Law Publishing without Boundaries

First published [somewhere] , December 1996

When we think of law publishing we probably first think of Butterworths, Sweet & Maxwell and FT Law & Tax, Tolleys if we are tax practitioners, and perhaps other smaller names. Turning to new media we are not on very sure ground. We may know of Context, pioneers in this field, and more recently our mailboxes may have filled with fliers from the first-mentioned publishers who are now offering at least some of their product in CD-ROM format. So far as on-line publishing is concerned, we cannot fail to remember Lexis even if few of us have used it, and perhaps we know of Justis, a Context service. But what of the Worldwide Web? Who are the principal law publishers on the Internet? It may surprise those who do not yet use the Web to know that not one of the names already mentioned can count themselves as Web publishers. Why should this be so?

The Web as a publishing medium

The Worldwide Web is a publishing medium mounted on the infrastructure of the Internet. The nature of the Internet means that the Web differs from all other media in a number of very significant respects. First, the millions of information servers connected to the Internet create, literally, one single seamless and boundless web of information: your site is (potentially) linked to my site, which is already linked to many other sites and so on. Secondly, it is open to all: there are no bars and few obstacles to joining the publishing club. Thirdly, there are no replication and distribution costs: pages are not broadcast to but fetched by users. The business of publishing is thus turned on its head.

As in the world of the other media, however, Web publishing is broadly of two types: advertising and editorial.

Marketing on the Web

Not so long ago the culture of the Internet was such that commercial advertising on the Net was frowned on and those who transgressed were liable to incur the wrath of the Net establishment. However, it is as a marketing medium that the Web has shown the most rapid growth in recent years. The legal industry has been part of this growth and many types of business connected with the law now maintain a Web marketing presence. There are more than 80 law firms with Web sites and about 20 individual barristers or chambers sites. Those selling to the legal profession are also present in similar proportion: a number of legal system suppliers have sites, as do a host of other legal services companies. Those marketing themselves to the profession include, of course, the (established) law publishing companies, who now are more than quorate on the Web. A list of the law publishers with a presence on the Web with URLs is annexed. By far the most interesting and well-developed of these sites is Sweet and Maxwell.

It is likely – though few would publicly admit it – that for the majority reponse to their Web presence has been disappointing. Certainly the Web has been overhyped, but many businesses seem to have shown a staggering naivety in their Web marketing strategy. A Web site will not suddenly transform a business into a global enterprise, nor necessarily give a firm a significant advantage over the next. A Web presence must be seen as complementary to existing marketing channels and should be designed and implemented with a good understanding of the medium, not simply hived off to a third party who may have first class Web design skills but no knowledge of how the market operates. A Web site needs to be more than an electronic brochure: it must have useful content and be regularly updated (why else will anyone want to come back again?); and above all it must be actively promoted (otherwise who will ever know it’s there?).

Legal information services on the Web

Turning from sites whose primary purpose is marketing to those with useful legal content, there are many, many sites publishing information of use to the legal community. Not all would necessarily consider themselves law publishers, but they are such nevertheless: this new group includes universities, law firms, new startup companies, students and individuals. Those that offer reliable legal information services of substance are small in number, but growing steadily. Following are some of the principal UK legal information services on offer on the Web. URLs for the sites mentioned are given in the annexed list of publishers.

Despite the sale of the bulk of HMSO’s business to the National Publishing Group, HMSO remains responsible as Queen’s Printer for the publication of statutory materials. All Acts passed since January 1996 are published on its Web site, plus the Data Protection Act 1984, and summaries (arrangements of sections) of many earlier Acts. It is worth noting that the Acts appear as originally passed by Parliament, ie unamended. This seems to me a fairly basic deficiency both for the lawyer and for the unsuspecting layman who takes the text to be a statement of the current law. Statutory Instruments will be published from January 1997.

Current awareness is what the Web is all about, and 1996 has seen the transfer of two such existing services to the Web: Lawtel is mirroring its existing online service on its Web site, and New Law Publishing has mounted its same day reporting service on the Web as New Law Online. Both these services are chargeable. Sweet & Maxwell have developed a searchable database from the Court Sevice’s Court Listings data and offer this free service from their Web site (subject to registration).

