Column

Reopening the Books

We have become accustomed for some time to hearing about new start-ups and initiatives on the technology side of legal information provision. Indeed, some might say that we hear of too many of them and that a percentage of them might disappear into obscurity before long. We read less of fresh ideas and innovation in relation to the provision of actual added-value legal content from law publishers. Perhaps this is not surprising, for obvious reasons.

It is all the more pleasing to observe an exciting fresh start from my friend and law publishing comrade, Jason Wilson, together with other former O’Connor’s executives, of Houston, Texas, as they establish Bearings Legal Resources, a new, independent legal publishing company. Its mission is to provide lawyers with extraordinary products, build long-lasting relationships with the legal community served, obsess over personal customer service and enhance understanding of legal issues through thoughtful information design and a relentless commitment to accuracy, clarity and currency. Jason stresses, in his podcast, The Evolution of Legal Publishing, that having a reliable resource to provide background information and a starting point for research is key. He argues that these resources create efficiency for clients, allowing attorneys to be up to speed quickly in fast-moving matters. However, legal publishers must ensure that their information is trustworthy, user-friendly and up-to-date in an ever-evolving legal world. Bearings’ initial print and electronic product is the Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code Annotated. The founders’ talent, enthusiasm and experience are obvious; I have good reason to believe that their primary motives are to make sure that they have fun writing and producing great content and getting back to having wonderful relationships with their fellow lawyers, and I have no doubt that their expertise, commitment and professionalism will deliver deserved success. I imagine that this is primarily what will make them contented and that, therefore, they will enjoy their work immensely. Enlightened self-interest and sales patter, I recognise, but largely agree with the Bearings’ people when they write “when you buy a book from an independent legal publisher, you’re voting to have options in the legal-resource marketplace,….. you’re choosing lower prices, higher quality and personal customer care….. and you’re compelling all publishers to be better and more accountable to their customers”.

Thinking mainly about legal and professional publishing in Europe over the past several years, there have been numerous heroic and some successful fresh starts, two that even involved me. One was FL Memo, which I established in London, partnering with what was then Éditions Francis Lefebvre. It continues to operate, but is merged within the group under the banner, Indicator-FL Memo. Now known as Éditions Lefebvre Sarrut, the parent company has recently purchased the traditional publishing business of Stollfuß Medien in Germany. I also was managing director of National Publishing at the then newly privatised and relaunched Stationery Office, now part of Williams Lea; it was a challenge of different proportions.

Other notable launches have been Tottel, which was acquired by and assumed the brand name of its parent company, Bloomsbury, and operates together with Hart Publishing. Tottel’s distinguished founder, Jim Smith, became chair of another relatively new law and business publisher, Globe Law and Business, which now also owns ARK Publishing’s book portfolio, and he is also the non-executive chair of a tax publishing business, Tax Insider. Another notable smaller law publisher, set up in 2006, is Law Brief Publishing, which is interesting for the sheer volume and breadth of its publishing output.

Along the way, very many law publishing start ups have come and gone, some having failed, while others were acquired by larger businesses and have become lost in brand changes. Among them have been Chancery Law, Palladian, Fourmat Publishing, Blackstone, Cavendish Publishing, First Law. Others languish somewhat below the eyeline, not yet having made the breakthroughs for which their founders may have hoped. Others still, were established or acquired from original entrepreneurs by larger publishers which were tempted by the characteristics of legal and professional markets; Wiley might be considered to be among the corporate entrants, as might Euromoney/DMGT and Wilmington PLC, Incisive Media and others. A lesson that may have been learnt is that successes in these markets are unlikely to result from matrix-based selection of target sectors to exploit, but rather from market intimacy, deep knowledge and engagement which successful specialists have.

More recent times have seen a handful of law publishing names come into view. Perhaps the most significant news is of law publishing events in Canada, where Irwin Law and vLex have entered into a service agreement for hosting Irwin Law’s products on vLex, and a share purchase agreement, with vLex acquiring a minority shareholding in Irwin Law Inc. The deal, which delivers a collection of Irwin Law’s books and journals to vLex’s legal research platform, marks the start of a new partnership for two established legal information providers in Canada and sees vLex’s highly respected Masoud Gerami joining Irwin’s board. In England, Solve Legal, which publishes a number of legal journals, has been acquired by David Opie, managing director of Today’s Media. In the USA, Eagle Tree, which also owns ALM, the media company that is parent to Law.com, The American Lawyer, and other publications and services, has acquired the global managed services company, Integreon, which targets parts of the legal and regulatory market.

Perhaps it is indeed the case, as Professor Richard Susskind observes, that the extent to which legal work can be reduced purely to administration and process has been overstated, and in fact “lawyers are needed for all legal jobs”, and that law publishers can help to bridge the gap, with services such as the Lexis Nexis Practical Guidance suite. It looks neither radical nor novel, conceptually, but may be no less interesting and useful. If, as HBR Consulting writes Knowledge is power, but it doesn’t come cheap for law libraries, some of the dynamic fresher combinations and faces of and services from law publishing, with competitive pricing and greater exploitation of existing assets, might find their niches. Caution, however, might be required if Outsell’s Hugh Logue is correct in his published research showing that as the transformation of legal services continues, legal consumers have far more options available at their fingertips to support their legal needs. He shares my own opinion that legal information providers are at risk of the commoditisation of their content. If true, it might not at all be good news for more traditional ones. Likewise, Lex Blog’s proposed international open legal blog archive project, if it matches its proposers’ objectives, may also be a threat to law publishers while a measurable benefit to legal researchers.

It would, in my view, be naïve to suggest that there is or will be some kind of vinyl records-style resurgence of traditional publishing in legal and professional markets. They are, one might expect, driven by market forces, the search for profit and competitive growth and logic, rather than emotion, thereby ruling out nostalgic backward drifts. Hence, online content delivery, artificial intelligence solutions to achieve predictive analysis and litigation and case management support tools, all primarily the output of the legal information management, rather than publishing sectors, represent the future. According to Outsell, the legal-practice management software segment is a strong merger and acquisition sector, incentivising consolidation; AbacusNext recently acquired Zola Suite. This, they believe, is partly driven by pandemic-accelerated adoption of cloud-based software. Now the focus is thought to be on converting from second-generation technology (the Cloud) to advanced automation. At the same time, not all markets, particularly considering differing jurisdictional cultural, technical, jurisprudential and procedural variances, are the same, thereby making any predictions somewhat more nuanced. As with Bearings Legal Resources, vLex-Irwin and others, the key is to know what target markets want now and in the foreseeable future, and to deliver requirements to optimal standards and prices.

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