Show Me the Money … Reprise

I thoroughly enjoyed all the discussion around my last column. It seems to me that these conversations are really around our long-time favourite legal publishing topic: where will change come from and what will it look like?

Colin Lachance’s response gave me plenty to think about. What’s the business model of the future for Canadian legal publishers? (This is another way of saying “show me the money”.) And what will new legal information sources look like?

There’s obviously an appetite in many parts of the country for more relevant and cost-effective secondary sources. Our CLEBC publishing program is something of an anomaly in that we are a legal publisher structured as a not-for-profit society. (Only LESA in Alberta has a publishing program similar to that of CLEBC, and it is on a much smaller scale.) Back in the 1980s, we were given seed funding by the law society’s insurers as a claims prevention measure. Our first publications were in areas of law with many claims and complaints (for example, real estate and family). To this day, the practice advisors at the Law Society encourage BC lawyers to use our publications.

Our support from the insurer didn’t last very long; now we are a self-financing not-for-profit society. Our publications are mostly written by volunteers, but to support all the editorial and production work and all the other aspects of running an operation (rent, customer service, and technology, for example), we need to charge for those publications. I’m proud that enough BC lawyers subscribe to our publications that we are able to support ourselves. But let me emphasize again that we are not-for-profit!

I believe the absence of similar programs in other provinces relates to the size of each provincial market. I’ve always understood that the size of the Ontario market has meant that the large legal publishers found it profitable to operate there and the depth and breadth of their Ontario-specific content met the needs of Ontario lawyers. In other words, there was no need for a grassroots alternate publisher to develop. In the smaller provinces, no CLE publishing exists because the market is too small to support the sales needed to make such an operation viable.

Meanwhile, the open law movement has gathered force. We’ve been lucky in Canada that this idea has had great momentum, and that CanLII is widely accepted and is well-supported by the Federation of Law Societies. But as Colin notes, free-to-use does not mean free-to-create.

And as Nate Russell points out in the comments to Colin’s column, even where no editing costs are incurred, there’s still an expense associated with managing an online wikibook; after all, courthouse library staff still need to “manage the contributions of dozens of lawyers”. The courthouse library is supported by the BC Law Foundation and Law Society.

What’s next? CanLII now provides access to an Ontario employment law text originally published by Lancaster House; this initiative is supported by Lancaster itself and by the Law Foundation of Ontario (which granted $15,000 to CanLII for this purpose in 2012).

Will other commercial publishers follow the lead of Lancaster House? What’s in it for them? Will other wikibooks develop in markets where limited resources exist?

Where will these new sources fit into the array of legal information now available? I expect that those with less editorial QA will fit into the category of “good enough” and be used by anyone (lawyer or not) who wants a quick refresher.

Those of us with established publishing operations are watching closely to see whether the legal profession sees open-source secondary legal information as a viable alternative to our publications. Interesting times indeed!

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