The Web journal has proved a popular format amongst Web publishers, though I don’t believe this enthusiasm is shared by Web users. The Web Journal of Current Legal Issues published by the University of Newcastle Law School was the first such legal ‘webzine’. Another more recent Web journal of some standing is the Journal of Information Law and Technology published as part of the CTI Law Technology initiative by Warwick and Strathclyde Universities.

Directories and databases are ubiquitous on the Web. Existing database information is readily transportable to the Web or the database can be held locally and searched from a Web page. In the former category falls the Centre for Commercial Law, the Web version of Legalease’s Legal 500 and Law Firms in Europe directories with supplementary entries and information.

Databases and indexes to Web sites themselves spring up all over. However, most are of low quality, suffering from a lack of comprehensiveness, lack of focus, lack of human input, lack of structure, and sometimes all of these. Some of the better lawlink indexes are those maintained by the Law Society (searchable database), Delia Venables and Information for Lawyers (browsable indexes).

Shiny, happy CD-ROMS

While this article deals principally with law publishing on the Internet, it would not be complete without mention of electronic products and services in other media. Until recently legal CD-ROMs were like diamonds: they sparkled but were rare and expensive. That has changed dramatically: CD-ROMS are certainly the flavour of the year, with the release from mid-1995 of a number of titles from each of the major publishers all reflecting in content existing hardcopy works. Context, the pioneers of CD-ROM publishing have a wide range of primary source materials including Statutory Instruments, Weekly Law Reports, Industrial Cases, Family Law Reports, a number of European law titles and most recently The Law Reports, Butterworths ‘Books on Screen’ series now covers a large number of their titles including collections for Tax, Company and, most recently, the Encyclopaedia of Forms and Precedents. Sweet and Maxwell have issued the Supreme Court Practice (the ‘White Disk’) and Current Legal Information. FT Law & Tax have published an Insolvency Service, Trade Marks: World Law & Practice, the Commercial Precedents Collection and The Law Society Directory of Expert Witnesses. Tolleys offer Tax Link and Inland Revenue Internal Materials. CCH publish the British Tax Reporter and tax Legislation. Finally, The Law Society now provide their Directory of Solicitors [now] and Barristers [Feb 1997].

However, the established law publishers are if anything encumbered by their legacy of hardcopy publications. Substantial intellectual property liestherein, but to develop and exploit that property in electronic form is far costlier than the average customer appreciates. Far from reducing costs, electronic publication of the same texts increases costs all round: publishers must add significant value in the electronic version, and publish in both media, at least for a transitional period, with declining profitability of the hardcopy product as the market gradually abandons it, and large losses to look forward to on the electronic product for some years. They can only bite the bullet, invest for the future and try to ensure that the transitional period is as short as possible. And, of course, they can also try to alter their mindsets to view new projects as electronically delivered services from the outset.

On-line, but on the Web?

In the next camp are the pioneers of electronic publishing, the on-line services including Lexis, Lawtel, Justis and Link. Not much baggage here, but still difficult decisions to be made with the increasing importance of the Web. Can we, should we, do we transfer our existing services to the Web? To what extent does the medium require a fresh approach? If we publish on the Web, how do we price our services? Who are our competitors? Who will they be in six months’ time? As noted above, Lawtel has now transferred its service to the Web. Link will this month be releasing Link 96, not onto the Web, but as an intranet – a private Web from which the Web can be accessed; and Lexis-Nexis plans to launch a Web service called Advantage, offering a subset of Lexis-Nexis data for a fixed monthly fee, followed by Web products for current awareness and in-depth research.

So where are ‘the publishers’?

Back, then, to the question with which we started. Why are the ‘traditional’ law publishers not offering their information services on the Web. The answer is short and simple: there is no money in it. The argument goes something like this: ‘We do not really understand the Internet or what it holds in store for the future. We are spending enough money already converting our existing services to CD-ROM format. Let’s just use a bit of our advertising budget to put up a Web marketing site and wait and see how things develop.’ But of course ‘wait and see’ is not consistent with the rapid pace of development of the Internet. The door is open for new entrants of all shapes and sizes to join the law publishing club and they are signing up daily. None has anything like the legacy of intellectual property of the big law publishers, but innovation and a commitment to the new medium will count for as much.