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The Reinvention of Legal Research

Legalbooks At The Huffington Post, Peter Schwartz writes that we are in the midst of "the radical transformation of the legal publishing marketplace," a transformation, he contends, that will no longer support the two largest legal publishers, West and LexisNexis. As they suffocate under their own weight, the legal research marketplace will open to "nimble, low-cost competitors and new rivals with deep pockets such as Bloomberg."

His prediction should be read with the understanding that he is the founder and president of one of these "nimble, low-cost" competitors, the online legal publishing company Knowledge Mosaic, which sells a news and research service targeted at the securities industry. That said, Schwartz makes some interesting observations about the state of legal research. He makes three key points:

  • Data trumps documents. Where legal documents were once valuable in and of themselves, they are now "mere information containers." New methods for extracting and organizing that information will change how we perform research.
  • Information is liquid. Not only is it liquid, it is a raging flood. We need to manage it and filter it.
  • Information is a commodity. With so much information available to us, value is not in access to information, but in tools to manage it.
  • Customers will not pay for research. Because information is now a commodity, clients will no longer pay for law firms to perform legal research.

This all means that if law firms can no longer pass along research costs to clients, then the mega-publishers can no longer support their established pricing models. They begin to crumble and new rivals emerge.

Sounds good, responds Greg Lambert at 3 Geeks and Law Blog, but it ignores the fact that "these same giants of legal research are posting huge profits during a slump in the global economy." It also minimizes the importance of "documents" in traditional legal research, he believes.

When all is said and done, your final product should be something that is upheld by a court of law if challenged by another. Within the common law courts, this generally means that you must point to existing documents that support your claim. The whole idea behind such concepts as stare decisis is that the "law" is built upon existing law and decisions and is usually not changed except in extreme circumstances. When you have concepts like stare decisis, you need to be able to rely upon solid resources that have earned the trust of the courts. It may be true that information is liquid, but laws and the legal information behind those laws are much more like ice than they are like water.

Access to free information takes the researcher only so far, Lambert contends. Courts demand not simply information, but authoritative information. "Legal researchers do not have to satisfy the world's hunger for information, they have to satisfy the court's expectation of presenting authoritative information that can withstand the challenges of a system that relies upon that authority to drive the decision it makes."

The mediator in me wants to split the baby and say that Schwartz and Lambert are both right, to an extent. Lambert is right that the legal world remains a world of documents and authority. But Schwartz is right that new models will emerge -- and are emerging -- for managing the flood of information and our ability to extract from it the right documents and the right authority. It is the authority that matters, not the publisher of it.

Does that signal the demise of West and Lexis? Only if they fail to adapt not just their pricing models, but also their delivery methods.

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on August 14, 2009 at 11:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (4)


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