Butterworths at 100, Aye?

Butterworths Canada that is.

One notable Canadian publishing anniversary that has largely passed unnoticed is the hundredth anniversary of Butterworths as an incorporated Canadian company. Given the company’s recent accomplishments, this is truly regrettable.

Butterworths and Company (Canada) was incorporated on November 14, 1912. From the outset, it was a bumpy ride. According the the History of Butterworths: History of a Publishing House, the launch was done initially done in secret because of expected litigation from Canada Law Book regarding the rights to sell and distribute Halsburys Laws of England in Canada. As expected, a writ arrived soon after based on a claim that it had an exclusive right to sell Halsbury in Canada.

The fatal flaw

Until very recently, the history of Butterworths in Canada was a tale of mis-steps and missed opportunities. I won’t bother to list them all. Suffice it to say that the fatal flaw was in the strategy adopted at the very beginning. From the start, the premise for the business was that Canada did not need a domestic publishing programme, and that the company could succeed without it. The phenomenal sales numbers for Halsburys appeared to confirm it.

In the view of the authority figures in London, it would be enough for the company to carry on business as a sales organization for content originating in the United Kingdom. After all, Canadians were mere colonials who could not be expected to generate any content worthy of publication. Far better for the Canadian legal profession to use Halsburys Laws of England with a few footnote references to Canadian cases in what was known as the “Canadian Converter”, and major legal treatises from the U.K., than to use the obviously inferior publications that would be written by Canadian authors.

By the time the mistake was realized, Butterworths had lost so much ground to its competitors that it believed that it could not catch up. Canadian titles were published but nothing on the scale required to be competitive in the Canadian market.

Attempts to catch up

In the past three decades, a series of local presidents did attempt to address the problem, beginning with Andrew Martin who sought to increase sales and market share by publishing a Halsburys Laws of Canada and by acquiring an interest in Les Editions Yvon Blais. Unfortunately his efforts were largely undone by his successor Derek Day who shut down the Halsburys Laws of Canada initiative and sold off the company’s interest in Yvon Blais that resulted in its eventual sale to Carswell. Instead Derek pursued a quick fix in the form of a merger with Canada Law Book. When that merger tanked, Butterworths was once again rudderless, without a critical mass of Canadian content and with precipitously falling sales of Halsburys.

Things began to turnaround with John Yates who was fully committed to acquiring and developing Canadian content. The acquisition of Quicklaw enabled the company to catch up on the primary law front, as well as give the company a major online presence. The problem of secondary content was tackled under his successor, Mike Pilmer.

Even as a Canadian content strategy was being developed and implemented in Canada, the authority figures in London continued to be sceptical, still seemingly unaware of the reality that a Canadian legal information publisher must have Canadian legal information to sell if it is to succeed. I recall one conversation with an international executive who waved her hand in a regal but dismissive manner as she said that she had heard more than enough about content – what was needed she explained to me was more revenue, not content, completely failing to make the connection between the two.

A new era

Today, the result of ignoring her advice is impressive. Almost in spite of itself, Butterworths has emerged as the leading publisher of new secondary content in Canada, with content that has the potential to displace the market leader in future years in any and every format. The range and depth of the publishing programme, from major encyclopedias in French as well as in English, to annual practice volumes, treatises and monographs, is unmatched and has given the company the content it needs to become the leading information provider in print and digital formats in the Canadian market for legal information for years to come.

Bravo to everyone who contributed to this accomplishment and Happy 100th Birthday to Butterworths Canada (a.k.a. LexisNexis Canada Inc.).


  1. Thanks Gary. FYI, LexisNexis Canada is planning to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Butterworths in Canada, along with the 40th anniversary of Quicklaw, and the completion of the First Edition of Halsbury’s Laws of Canada in 2013.


    Anand Ablack
    VP, Product Management & Publishing
    LexisNexis Canada

  2. Anand, thanks for the heads-up about the anniversary celebrations. I look forward to my invitation to the party… :)

    Gary, thanks for another excellent post. I agree; I’ve been rather impressed lately with the number and quality of secondary materials—monographs in particular—that are being released by LexisNexis Canada.