From Pillar to Post: Signs of the Times in Law Publishing

Aspen Publishing, until the end of 2021, was part of Wolters Kluwer’s Legal & Regulatory information publishing business unit. Around that time, it was sold, for $88m, to Transom Capital Group, a private equity firm. A mere two years later, it has been moved on again, this time to UWorld, a US-based online learning business, which was established in 2003, by a medical doctor.

UWorld’s existing learning resources and methods are offered in certain undergraduate, graduate and professional environments, such as accounting, finance, medical, pharmacy and nursing, as well as for some aspects of US legal training. In 2023, UWorld acquired Wiley Efficient Learning, in 2020, Themis Bar Review and RxPrep, and in 2019, Roger CPA Review. Presumably, the acquisition of Aspen Publishing, for an undisclosed price, is to enhance the scale and importance of the operations in US legal markets and to acquire the valuable portfolio of law publishing within Aspen.

To the disinterested outsider, a period of no more than two years appears to be an extremely short one in which to fulfil the growth objectives of the acquiring venture capitalists. However, in September 2023, the University of Arizona’s law school licensed the administration of its alternative law school admission program to Aspen Publishing, which may have been a significant and appealing coup. At the time of Transom’s purchase, its managing partner declared that Transom looked forward to

“putting Transom’s financial and operating resources to work in partnership with the team to grow and continue its innovation and market leadership in the legal education market”, while Aspen’s CEO expressed the opinion that she and her colleagues were “committed to continuing our tradition of providing high-quality content and the latest thinking from the brightest minds in the legal industry. Our vision for the future includes embracing learning science and technology to improve learning outcomes. We are thrilled to work with the Transom team to further invest in innovation, accelerating our ability to help our customers make a positive impact in the world”.

Perhaps this, and related thrills, have all been achieved in a short time, with sales, profits, market share and value increasing with almost immediate effect. Upon the announcement of the sale to UWorld, the thrills were not abated, as she opined that

“We are thrilled to join UWorld and round out the company’s premier educational resources in the legal space.….Our shared passion for developing and delivering the highest quality educational content enables us to make a more significant impact in helping law students reach their dreams”.

It would seem that the hopes of the first acquisition became those of the second one, or maybe PR pronouncements are better regarded as fictional.

On the other hand, it may be the case that things did not work out as well as might be expected for Aspen and/or Transom in the partnership which was formed in 2021. Presumably Wolters Kluwer and others which have exited professional training markets in recent years, did so as there were better ways to make money. Perhaps the arrival of Covid in 2020, with its lessening effects more recently, has altered the attractiveness of online learning businesses. Whatever the reasons for the recent developments, the indications seem to be that Transom is in the process of reviewing its choices and priorities for the future; within a short time of selling Aspen, it also disposed of Locano, a mapping technology company and Mackie, an audio business. Around the same time, it acquired Bose Professional, Webasto Charging Solutions and Galleher, a flooring products business. Transom does not appear to have other learning or academic and professional information businesses under its control. Perhaps, with hindsight, these markets were a step too far.

In the past few years, several professional information businesses have been sold by established corporates to venture capitalists, allowing vendors to focus on core and more profitable markets, at the same time as opportunities for trade sales to competitors and aspirants have been harder to secure and values reduce. Yet there is sufficient and consistent evidence to be wary of the newer owners’ propositions. Crude, vulgar money tends to be their primary interest and, despite the many businesses and the people within them who have done well under the wings of venture capitalists and their like, the latter are inclined to get what they want, or get out, as the Truth Social saga is likely to demonstrate.

It must be hoped that for Aspen Publishing’s employees and their families, as well as their suppliers and customers, the new home within UWorld brings benefits and security. Yet I am inclined to think that the story is not yet over, either for Aspen or UWorld. I imagine that, before too long, but ideally not in less than two years’ time, we shall be reading more about it. Of course, some likely or even predictable suitors might favour a matrix approach to professional training while others will steer clear, wishing to focus only on training for legal practice.

In pleasing contrast, closer to my home, an established academic publishing business of which I was, until recently, an owner and director, was recently acquired, to my great satisfaction, not by venture capitalists but by a respected university press. Dunedin Academic Press’s portfolio now sits, in appropriate company, within the esteemed Liverpool University Press, where I have high hopes for it, its customers, authors and other suppliers.

In my quite subjective opinion, even in a generally declining market, greater potential success lies in the provision of added-value content and access to research tools for practitioners rather than for trainee lawyers. Indeed, there is much evidence to support this. Academic law publishers understand it, which explains why so many of them are continuously trying to evolve from the less to the more profitable markets. Not the least of these endeavours is seen from the recent announcement by vLex of the establishment of a new advanced research initiative dedicated to the exploration and integration of Large Language Models (LLMs) in legal technology, initially focusing on partnerships with large law, enterprise and corporate firms in North America and the UK. In the past, much of the targeting of that business was on legal academic institutions. According to Bloomberg Law, if it is to be believed, specifically in the USA, for legal work in practice, legal research heads the list of uses of generative artificial intelligence. In my consultancy work, I perceive the shifts in market direction; for example, only recently, another UK legal scholarly publishing business which sought my advice on such matters, has been canvassing practitioners, but not students and trainees, for their opinions on preferred ways to access legal content. The analysis by Hugh Logue of Outsell, on 2023 legal & regulatory technology and information services mergers and acquisitions, again, if it is to be believed, highlights the trend towards larger, strategic deals, with a growing focus on generative artificial intelligence, increased interest in European markets and a shift towards more mature companies with lower multiples, apparently signalling a shift in industry dynamics. Of course, it makes sense to nurture the new entrants to exploit their future loyalty and career-long value, but I believe that the real money comes from the grown-ups, who are not unhappy to pay fair prices for optimum quality and service, provided that these can be guaranteed.

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