Loose-Leaf Redux

The latest round of columns on loose-leaf publications contains plenty of useful discussion about the format of legal information and the legal publishing business generally (see here, here, and here). I have a serious interest in these topics: CLEBC publishes 50 titles: practice manuals, annotated precedents, and annotated statutes on BC law and practice. We publish online and in print, mostly loose-leaf and some softcover.

I’ve written before about “Death to Loose-leaf?”. I’ve concluded that the fury that seems to attach to this format is only partly related to the format itself. Yes, filing is annoying and time-consuming. Yes, chapters and pages go missing. But what strikes me is that most of the anger is directed to the treatment of the content and the business practices of some publishers that seem to go with the format. The complaints are well known: updates are too frequent, too expensive, and do not contain enough content; business practices are seen to be unfair and customers don’t feel that they are getting value for money.

Why am I not convinced that it is the format itself? It’s because I have had so many conversations with BC law librarians in which I’m told: “Susan, we’re not complaining about CLEBC loose-leafs! Your publications are a core part of our collection and we are not upset with the content or the format or your business practices!” Further questioning reveals that annual or biennial updates, complete replacement of contents, reasonable pricing (around $250 per update), no restrictions on the repurchase of contents, and a publication schedule happily shared with our customers are quite acceptable.

All that being said, though, there’s much to learn from David Collier-Brown’s post (and Deborah Copeman’s excellent summary). He gives us some excellent detail about what lawyers need and expect from their information resources. What should the feature set be? He needs legal information that is up to date, can be read and used in print, can be printed (pages, not the whole book), can be searched (full text searching), and is indexed. And the online version needs to identify sections that have been updated since the print version was published.

Framing the features this way points us to products that look different from the loose-leaf format of today. This is incredibly valuable information for legal publishers as we plan our next steps.

Here’s something important: the print version doesn’t need to be up to the minute, but the online version does.

So what does this look like? Imagine this legal information resource: an online subscription service, updated continuously (say, weekly), with changes dated and identified, printed and bound annually, with the print volume sold separately or as part of the service.

What does continuous updating look like? Continuous updating of secondary sources is not as easy as it sounds. It’s not too challenging to update cases or legislation regularly. But it is more difficult to capture the development of ideas about law and the changing practice that results. There’s a familiar arc to this development: for example, a Supreme Court of Canada decision comes out and we all read it or Eugene Meehan’s summary and draw some preliminary conclusions. Those with more knowledge or expertise will have a more sophisticated understanding, which they may share online or through some other format (such as CLE-TV). These preliminary ideas are easily inserted into the publication, possibly with some speculation about what it all means.

But as time passes and the legal profession starts to work with the new decision or new legislation, the understanding of its implications frequently changes. There may be further judicial interpretation or a legislative response; practice area groups or CBA sections may agree (or not) on what the implications are; and specialized groups such as the BC solicitors’ legal opinions committee may establish practice. But this happens over time, and the later stages are difficult to capture with superficial updates. In other words, it will be important to publish a regular deep-dive update or new edition.

I’ve always admired the model used by ICLE (the Michigan CLE; a leading CLE publisher south of the border). Editorial staff updates their online library weekly; this process ensures that all legislative and case law changes are caught right away. If necessary, volunteer authors from the profession are approached at this stage to provide their perspective. But there’s also an annual updating process; every year the authors and editorial board systematically review the books to ensure that changes in understanding and practice are captured.

One more thing: as we consider whether and how to replace loose-leaf publications, it’s tempting to think that thoroughly revising and republishing current titles in hard or soft cover print will address the problems of loose-leaf. But surely we should be thinking digital first? Although many lawyers are still firmly wedded to the print publication, I am convinced that the research habits of the new generation of lawyers point us to a new model of information delivery altogether.


  1. Thanks Susan.
    Congratulations! Another great and well-argued column on a topic that seems to have infinite support. Maybe not surprising that I wouldn’t agree with everything you write this time, as I am quite hostile to looseleaf. Still, I completely support your view that the complaints need not be about content and business practices, if both are of optimum quality. It’s why I wrote on that topic in “Quality in Legal and Professional Publishing” But quality should and can extend to everything and I’m not sure that in an Internet age, even at its best, looseleaf can match up. It’s hard to get away from not just the inconvenience of filing but also its hidden costs, along with all the other inbuilt downsides. Moreover, purely personally, I’ve never participated in a decision to create a looseleaf service in which the reasoning was as much about customer needs as those of the publisher.
    I’d be concerned if the future is mainly framed by the past, wherein it is a given that that there should be certain constraints based on resources, time and costs. Where else is real-time delivery not the norm and variable “up-to-date” dates and half-ready indices are acceptable? There may be cost, pricing and profit implications in doing much better but customers should be left to give support to the quality of the proposition or vote with their feet. Also, there are consequences for those who want to be writers and editors, a topic I’m trying to consider in my own next Slaw column, on the benefits of legal writing.
    So, I’m definitely with you on “digital first” but backed up by ideally annual books and ebooks rather than everyting in-between.

  2. Thanks, Robert, for your kind words. I think we only differ on the fine points!

  3. David Collier-Brown

    [Belated update] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a (rare!) example of an in formation source that meets the “impossible trinity” of requirements: authoritative, comprehensive, and up-to-date.

    Books, for example, are authoritative, but not comprehensive and without amazing loose-leaf like effort, not up to date. Crowsourcing (wikipedia) is mostly comprehensive, but not authoritative and only individual articles are up to date.

    The Stanford effort, described at is a “dynamic reference work” and meets all three criteria using
    – subject editors -> authority
    – executive editorial board-> comprehensive
    – individual subject publishing schedules -> up-to-date

    This is done at moderate cost, with a paid staff of three and one FTE for a document that looks to me like the volume of Gold’s Practitioner’s Criminal Code

    [Courtesy of Lauren Weinstein and Bendetta Camarota on Google+]

  4. David Collier-Brown

    Whoops, with 1,500 entries, the volume sounds more like the Halsburys, not Gold.