It is hardly surprising, having penned articles with such titles as Legal and Professional Publishing: Has It Become Desperately Dull?, The End of Legal Publishing? and The Law Publishing Business is Finished, that I am sometimes not filled with optimism with regard to these matters. In fact, I am reminded of a difficulty frequently encountered and described by those who write and dealt with entertainingly by Van Morrison on his album, Avalon Sunset. How to deal with not having anything about which to write is to use that fact as a topic in itself, hence the song “I’d Love to Write Another Song”.
It may not be just a question of writer’s block but rather the worry that there simply isn’t too much more to say about the legal and professional publishing business, as we have known it; I suspect I am not alone in this view. Looking back over the past couple of years of Slaw columns on the topic, contributions seem to be reduced in number. Even specialist columnists whose writing I enjoy and whose opinions I share and value, for example, Gary Rodrigues, Susan Munro and Jason Wilson, appear to be offering less in terms of frequency and volume and where they are, the subject matter seems a little more peripheral than before. Beyond Slaw, House of Butter, whose Sean Hocking, in my view, has been in many ways most instrumental in opening the legal publishing industry to critical scrutiny, is perhaps a little less prolific than before in challenging the major law publishers. In previous times, more had been hidden and was less capable of being objectively analysed. Others too, with insiders’ views, who have written much on the professional information business, appear to have turned their attention away from the sector, possibly having long-predicted and now recognising its reduced significance within a larger context. Maybe they and their readers have become bored by and are no longer interested in it, the focus having evolved in favour of legal technology.
The specifically UK websites of Thomson Reuters, Lexis Nexis and Wolters Kluwer, in the guises of Sweet and Maxwell/Westlaw UK, Lexis Nexis UK and Wolters Kluwer UK are equally indicative. Sweet and Maxwell’s most recent press release that relates to its activities and relationship with its market is dated June 2013; Lexis Nexis UK offers a smattering of announcements, mainly about sales wins and product tweaks, though it recently highlighted its partnership with Exari and collaboration with Radiant Law; Wolters Kluwer UK appears to have nothing of this nature to present by way of press notices, though at a corporate level, a video interview with the parent company’s boss of bosses, on its legal and regulatory unit, is worth watching. Perhaps, however, it is the case that they have finally wised-up to the pointlessness and waste of money, in general, of a PR function at a regional level for these sorts of functions or that social media do the job better. One might sense, though, that no one can be bothered to boast of achievements and no one, in turn, would be listening.
Acquisitions and disposals do continue and it is always interesting to see sectors that are favoured by means of the former and dismissed by the latter. From Wolters Kluwer are the announcements of its exclusive agreement with Validis, a data transmission and analytics software business, its collaboration with Propylon, a provider of “legislative software solutions” and the acquisition of Tagetik, a provider of corporate performance management software. The last of these will result in further internal restructuring and the establishment of a “Corporate Performance Solutions” business unit, as it disposes of its Transport Services unit. Lexis Nexis is rumoured to be acquiring Ravel Law, though it is interesting to read the views of Dewey B Strategic on that and similar possibilities, particularly on the subjects of quality, capacity, outsourcing and integration. Looking at other strategic partnerships, vLex and Justis Publishing have announced a distribution agreement between them.
Unless the effects of imbecilic and reactionary political dictatorship are even worse than many fear, a functioning and progressive legal machine will continue to operate in one way or another. In part to make it meaningful to observe and evaluate, I would like to think that the legal and professional information world will remain fluid, while somewhat insecure, as a barrier to ennui. My hope is that the mythical deities of professional publishing will identify for it infinite opportunities for both rational and irrational disposals, acquisitions and mergers, adding to it the steady flow of occasionally sociopathic senior managers and directors to impose upon it their mark, each after a short time to be removed and replaced by the next, of equally dubious character and effectiveness. Of course, this results in sustaining the legacy of frustrated and damaged employees, enraged suppliers and customers, dissatisfied investors, yet outrageous annual price increases but this seems to have been acceptable for a long time to date. On those scores at least, there is little reason to expect change.
On those occasions in previous articles on these topics that I have sought to be neutral or even optimistic about law publishing, it is because it is preferable so to be. Especially in an era of global political gloom, one needs to be grateful for the cleverness of the best lawyers and the published information and guidance that underpins them, to encourage the supremacy of law. In my opinion, it might be devastating if legal analysis became commoditised and automated to such an extent that opportunities to think beyond the status quo were diminished, hence the need for great jurisprudential thought that is published in some form or other. Nevertheless, there is certainly no absence of concern about alleged increasing diminution of such scholarship, in part based on the model that relies substantially on the core ideas being already in existence and making the assumption that there is a lesser need for the intellectual process of creating new ideas. Some see little requirement to focus on generating evolved concepts arising out an evolving system of law, even though present global uncertainty is acknowledged to be good for information services businesses.
I believe that it would be regrettable if there came a point at which there were not much to observe, criticise or report about legal and professional publishing. Its ability to infuriate is a measure of its liveliness. It would be equally unfortunate if it became just another business, vocational or professional activity such as, no doubt, some aspects of librarianship and law book selling, that can be described in its historical context but is nowadays rarely actually seen. I hope that the future continues to deliver a succession of professional publishing sector events, trends and phenomena of all descriptions that demand to be noted, queried and probably about which to be baffled.