Pick Two Cards. Any Two.

It always amuses me when I see light-hearted references to the rather tedious-sounding Project Management Triangle (alternatively called the Triple Constraint or Iron Triangle). Much fun can be made of the idea that in relation to products, services or outcomes, the choice is of quality, speed or price but only any two out of three can be had. For entertainment purposes it can be applied to restaurants, plumbing services, professional advice, airline travel and the like. However, it makes me wonder about the veracity of the notion and whether or not it is applied or applicable in relation to legal and professional publishing?

Choosing to ignore the wisdom of business school and project management thinking, I like to take the view that to do business well, the objective should be to be able, profitably and in the interests of competitive growth and advantage, to deliver optimum quality and innovation, appropriate prices and speed that reflects efficiency and satisfies customer need. To do otherwise would seem to be a guarantee of business being lost to smarter competitors. Perhaps this is wrong or naïve. Is it the case that the well-known legal and professional information and tools’ suppliers deliver impressive and innovative products and services in a timely way at the right prices? Alternatively, is it the customers’ expectation that the choices are among: good prices and up-to-date but sub-optimal quality; good prices and quality but lack of up-to-dateness; or up-to date and of optimal quality but only at very high prices?

Expressed otherwise, if the propositions are true, using less pretentious language, it’s just a question of conventional market positioning and segmentation. Few suppliers can and want to do everything and customers are all different, with differing requirements. It would therefore be inappropriate to have a single model in seeking to trade with them all.

Some law books, as they have been known and used in the past, are good examples of the “two out of three” dilemma. The great legal tomes that have been the bedrock of jurisprudential thought for generations have been known for their importance and scholarship but the expectation is that prices are prohibitive, their quality serves only the needs of a tiny élite and too many years pass between editions. They offer high quality standards and prices that are probably in line but are often many years out of date, though this may change with technological advancement and market acceptance of it.

Other law books, the more affordable, practical and concise ones, serve an ever-diminishing purpose in keeping users abreast of recent changes and are everyday tools but might not be adequate in terms of quality and comprehensiveness to serve the needs of serious litigators and specialists. There are exceptions to this, of course, particularly in areas like tax and where annual publication schedules and in-house expert writing are the norm. For the most part, though, the deal is for speed and price at the expense of quality.

Loose-leaf services and arguably, off-line electronic resources, are fast disappearing possibly because they offer the worst of all worlds. The best of them are certainly comprehensive but some focus on quantity rather than quality. Many, partly because some branches of law do not move so quickly, fail to exploit the opportunity to deliver frequent content. Most are absurdly expensive, in part because of evolved pricing practice but also due to the hidden cost of maintenance (in relation to loose-leaf). At best the two characteristics on offer are optimal quality and speed but only deliverable at huge cost.

The question must be as to whether or not current and foreseeably future models have the potential to break the conundrum. With the most comprehensive databases of added-value domestic and transnational content, primary sources and documentation on offer, combined with ever-more impressive search capability, sophisticated underlying algorithms and incisive workflow tools, perhaps the opportunity to have it all has arrived. I have the impression that for the largest and most prestigious professional advice firms and their counterparts in commerce, this is the case. Two out of three need not be the issue. They can demand and receive quality and great technical innovation at every level required, speed and delivery standards that are negotiable and optimised to serve their needs and prices that are lost within the scale and profitability of the enterprises, combined with huge bargaining power. The constraints of the amusing triangle can be made to disappear for the benefit of both supplier and customer.

Not so, however, at one or two levels below, where the requirement from the publisher is to deliver information content and tools to deal with more pedestrian clients, legal processes and issues. Those practitioners’ need to economise and be more efficient, while at the same time maintaining quality and innovation standards to acquire and retain clients, is less-well served. For them it must be assumed that all three criteria, namely pricing, speed/currency and optimum quality/innovation are challenges to address and are why they look increasingly less attractive as a market for publishers. In this context it is refreshing to see Oxford University Press offering limited free access to content, albeit for a specific reason. With authorities such as Richard Susskind being much better placed than I am to comment specifically on the future of the legal profession, I have little to say on that score, except that they appear to be aligned with my own perspective on legal and professional publishing. Simple logic dictates that if legal practice will change as dramatically and tough times lie ahead, as are predicted, a legal publishing model established to support the old ways, left unaltered, has no place.

I might bemoan the prospect of a future of legal work being undertaken by increasingly capable systems but then I haven’t been too impressed with the clunky and amateurish processes that I witnessed in my own last few client encounters with UK practising lawyers. Worse still, watching dramatised US law in action in the now finished “The Good Wife” on television, makes me relieved that I live and work far from her erstwhile fictional practice as a bar attorney in a Cook County bond court. Not too many law books apparently being searched there, it would seem. Worse, Alicia proposed cancelling her Westlaw subscription! No wonder the series is over.

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