A lot of attention has been given lately to the trend of law firms cancelling subscriptions to expensive online resources. This is often referred to as going “Sole Provider” since it has long been assumed (for a few decades, at least) that “good” law firms subscribe to both of the Big Two legal research providers, Lexis and Westlaw. In recent years however, many firms have decided they no longer need both. In an effort to measure the trend, law library surveys, including the one administered by HBR Consulting, routinely ask about whether firms are planning to (or already have) cut Westlaw or Lexis. However, while the term Sole Provider is easy to say and generally understood in the law library community as cancelling one or the other of these two services, it really isn’t the best way to describe current practices in the world of legal information, and in fact can cause harm to the conversation. So here’s why Sole Provider isn’t really a thing, and why I’m not going to say it any more.
- First of all, it isn’t true. Certainly not in Big or Medium Law, and probably not even in the vast majority of Small Law. No firm uses only one source for all its legal research needs. Cancelling one of the historical duopoly providers doesn’t mean attorneys will be limited to just one single source for all their legal research questions (although some attorneys may by choice return to the same well over and over again.) Law firms will continue to offer a variety of information resources – and formats – to meet their attorneys’ practice needs.
- Using the term “Sole Provider” needlessly reinforces the expectation of legal research Duopoly by implying that firms are choosing one and cancelling one, and fails to adequately describe the variety of different choices firms are making today. In doing so, it devalues the contributions of numerous providers beyond the traditional duopoly, whose innovations are creating new ways to think about and use legal information. This can cause real harm, as holding to the outdated duopoly concept hamstrings the decision process, limiting creative thinking about what resources firms should be offering to their attorneys and distracting from important discussions about new opportunities to evolve and modernize research services.
- In addition to reinforcing the idea of duopoly, the Sole Provider concept is often associated with cost reduction efforts, and this creates a value judgment which critics can leverage against firms (and librarians), no matter which way they go with the decision. Firms which keep both traditional major providers can be criticized for overspending, while firms which cancel a major service are criticized for prioritizing cost reduction over efficiency and service. (This reminds me of the working mom vs stay-at-home mom controversy – truly a debate with no winners.) Just as the duopoly concept narrows thinking about options beyond the Big Two, the question of Cut vs Keep limits the discussion to an either/or which fails to address the nuanced resource needs of individual firms, which ultimately drive their purchasing decisions.
- By referring to only a single facet of resource selection, the term devalues the important work law librarians do in carefully curating information collections to best meet their firms’ needs, and distracts from the question we should really be asking: What is the best mix of resources to meet our firm’s needs now and into the future?
It’s time to reframe the discussion. Instead of referring to “Sole Provider” decisions, let’s start talking about *Legal Research Optimization*. The discussion should include subpoints related to content (primary & secondary), efficiency of use and administration, attorney support, resource interrelatedness and content integration, cost, practice-specific needs, business needs, evolving technology, and client demands. Rather than allowing the status quo to set the tone of our discussions, let’s ask what should we include as we build the law library of the future for our firms. Firm needs and information resources continue to evolve, and libraries today have the opportunity to do more than ever before to support attorney practice needs. With the baggage of the sole provider conversation left behind, we can move forward and continue working to align information resources with firm needs, with freedom to explore the best fit for the future.