Flattening Content: Why Legal Publishers Will Shun Customization


Image [cc] HorsePunchKid

[Guest Post from Jason Wilson, VP at Jones McClure Publishing, and blogger at rethinck.]

On her blog, Dewey B. Strategic, Jean O’Grady took direct aim at large legal publishers—Thomson Reuters, Reed Elsevier, Bloomberg, and Wolters Kluwer—and urged them to customize their database offerings at the practice-group level rather than taking a firm-wide approach to content access. She cautions that the approach—trying to be all things to all practice groups—will only lead to misery. To survive the “sole provider wars,” she says one must be willing to be flexible.

I understand her point, but it isn’t modern. Flexibility isn’t where data is headed, whether you’re a large legal publisher or a small one. Flexibility is actually just another word for siloed data.

Think of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets compared to the universe of Harry Potter writings, including fan fiction), and data isn’t supposed to be siloed any longer. All of the current thinking about the matter suggests so.

Think of Jeff Jonas’ “data finds the data” line? Siloed data makes discoverability too difficult, and we (legal researchers) don’t like difficult.

Think of WestlawNext as an example. The whole point to the system is to pour everything into one container so you can find it all; no assumption can be made that any one thing will answer your question, so the system must search it all and show it to you.

In fact, the publishers can argue that they themselves don’t know the relevancy of all data within their possession, so it only seems logical to display it all, with facets, of course, and excellent algorithms to parse the data. Lexis is headed in this direction as well, although taking an entirely different approach with HPCC. I can’t say that Bloomberg or Wolters Kluwer is, but they may be.

But let’s draw this down a bit and focus on analytical content, which is what I think O’Grady’s post was driving at.

“There are lawyers who conjure apocalyptic consequences at the thought of losing their favorite resource. I suspect that this is generational characteristic.
Older lawyers who started out conducting legal research in print treatises and then moved online tend to have a stronger sense of a legal publisher’s brand and the reputation of specific products which I don’t see in the post-Google generation of lawyers.”
Her observation here, I think, is meant to scare publishers into customization. A sort of, “hey, if you think your analytical brand is sacred, think again, because the post-Google generation doesn’t care.” But if this is what she means to do, I think it misses the mark.

Legal publishing is counting on the post-Google generation of lawyers to free the market place of selling individual titles, jurisdictional packages, product groups, and the like. The lawyers aren’t after Chisum on Patents. They’re after “the answer,” which in their world can only come from everything (or at least a lot of different resources). Large legal publishing is moving in the direction of becoming the Comcasts, U-Verses, and Direct TVs of the world. You will be offered packages of programming, which will include things you watch and things you don’t (how else to do you fund indie titles?).

You will choose a sole provider, and it may be by region or firm size, but it will happen because the differentiator will be what I call “The Triple A's”:

  • the applications
  • the algorithms, and 
  • the answer

That’s how legal publishing is going to compete for the next decade or so, because right now, there are no Hulus, Netflixes, or Google TVs that are capable of competing with them. There are no alternative channels, unless you actually start talking about how the small legal publishers (the Ganns, James Publishings, Jones McClures, and the like) do compete, and how firms should utilize them.

I look at the web now, and all the interests divvying up the properties and not letting anyone else in: Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, to name a few. These aren’t companies who want to share, or if they do, it will be on their terms and the price will be steep. There is no reason to think the legal publishing market will be any different.  And why should it be? If Thomson Reuters believes it can build a better sandbox for you to play in, then it will take the risk because the upside is enormous. And it did. The post-Google generation seems to agree with the decision as well. Whether they are willing to pay for it post-graduation is, however,  a different question.

All of this sounds bad for the consumer, but I would actually argue that it isn’t, at least if it is implemented properly. Flattening analytical content and charging a single monthly or yearly rate will actually be better for the consumer in a few important ways. First, you’ll be exposed to more content and more possible answers to your questions than if you were buying by the slice. The system is designed to avoid your ignorance of sources. Sure, you may be really smart and know which one you want, but not everyone is you, and in O’Grady’s post-Google generation scenario, the lawyers don’t know or don’t care to. Second, publishers will recognize that “data” means up-to-date data, and editorial processes will evolve to make sure the content is accurate at the time you look at it. Print titles and most electronic titles don’t reflect this temporal correctness now, but they will, and it will be more than colored flags or stop signs by cases; it will be an accurate answer. Finally, publishers will recognize that a key feature of digital content is the ability to add material because there are no longer restrictions—what we used to call book bindings and PPI (pages per inch)—to limit growth of the content. And we can do this without an additional cost to the end user. Everything is geared toward more and better answers, which is really just a way of saying we want to make you feel smarter, sooner.

I wish I had a suggestion for how you might approach the future, but I don’t. The next three years are going to be ugly, particularly as large legal publishing tries to figure out how to satisfy you and the great unwashed (i.e., non-legal) masses. But that’s a subject for another post.