Simultaneously and in conjunction, Wolters Kluwer and Thomson Reuters have agreed to sell, in the case of the former, its legal information businesses in France and Spain, and in the latter, its Spanish legal information business, both to Karnov Group. There is change everywhere, as 2022 budget disciplines demand taking out the trash, and little is left in Europe in the hands of the giants.
Conversely, the news that Wolters Kluwer had sold its US academic publishing assets was hardly a surprise. For several years it has been withdrawing from the provision of legal information content. Long gone, in what looked like a fire-sale, were its UK assets, immediately prior to that point, some might say, ineptly managed under various brands such as CCH, Croner, Kluwer, Gee and Kestrian; sold also were US assets produced under the Loislaw brand. The more glorious days of Kluwer Law International appear to have passed, somewhat lost in the faceless moniker, “Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S, International Group”. An ever-reducing number of imprints and groupings around mainland Europe remain, perhaps, as with Kluwer Law International, reflecting more the parent company’s progressive shrinking to Dutch and Civil Law rather than its (loosely and shorter-lived) Anglo-American and Common Law heritage. Nowadays, more emphasis seems to be put on its newly enhanced and renamed US online delivery platform, populated with such proprietary, free to access, non-subscription, third-party and primary content as it can make available. This does rather create what appears to be the absurd outcome of Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory partnering with Oxford University Press to take a license from the latter to offer its titles through Kluwer Arbitration, Kluwer Competition Law, and Kluwer IP Law. By that logic, it might make sense to license back the Aspen and other titles which have recently been sold; one might speculate as to how sustainable the comparatively low margin legal and regulatory unit would be without reliance on partnerships, a principle that is likely to apply more generally throughout the law publishing industry. It may be that the future role of the smaller, newer and more innovative law publishers will be to source, supply and maintain content for licensing to the geriatric giants, which have evolved into more general technology businesses. What also seems apparent is that, although Wolters Kluwer seeks to convey the impression of a seamless global offering via a unified website, in fact, much of the available content is limited by national boundaries and, of course, language and unconnected legal systems.
With this disposal, at a price of $88m., goes the Aspen Casebook Series and a range of textbooks, study aids, learning programmes and resources. The U.S. legal education business delivered revenues of $33m. in 2020, representing a miniscule percentage of both the company’s €4.6bn. turnover and that of the legal and regulatory division, and was said, at the time of the sale, in unspecified terms, to have been “profitable”. This might be interpreted as the disposal of a non-strategic, low margin drag on the business, with few places to go. As one former senior Wolters Kluwer insider commented, “the recent deal concerns what was Legal Education, so I’m not sure even what’s left”. In its totality, Wolters Kluwer’s overall legal and regulatory business is significantly the smallest of its four divisions and with, in 2020, revenues of €905m, including those of the legal education business, around 20% of the whole, delivering clearly at the lowest operating profit margin of them. Further reduction comes from the €120m disposals (for around 9% of Legal & Regulatory division’s revenues) to Karnov.
Perhaps the surprise is that it has taken Wolters Kluwer so long to abandon the legal academic and professional training market, as other major and international publishers made the equivalent withdrawals a long time ago. The much-criticised terrible twins, RELX/Lexis Nexis and Thomson Reuters have been, from early days, publishers of countless academic books and journals, many of their major and renowned professional market leaders having begun as academic treatises and coursebooks. In fact, in a great number of examples, partly driven by shrinking market sizes, competition, pricing and profit requirements, the normal route, as each edition evolved, was to morph from respected academic text to practitioner “bible”. There are innumerable notable examples of this among today’s market leaders. A problem is that it is difficult to make adequate profit from academic law publications, with their requirement to be relatively inexpensive, maintained up-to- date by frequent editions and geared to the requirements of specific but not always consistent syllabi. With the evolution of and demand for open access, wherein funding and profit models may be less likely to suit commercial legal information providers, the direction of travel is inevitable. Sarah Sutherland’s article on open legal publishing highlights the points in question, indicating that with access to volunteers, unpaid authors and charitable funding, some of the academic law publishing can be done. However, much can be lost in the process, and it is conceivable that free content is that which carries zero perceived monetary value, in the minds of customers; giving it away is easy and might be self-delusional. An offer from a publisher to an author to write and devote precious time to the delivery of valuable expert commentary and analysis, probably for a journal or a blog, for no fee or form of consideration, overlaid by limitation or prohibition of further use by requiring exclusive copyright and other publishing rights, underpinned by naïve, inexpertly drafted and unenforceable contractual warrants and unlimited indemnities, is one that can be easily refused, as I did recently. It might be balanced by junior academics needing to be published at any and all costs, while being financially supported by their institutions, in order that they might achieve career promotion. Others crave recognition and attention, regardless of cost or lack of financial reward. Of course, a talented and savvy minority do exceptionally well from legal writing and publishing. At the same time, such initiatives as www.openlegalblogarchive.org/ will, to some degree, be welcomed by many users and writers of legal information, including academics and students, while the decision in the UK to make court judgments publicly available from The National Archives, may be a challenge to some law publishers.
