Back to the Future of Legal Publishing

The benefit that I gained, while participating with Jason Wilson and Gary Rodrigues in a session on the future of legal publishing at the Canadian Association of Law Libraries annual conference, was in learning more about the broad range of issues that both concerned and excited law librarians in their relationships with the major law publishers.

We had set out to explore questions of challenges and publisher responses to them, changing market structures and competitive factors, digital challenges impact on business models and how they need to be altered and who will be the winners and losers. These were matters that I found myself addressing some time ago when speaking to a group of institutional investors who targeted this market; no doubt the topics characterised their particular interests. However, in addition, many other issues emerged in discussion and follow-up, leading me to realise that, for my part, my focus had been narrow. Indeed, Jason’s take on the topics was very different to mine and even more fascinating to me for that and Gary’s challenges opened up many other avenues for investigation.

Our greatest surprise was the residual interest there appears to be, certainly by some Canadian law librarians, in many aspects of old-fashioned looseleaf delivery. However, this is almost certainly not as a means of clinging to the past but in recognising that their needs are many and varied and that one format rarely replaces another in its entirety. For every gain there is the risk of something been lost. It may well be appropriate, for example, to worry about the loss of content quality and integrity as authors fade into the background and editors fail to protect their inheritance.

Some believe that with these and other subscription products, the publishers have held on to them just to extract from them the relatively easy profits that they have provided. If that is so, there is no question that, now they are hurting as subscription numbers fall below viable numbers, this, rather than addressing customer needs will be the key factor in ending the era. But then, as the Bodleian Law Librarian at the University of Oxford, Ruth Bird ( tweeted, “Sadly, vendor sessions sound the same whether it’s 1999 or 2015. A disconnect between what users want vs. publisher priorities”. Others see the problems as more fundamental and potentially terminal with, in some cases, a publisher culture that is underpinned by a “complete lack of customer focus”. If that particular account were to be believed, it would reveal incompetence and massive waste of money at RELX and it raises, once again, the logic of a sell-off of Lexis Nexis.

The same applies to other types of content and in relation to Cloud storage. If everything is going to the Cloud, will there still be confidentiality? Initiatives for the benefit of the publishers may be genuinely for the good of all but if the publishers are not listening, chances are that their own needs will be prioritised.

Such discussions were a necessary reminder that law publishing is still about optimum quality content, at least as much as it is about platforms, search tools and other software. It would not be for the first time that the point is made that the vehicle for delivering content is much less important than the content itself and the relevance and application of it. Source material, notably but not exclusively case and legislation are, in my view, commodities that, for the most part, are sold on price. All such content is available via Westlaw and Lexis Nexis. Recycling court decisions in the form of law reports and case law databases has been a major source of revenue and profit for the major legal publishers. The effect of free sources and free access to case law via government and other web sites must have a significant effect on law reporting. The subscription-based providers have to convince their customers that they are adding value in terms of aggregation and integration of content, as well as on search capabilities. Whether or not the day of major works has passed, if it’s about how people want to access online content, this is, I believe, a question of market segmentation. The needs of a local lawyer in a small firm in Springfield doing criminal defence work is entirely different from those of a specialist litigator in Capital City who is expert in international maritime law. Price acceptance relates to the amount of profit that can be generated from investment in the information product or service, with different pricing models for different market sectors. At the same time, it is and has been about cut-throat competition, particularly on price and at the top end of the market where sales representatives have sufficient authority to make the deal at any cost. This is one of the many reasons why profit margins have been dropping and customers may be beneficiaries. These factors will help explain the significance of emerging markets where growth opportunities in established ones are limited. Perhaps even more significant is confirmation of the views expressed elsewhere, this time from Hugh Logue at highly regarded analysts and consultants, Outsell Inc., that “legal publishers’ biggest customers will become their competitors”. I am certain that they already are so and when there is evidence of cooperation between them, the fact is perhaps recognised by both sides, occasionally with positive outcomes.

Likewise, publishing skills, training for content commissioning, product management and quality issues continue to be matters for concern, where there are perceptions that these might be diminishing rather than on the rise. All the evidence indicates that the major publishers are taking out skills and key characteristics that are necessary to succeed. Rather, it is not so much that they have lost what it takes but more that those elements are not what the major professional publishers want or are geared up to exploit. Evidence exists that they are offloading most of the editorial and production functions as well as product management and author liaison. As one senior insider in one of the businesses reported to me, “The business is turning into a shell organisation based around product development and sales and marketing. The problem is that all the nuts and bolts to support the business are being offshored and outsourced and in doing so they are eliminating its ability actually to deliver anything; management is weak”. Another concurred, whispering “In these days of globalisation and management de-layering, the watchwords are ‘cutting staff’ and ‘outsourcing’. This means time-consuming projects managing overseas outsourced operations. It also means, as the layers of manpower disappear, more work for those left as they pick up the slack from the depleted staff”.

Maybe the fact that investment in qualified staff and in training is low means that the focus has moved away from product in favour of mode of delivery. The role of the author is much diminished, as is the capability to challenge and improve the work of authors; this is less-so in tax publishing where there remains investment in in-house writing skills. Authors certainly complain that quality has been affected and that they are unlikely to be able to count on their publishers to add significant value to their work. Indeed, levels of editorial scrutiny have diminished enormously over the years so that now all one might expect is some processed checking outsourced to the Far East. Furthermore, if the history of quality and high content standards is being steadily forgotten, who is to know what makes an excellent commissioning editor or publisher? Hence we see poorly trained and qualified people who cannot match the levels of the finest. Maybe worse, one often encounters the lazy option of professional qualified people, perhaps having failed as lawyers, thrown into the publishing job without any training, in the view that what they have learnt in practice is relevant and with the hope that they might know something and can bumble along. Probably they cannot.


  1. Thanks for this excellent column, Robert. I wrote about a column here entitled “death to loose-leaf” some years ago:
    While at CALL, I also heard a great deal of unhappiness with the loose-leaf format; on the other hand, in our local market, we find that publishing annual updates, complete replacements, and at reasonable prices is well accepted by our customers.

  2. Many thanks Susan. You won’t be surprised that I re-read your superb column on the topic before writing mine. In the situation you describe and drawing on my experience in UK tax publishing with Tolley, CCH and FL Memo, this is ideal territory for very attentively managed annual book/ebook publishing. The criteria and rules apply equally in many though not all areas of mainstream law publishing. My intended next Slaw column on quality in legal publishing might address some of the potential risks therein.