Legal Publishing: The Next Generation

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently considering the next generation of legal publication. Louis Mirando’s excellent column about the future of print reporters identified the future storage and delivery of primary law; in a nutshell, bound volumes of the law reports are soon to be just a memory. 

One comment in Mirando’s column that particularly caught my attention concerned the importance of headnotes and report collections generally. What this says to me is that even though there may be comprehensive databases of case law available to us, there is still value in providing summaries of lengthy decisions and identifying decisions that actually change the law. Just consider the many support and property division decisions made by our courts; we can all see how useful it is to have a knowledgeable editor tell us which ones are important, and have access to a short summary of the case so the researcher doesn’t have to spent time wading through irrelevant material. The buzzwords in publishing circles for this service are “curation of content”. Curation of primary legal information is one of the most important services legal publishers can provide. 

But although this is all very interesting to me, my real concern is how to deliver secondary legal information online. One key theme in discussions about how to deliver information over the Internet is that consumers now expect information to come in bite-sized chunks. I take that to mean a paragraph or, at the most, a page. To what extent can we deliver legal information in small chunks? 

Here’s some news: a lot of legal information by its very nature requires much more than one page if it is to be explained fully. Sophisticated concepts, complicated transactions; that’s what the law is all about. But it may be that because I spent much of my editorial career working on massive practice manuals (1200 pages plus), I have a hard time seeing how all that content can be broken down.

It’s true that answers to certain kinds of questions can come in chunks; for example, what is the limitation period for a motor vehicle accident claim? Can you pay out on a pending registration or do you have to wait until your charge is fully registered? Who may apply for a wills variation? 

But a discussion of the factors to be taken into account in advising a group of minority shareholders whether they should sue a company? Sure, this discussion can (and should) be broken into understandable paragraphs, but without the benefit of access to the full discussion, there’s every likelihood that the response would be incomplete or would miss some nuance. 

We now divide our practice manuals into chapters and sections. Most sections are one or two paragraphs, but some are many pages long and consist of a discussion that cannot easily be broken down. 

Will we need to design and publish legal information in a whole new way by breaking down problems or transactions into smaller segments? Or will we continue to publish well-designed practice manuals, organized by manageable sections, online? With a good index and a first-class search engine, subscribers should be able to find the chunk of information they need quickly and easily. And users who need to dig deeper will be able to do so. 

One way for publishers to address this conundrum is to prepare the content in the smallest chunks possible (in our case, usually by topic and subtopic) but sell subscriptions to the whole book, the whole practice area, or the whole library. Many American CLEs have had great success with this model. And I notice that this is how the mega-publishers are doing business as well. Is this the model our customers want? There’s certainly an opposing trend in the way people are now consuming and purchasing information online. Whether that trend will also apply to legal information remains to be seen.

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