to legal expertise, tomorrow’s technology, market intimacy, innovation and the other key measures that make for the likelihood of successful futures, necessary to sustain the premier position, for purposes of driving Mister Butterworth, travelling “to Infiniti and beyond” or will they be a dull old Lexus? On the brand’s 200-year anniversary, it would be nice to think that the spirit of Henry Butterworth is still with them.