It is clear where the important focus of attention for major suppliers lies and where interests need to be protected and increased, namely in serving the top of the professional practice market and the needs of major international corporations, which, to some extent, explains the continuing battle between Thomson Reuters and the now destroyed ROSS Intelligence; predictions are that consequences will follow. With what used to be regarded as the Big Three now out of the legal education market, obviously many of the assets remain from existing others, as well as from the purchasers of the disposed content, which either can operate on lower margins and/or their publishers are sufficiently innovative and committed to make access to the markets work for them. Probably, and simply because they are the likes of Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, various professional associations, not-for-profit and charity-funded and similar types of legal information providers, the markets in question can be served. Likewise, some existing publishers, at least for now, remain willing and able to publish for them. One example is Informa, which continues to publish much legal academic and scholarly content through its Taylor & Francis and Routledge imprints. However, as anticipated, Informa plans to divest its data and consultancy division, Informa Intelligence, within which, presently, its i-law.com business, a possible a shut-down candidate, is secreted, and focus on its events and academic businesses. Perhaps Wolters Kluwer or RELX will become pursuers, but not primarily for legal content and markets, where the likes of vLex might have greater interest. Another is Hart Publishing, now connected to Bloomsbury Academic and not to Bloomsbury Professional, the latter of which, invisible on the parent company website, stripped down, offices gone and with its senior executives having departed, is looking entirely out of place within Bloomsbury PLC. This might be, arguably, at least in part, in consequence of its new publishing strategies, choices and investment directions over the past few years. Reading the signs and hearing the whispers, it resembles a licensing or disposal candidate, maybe re-acquiring its Tottel brand name or lost entirely under another brand. Others, usually smaller, look for survival opportunities where they can, though in a buyers’ market, with cheap, available assets in abundance.
It is difficult to imagine how some of the remaining legal academic information providers can survive in a changing world. Some will be correct to see a key to success being through superb customer service combined with cutting-edge technology, where the access software, analytical and predictive tools, and, where appropriate, the building of strategic partnerships, are the unique propositions. For example, it may be the case that the new owners of Wolters Kluwer Legal Education, with its most sensible yet predictable new name, Aspen Publishing see opportunity linking it to its BridgeTower Media business and/or in marrying the acquired material with its Scantron educational assessment tools to provide quality content and access to new markets for one, and exploitation for both. It will also be interesting to see if Aspen will be used as a vehicle by which to acquire other academic and scholarly law publishers and create greater scale in N. America and Britain, the latter certainly having some remaining and obvious target candidates. At the same time, the educational processes and systems for which content of the type in question are changing. The idea of learning as part of the overall university experience, as ends in themselves, are, for many, less important, as the provision and receipt of education becomes ever more transactional, playing increasingly towards outcomes rather than analysis and jurisprudential reasoning. If the main purpose of learning is to train and prepare for a job, rather than be educated, the most direct routes to achievement become preferable. As artificial intelligence, if that is what it is, to some extent, replaces human intelligence, with new market entrants being increasingly encouraged, there is less requirement to understand the reasoning in sophisticated judgements, the detailed arguments presented by counsel and the complex scholarship that underpins the best of legal study and practice; why have casebooks and treatises when over-simple binary answers can be delivered electronically and/or be minimally added-value compilations?
A fundamental reason for law publishers providing academic content has historically, and successfully, been to manage the same (I am told) business model as illicit drug dealers and purveyors of tobacco, alcohol and so-called, harmless gambling. As effective as and not dissimilar to the Jesuitical approach to capturing receptive young minds, if the lawyers of tomorrow can be hooked on a particular legal information brand in their youth, while studying, the entirely plausible and rational idea is that they will be theirs (the information providers’) for life. For those who do not see the benefit, putting it less inelegantly, of supporting young prospective lawyers, maybe they lose their entitlement to profit from them as the lawyers prosper.
As to Wolters Kluwer as a provider of professional information and solutions, I have no doubt that after such a long time, hardly anyone recalls the failed attempt at a merger with what is now RELX, but probably there are those who rather wish that that were not the case, competition rules notwithstanding. Maybe completion of the three-way agreement in France and Spain would make it easier, as might further European disposals, for example, in Italy and Germany.