Will The Semantic Web Affect Legal Publishers?

Really, the question is not “will” but “how.” Reading today about the effect of the semantic Web movement on the legal publishing industry, as part of a subset of a larger series on the effect of the semantic Web on many industries. The article is written by Bernard Lunn over at The Semantic Web (link here). Really fascinating read, mostly due to predictions as to how disruptive forces will shake the legal publishing “oligarchy”.

I suggest you hit the jump above for the full article, tables and what not. But I will summarize my own thoughts here. Bear in mind the statistic that three publishers –  Thomson Reuters, Reed Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer – own 90 percent of this $5 billion per year, high-margin  market. It’s good to be the King, right?

Well, not exactly. Lunn applies to the legal industry the same 7 disruptive forces brought to bear on other industries under the radar. Consider these forces:

Factor # 1: Digital economics.

The publishers do not own the base data, which comes from court records. These can be replicated at close to zero cost. Semantic Web technology will make those mountains of data more accessible.

Factor # 2: Generational shift in habits.

The generation of lawyers that grew up with Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter will look for answers outside of the normal channels; particularly if a cost squeeze forces them to be creative.

Factor # 3: Globalization of markets.

Try selling content at US/UK prices when you are selling to BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China).

Factor # 4: Globalization of competition.

Lawyers and publishers in BRIC countries will bring price competition one way or another.

Factor # 5: Deleveraging.

In this case the deleveraging is lawyers paying off student loans when they can no longer charge really high $ per hour rates. They simply won’t pay as much for information because they cannot pay.

Factor # 6: Great Recession.

Customers are pressing legal firms for lower prices. Big firms have gone smash and many have cut back. They will seek lower costs from publishers.

Factor # 7: Regulatory change.

People in the industry are pushing for more AntiTrust action. The more radical option is Law.gov, which we will explore in the next post.

That’s a lot of pressure from many diverse sources. It’s to be expected. When you own too much, charge too much, and fail to deliver significantly more than the other options, these forces are going to result in an ever-increasing vice grip of pressure. People mindful of where their money is going will be forced to look elsewhere.

Have they yet? Well, if the investors and earnings charts printed in the article are to be believed, you would have done better in an S&P 500 Index fund than in any one of our legal oligapolists (I LOVE that word)! Apparently, the ones holding the investment bag, those who must look down the road for the next big investiing tip, are NOT looking at the big three legal publishers.

And why should they? Take Westlaw for example. Thomson West had a fabulous opportunity to shift attention away from other search options with their new WestlawNext product. Instead of grabbing the limelight with a great product and offering more for less, Thomson earned press (in an increasingly-connected, hyper-critical, on-line social system) for being confused on pricing and actively hiding information vital to the calculus of whether WestlawNext was a value or a bust. You only get so many bites at the “apple” these days (yes, I intended that pun) so you really need to make your impacts hit big. Like Apple, for example.

As information becomes easier to identify, quantify and connect, Westlaw (and the other premium products) are going to be harder to justify. As I have said many times before, troubles at Westlaw and Lexis/Nexis might be difficult for the shareholders to digest, but ultimately, competition from the open Web and new semantic technologies is good news for the end user.

And, of course, we here in Gloucester know how to weather a “Perfect Storm,” so I’m not worried in the least.

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Live From WestlawNext Preview

So here I am, sitting at the Hyatt Regency Boston on Rue de Lafayette, getting wined, dined and coffee’d on West’s tab. Why am I here? To preview WestlawNext of course! As I walked in and attempted to get my bearings, I was deftly swallowed up by the Corporate trainer and Rep ( how did they know?) I received my own personal preview before I could even grab a yogurt – but not before I grabbed coffee.

I haven’t gone through the entire dog and pony show yet – it is still technically breakfast. But my cursory initial impression is that West has gussied up, reformatted and reorganized the experience. The rep made much of the improved viewing experience and the search-before-data-base-selection orientation. It IS improved and better organized. Folders are a nice add and keeping a research trail tied to your client ID for a year (as compared to 14 days) are also plusses.

But unless the new “plain” search algorithm (formerly natural search) is a whole lot slicker, I am not sure the refinements will be worth the cost. I have been using my own work-arounds for folders and notation. Sharing by email is not a major leap forward. The demonstrator could not give me a reasonable explanation of how the new search function is improved, directing me online to find out more (but not everything because of “copyright protection” ?!)

And what is the cost? I have yet to find a West person who can tell me. But they were happy to take my number down so that the cashier can give me a call.

But my time has not been completely lost. I am the proud owner of a new iPod Shuffle courtesy of West. And a yogurt and coffee. Good times.

To be continued …