The Reinvention of Legal Research: The Future Is Now

Legal research — once the province of desks, books, and binders — is now online, data-driven, and real-time. These attributes pose new challenges to old practices and habits, and to old publishing stalwarts such as Westlaw and LexisNexis. Here are a few of the new research and business realities that result from this transformation. The story starts with the application of technology to information and ends with the radical transformation of the legal publishing marketplace.

Data trumps documents. Legal, regulatory, and court documents — once intrinsically valuable — increasingly serve as mere information containers. New methods for tagging, extracting, organizing, and presenting information in documents create new possibilities for how quickly we can assemble, analyze, interpret, and disseminate this information.

Information is liquid. We now live in an ocean of information, and are swept along by its riptides and currents. The challenge is to manage our relationship to this information so it serves us our higher purposes. We need ways to filter real-time story-telling and reporting so we can identify narratives that have substance and reject those that are ephemeral, partial, distorted, or trivial.

Information is a commodity. A truism of the Internet Age is that Information wants to be free. Because it has become omnipresent and liquid, information is now an undifferentiated commodity, sluicing from a vale of wellsprings. Value — what people will pay for — now derives, not from mere access to this information, but from successful tools and platforms for managing its flow, volume, and direction.

Customers will not pay for research. When online legal research platforms were proprietary, online publishers imposed per-minute and per-use pricing structures. This pricing model facilitated client cost-recovery and allowed publishers to use law firms as information wholesalers. Because information is now a commodity, law firm clients will no longer pay for online legal research. New flat-rate pricing models for online research products reflect this reality.

The large legal publishers are in trouble. If law firms can no longer pass through online research costs to clients, multi-billion dollar legal publishers such as West and Lexis can no longer support pricing models premised on law firm cost recovery. Because West and Lexis cost structures depend on this pricing model, they are beginning to experience painful margin squeezes, compounded by the entry into the legal research marketplace of both nimble, low-cost competitors and new rivals with deep pockets such as Bloomberg.

These are wondrous times in the world of online publishing. Change abounds and the market is reinventing itself in the elusive quest to govern the new quicksilver that we call information.