August 2016 Bar Bulletin
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Naming Names: Who Did That to Legal Research?

By Marc Lampson
Public Services Attorney



In the early 1980s, when I first started doing legal research, I worked as a law clerk for a small labor-side law firm in downtown Seattle. Their offices were — and still are — a few blocks from what was then called the King County Law Library.

Because my job was researching and drafting legal memoranda and arbitration briefs, I spent hours and hours at the law library. I loved it. Having grown up hearing about “the law,” I finally found where it lived. You could actually look it up and put your hands on it. I felt I could unlock the mysteries of life — or at least significant sectors of it — and it was all there in the library for me, and for everyone else, for free.

In this period, though West Publishing dominated the scene, there were at least 23 sizeable and reputable legal publishers, and many smaller ones, including BNA, CCH, Shepard’s, Lawyers Cooperative, Butterworths, Michie, and Mathew Bender. But drastic changes were either already afoot or on the horizon: the creation of pay-for-view databases, the personal computer revolution, and the Internet.

Equally important during this period was a merger and buyout mania among legal publishers beginning around 1980 that has today left three international corporations in control of most legal information: Thomson Reuters (a Canadian-British corporation); RELX Group (formerly Reed-Elsevier until February 2015, a British-Dutch corporation); and Wolters Kluwer (a Dutch corporation).1

The watershed event in this mania came in 1996 when Thomson purchased West, the “crown jewel” in legal publishing, for $3.4 billion. The purchase capped nearly two decades of Thomson gobbling up smaller fish in the legal information sea, including Clark Boardman, Callaghan & Company, Lawyers Cooperative, Bancroft-Whitney, and many more. RELX, at the time Reed-Elsevier, gobbled up its share of legal fish too and now owns LexisNexis, Lexis Publishing, Michie, Shepard’s, and Mathew Bender, among others.

These developments in legal publishing have been documented since 1996 in the annual Legal Information Buyer’s Guide & Reference Manual, written by Kendall F. Svengalis. As Svengalis notes in the preface to the 2016 edition:

Over the past twenty-three years, the legal publishing industry has been in an almost constant state of change and upheaval, reflecting global trends toward corporate consolidation, the impact of technology upon the delivery of legal information, and the increased profitability of the legal publishing segment of the economy.... Rapidly escalating prices for legal information have forced many law libraries to downsize or to re-evaluate their collections and implement a variety of cost-saving measures as a means of controlling expenditures.... [T]he impact of these developments has been most acute in publicly supported law libraries.2

Thus, the old canard of capitalist folklore that competition will hold prices in check is especially flimsy when there is little competition. Today, Thomson Reuters controls 40 percent of the U.S. domestic market in legal information and its profit margin exceeds 25 percent.3 According to Svengalis, RELX Group is “on par with the Thomson Corporation in terms of annual North American sales of legal information, which are estimated to be in the $1.3–$1.5 billion range for both companies. RELX’s profit margin in 2015 was 30.5 percent.4

Svengalis reports that since Thomson purchased West it “has dramatically raised the prices of its print titles, both for new sets and, more significantly, for supplementation, thus hitting consumers at both ends. The collective impact of these price increases on law libraries, in particular, has been profound, prompting the wholesale cancellation of many publications which had formerly constituted part of their core collections.”5

In 1995, for instance, it cost $35,097.05 to purchase 24 of the most popular legal titles that are now published by Thomson Reuters; in 2015 it would take $192,013 to purchase the same titles, a 447-percent increase. The cost of supplementing these titles rose even more dramatically: in 1995, it would have taken $14,549.25 to supplement these titles, but in 2015 it took $127,783, a 778-percent increase.6 Similarly, the cost of 20 popular LexisNexis Mathew Bender titles (owned by RELX Group) rose on average 301 percent for new sets and 299 percent for supplements.7

So, even though the law was free for me in the law libraries of the 1980s, those libraries have had to fight hard to keep the law available today, largely because of these changes in legal publishing. The drastic rise in prices of print materials, as noted above, has caused libraries to forgo purchasing new sets of law books, to cancel supplements for sets they already own, and to rely increasingly on online sources. Fortunately, Svengalis notes that “online access is now dramatically cheaper than the cost of maintaining print resources.”8

Whether the loss of print materials and the increasing reliance on computer-assisted legal research (CALR) have impacted access to the law for lawyers or for the public is hard to assess. Many scholars, however, have noted the limitations of CALR, particularly that CALR research tends to be fact-based rather than the rule or concept-based research around which print materials were organized and which provided the intellectual context for the law one found in doing research.

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