Peter Schwartz of the Huffington Post writes in his article “The Reinvention of Legal Research: The Future is Now” about information being a commodity and how the easy availability of access to “data” is posing a new challenge to legal research giants Lexis and Westlaw. As much as I wish that Peter’s assumptions were true, or at least had the chance of happening, judging by these same giants of legal research are posting huge profits during a slump in the global economy, I’d say the “future” is still in the future.

Let’s look at the points that Peter lists:
  1. Data Trumps documents
  2. Information is liquid
  3. Information is a commodity
  4. Customers will not pay for research
  5. Large legal publishers are in trouble
  6. These are the wondrous times in the world of online publishing
Before walking through these points, let’s remember what is the “end game” of legal research. When all is said and done, your final product should be something that is upheld by a court of law if challenged by another. Within the common law courts, this generally means that you must point to existing documents that support your claim. The whole idea behind such concepts as stare decisis is that the “law” is built upon existing law and decisions and is usually not changed except in extreme circumstances. When you have concepts like stare decisis, you need to be able to rely upon solid resources that have earned the trust of the courts. It may be true that information is liquid, but laws and the legal information behind those laws are much more like ice than they are like water.
The good and bad thing about legal research today is the fact that information is a commodity. This has created a conception that all information is online (and free) and can be found if you are a savvy enough researcher. Granted, there is an enormous amount of information available to legal researchers and a lot of it is free. That may be fine if you are writing a blog or even an article for a news organization. But, quick and easy and free information will not necessarily be viewed as authoritative by the courts. For example, try to submit a Wikipedia citation to a court. It will be tossed because its lack of consistency and authority. My friend and fellow Houstonian, Jason Wilson, wrote about this topic in his posting “Screw Authenticity, I Want It For Free” and Jason makes a good point that although folks like Chris Anderson say that information wants to be free (and that people don’t want to pay for information), when it comes to case law or legal authority, you’re going to have to go to a stable information source and usually have to pay for it. Otherwise, you risk the chance of having a judge question the authority of the information you are presenting.
Anyone that has been in the legal research for the past 20 years knows that it is a shrinking world. The big legal providers have been acquired and turned into huge conglomerates of online publications. If you’re on the legal publisher side, you say that you’ve “diversified”, and if you’re on the legal research side, you say that the legal publication world has “shrunk”. Although there are a number of smaller legal publishers, non have the general authority and respect – in the eyes of the courts – that the two big players have. Although big pocket publishers like Bloomberg are jumping into the fray, they have a huge uphill battle to wage before they can compare themselves to the big two publishers. Just ask big publisher Wolters Kluwer if their acquisition of Loislaw has panned out the way they thought.
I have to agree that these are wondrous times in the online publishing world. Aggregators and blogs like the Huffington Post are thriving in a world starved for quick information and real-time search. But, the courts aren’t in this same category. Legal researchers do not have to satisfy the world’s hunger for information, they have to satisfy the court’s expectation of presenting authoritative information that can withstand the challenges of a system that relies upon that authority to drive the decision it makes.