Digitisis, Part Two: The Symptoms of Digitisis

The disease that afflicted legal and professional publishing for the last two decades was corrosive on many levels.

The first symptom of the Digital obsession or Digitisis disease was the overspending on document structure definitions and an obsession with rescuing whole ‘limbs’ of content that were probably going to be amputated in due course anyway. No-one in Lexis, Thomson, Bloomberg-BNA or Wolters-Kluwer-CCH could agree on what future content should look like so they had no idea what to keep or discard. This indecision led to the lowest common denominator strategy of ‘digitise and it will be worth it – somehow’. A few ‘newsy’ efforts looked promising as on-line was always going to be quick, but this was largely window dressing really. It provided a tier of data that made the firm look ‘with-it’. Genuine innovators in the large firms were relying on protectionist taxonomy approaches or case numbering to lock in or lock out clients and competitors. Perhaps now they realise that the old adage of ‘the more locks you put on the door, the more likely it is to be propped open’ applies here as much as everywhere else.

The second symptom was the extension of this production-led mentality to decision making. The innate rationality of the Prince regulated processes made ever escalating bills for duplication of content sacrosanct. Some firms even took Prince methodology so much to heart that they used it in management decision processes (as opposed to delivery processes). In a strategic vacuum, such abdications produced no consensus of where to aim for, and accordingly no idea of when they would get there. Time and again throughout the noughties a publishing team’s idea of success was a return to former profitability levels, as if somehow new search algorithms or taxonomies would deliver nirvana soon, very soon… A five year project took 7, 10, 12, 15 and at 20 years on is still arguably only 80% done. In most firms that at least 3 and in some cases 7 CEOs and management cycles.

The most debilitating symptom, however, was a wilful and growing blindness to the changes in uses of content and information services by end users. Publishers listened attentively; but they listened mostly to the authors and librarians closest to them. The net result was they got pointed to delivering ever more complex research and erudite material, while missing out on the fact that the structure of how law was being done within firms, and especially within in-company legal teams, was transforming. For a decade or more now, publishers have focused on news and research tools for people whose need for news was exceptionally specific and whose research needed immediacy and deal relevance, not breadth. The trap was simple; wrestling with the digitisis disease meant being a ‘real’ legal publisher had become defined as someone who could compete on level terms with the same (librarian) customers: the customers could wait, we had a patient on the table. It didn’t occur to publishers that spend on legal IT and by practice support lawyers (PSLs) and partners direct could trump this digitised content if and when it did arrive, let alone trump it quite comprehensively.

Professional publishers found themselves having to charge too much year on year for increasingly irrelevant content solutions that needed ever more integration and manipulation by the clients once delivered. The talk was all about process integration, intranets, automation (but in a ‘make-life-easier-for-librarians’ sense), and an obsession with cheap and noisy bells and whistles that impersonated real service development. Meanwhile, the usage and tolerance of paper and old legacy sources was dwindling. Paper has a niche future, but its mainstream life was winged in ‘99-01, it staggered in ‘02/3, it fell in ‘08/9 and it is currently being kicked repeatedly on the ground to an extent that no medical device can reverse.

Most firms doubled the trouble by duplicating the offering, ie they offered the digitised resources alongside the original ones as an option or upgrade. In effect they added more sales and more service costs to the production/digital ones, complicating the whole adoption and renewal process considerably. The librarians they faced were bemused, genuinely expecting the digitised souped-up new service to be cheaper; the pressure on library budgets was always to cut them. For Lexis their 2013 half year results show that this is still a major issue as any gains in electronic revenues are still being wiped out by legacy declines. Feet are still being shot with monotonous regularity.

Meanwhile back at the ranch

Meanwhile – with these publishing ‘patients’ up to their ears in muck and bullets, running in and out of hospital to treat the symptoms, often with a succession of new management initiatives – the world was moving on.

The new entrants to the market were not distracted by any of this, and frankly the client’s patience was actually getting stretched beyond belief. General Counsel (GCs) in particular were simply not finding their information needs being addressed at all. In some cases it prompted them – arguably left them no option, but to do it themselves.

The best examples of how lawyers wanted information delivered all come in the shape of firms that were considered ‘not publishers’ (but only by the big legal publishers). Thomson’s acquisition of Complinet was the first sign of a reawakening. The grey area of lawyers who weren’t in law firms, compliance professionals who may or may not be lawyers and their growing budgets finally became a focus. Now Accelus, risk and governance has a ‘we always knew that’ feel about it, but really, even 5 years ago, the big publishers’ really didn’t.

Now the acquisition of the Practical Law Company (PLC) may finally show that some at least are waking up to these changes. Not well known in the US yet, although a successful start-up there too, it was a transformative player in the UK. PLC was for many years simply not considered a ‘publisher’, and other notable brands such as Achilles and ECA International were ignored just as much. All were started by lawyers or GCs, designed by lawyers or GCs, operated and run by lawyers and GCs and deliver results for lawyers and GCs that are essentially information services based. With the major players in hospital, entrepreneurs such as LBR, MergerMarket, and MLex have also prospered.

While in the UK the market was growing from £505m in 1995 to £1.4bn in 2013, the proportion of that nestling in the citadel of ‘black letter law’ dropped from 41.7% in1995, to 28% in 2013. These are the encyclopaedias, the case reporters, the looseleaf and major research engines that prop up the big brand profits. In the same period, the contribution from publishing designed by or for general counsel rose from 8.7% to 20%. This is not a zero sum game either, both grew, but the market was giving publishing a clear message. Preoccupied with Digitisis, it chose to ignore it for decades.

[This is the second of three entries on the legal publishing industry’s “digitisis.” Part One is available here.]


  1. David Collier-Brown

    Thank you, kind sir! This illuminates what I was seeing while on a multi-year gig at one of the big publishers.

    –dave c-b