I don’t think I am telling anyone something new when I say that the relationship between legal information providers (vendors) and legal information professionals (law librarians) are at all-time lows. A once vibrant and symbiotic relationship has become one of simple buyer and seller. This has been somewhat of a slow burn evolution as vendor consolidation began in the late 1990s with the West Publishing transition into Thomson West (then eventually into Thomson Reuters), the acquisition of LexisNexis by Reed Elsevier, CCH and Aspen into Wolters Kluwer, and BNA absorbed into Bloomberg. On the librarian side, there is the seemingly reduced influence of law students on vendor products, much lower budgets from government law libraries, the “single provider” movement from law firms, and the idea that law firms are somehow still suffering from the great recession, despite most big firms posting sky-high record profits and breaking the $3 billion revenue barrier.
I’ve been talking with other law librarians and it seems that I’m not alone in my statement of vendor/law librarian relationship lows. To some, it wasn’t necessarily tied to the consolidation issues as it was when law librarians started asking for more transparency. There was a pushback when librarians asked basic questions like, “What does the pricing look like for other libraries? Does everyone have to package these three things together or just us? Are we the only ones who lost support? Tell us or we won’t subscribe!” Librarians were getting pressure from their bosses to justify contracts which were costing hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars a year. In response, vendors were under pressure from their bosses not to give away any information on how products were sold, or how deals varied across the marketplace. In my own personal experience, it seems that when the questions became too hot to handle, vendors would “restructure” the sales teams. It became a running joke with some vendors that the annual restructuring of the sales department became a 90-day event.
The constant reshuffling of local representatives is a sore point with many law librarians. It takes time to understand the needs of the librarian and it takes a series of conversations in order to find common ground. Consistency in vendor/librarian relationships are critical. It is also important that the representative understand the industry. Bringing in someone from corporate sales into legal and having them understand the quirky nuances takes time. There are also sub-industry (academic, government, and private law types) which representatives need to understand. One government law librarian I talked to was extremely frustrated that vendors lump county law libraries in with academic law libraries and completely fail to understand the stark differences between the two. Add to that, there are also regional differences on how you sell to a New York based law firm, versus an Atlanta or Dallas based law firm. Anyone remember when Bloomberg started off by sending all of their salespeople out of the New York headquarters every Monday morning?
Another trend that I’m seeing from the vendor side is that there are a lot of more MBAs (sales, specifically regional or HQ based) who think they understand legal information better than MLSs (law librarians.) When I’ve asked for short five to fifteen minute videos and webinars instead of hour long in-person presentations, I’ve gotten a lot of pushback. Instead of getting the end-user up to speed on products we already own, the representatives attempt to sell us the next product. I know that many of the representative’s salaries are based on their new sales activities, but I want them to also remember that one of the reasons that they made the sale in the first place was that we were promised proper training and instruction on those products. The MBAs at the regional sales offices need to listen to the MLSs on the ground and work to integrate their existing sales into the workflow of the end users. Otherwise, we’ll be looking to drop this product which no one uses or understands. Training is not a one-size fits all program. Each law firm, law school, or government user is different. Take time to listen to the MLS to determine what’s right for that individual buyer.
One of the things I remind my sales reps is that the library traditionally holds the purse strings. That’s not a threat… that’s reality of how most budgets work. Librarians take their budgets very seriously, because we are held accountable for how we manage it. We are a very risk-adverse group of people and we probably protect our budgets with more vigor than we need to, but our number one objective is to make sure we are spending our organization’s money wisely and efficiently. Go ask any law librarian who deals with vendors and budgets this question, “Has any vendor ever attempted to go around you and sell directly to the lawyers?” I bet you get a very strong reaction, along with a story of when “X” vendor did that and how we had to clean up the situation afterwards.
Okay… let me switch gears for a moment and mention some ideology changes that law librarians are going to have to live with. First of all, find ways to expose the vendors to the end users. This can be done in a number of ways, and you can set rules around the interactions. I usually state it as “talk with them first about the products we already own, and don’t only phrase your statements with the attempt to sell them a new product.” There is some benefits with having the end users give feedback to the vendors. Yes, it will probably mean that the vendor will come back to sell you a new product, but it also gives them a chance to sell the value of an existing product based on the end user’s situation.
Don’t lead the vendor on. We’ve all probably done this. There’s a product out there that you think would be great for the organization, but you know full well that you are not going to buy it. Be honest upfront on your intentions. If you do not have the ability or authority to buy it, then talk with the people who do and see how they want to handle it. If they say “no.” Let it die. Work on it again over time, and see how others in the industry are using it in a way that would help your organization. The worst thing you can do is tell the vendor that everything is looking good, and then pull the rug out from under them when you finally have to admit that there is really no interest in buy the product.
Understand that the open checkbook for vendors paying for professional development, lunches, and other librarian events is over. We will never have another event where a vendor brings in a celebrity like Dick Clark to launch Keycite. Vendors are under renewed pressure to show that they are getting some return on investment for sponsoring these events. The biggest push, which will probably not make law librarians happy, is the demand that in order for vendors to sponsor events, the vendor wants included in the content of that event. You see it already in other specialties of the law (pricing, marketing, technology.) It’s the new model for vendors and you’re going to see it more and more. The best way to approach this is to have an honest conversation, and scope out how to make it a win-win situation between law librarians and vendors.
Speaking of win-win, a friend of mine reached out to me about this topic and mentioned that she was very disappointed with where we are with law librarian/vendor relations. It should leave most of us feeling like when our mothers pull us to the side after we’ve done something and she tells us that she’s not so much angry at us, but more disappointed. My friend says it best when she states, “I no longer feel like we are working to get to a win-win result. It feels very adversarial to me. I will add that this is not the case with all vendors but it is certainly the case with a few.”
We live in a very polarized society. One where many believe that if someone succeeds, someone else must have to fail. I simply don’t subscribe to the idea that everything is a zero sum game. I think we have more of a situation where rising tides raises all boats. Perhaps that’s a little Pollyannish of me, but that’s the philosophy which I live my life, both personally and professionally. Legal information providers and legal information professionals are not adversaries. It is important that we work to find ways of creating win-win situations and that we have honest conversations with each other. As another law librarian mentioned to me, we need to have an environment where the vendor can fight for a good sale, the law librarian can fight for a good price, and we can shake hands with each other and walk away at the end of the process.