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Gray Rule
July 2012 | VOLUME 13, NUMBER 3
Gray Rule
The Future of eBooks in Law Firms and the Future of Libraries
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The Future of eBooks in Law Firms and the Future of LibrariesJean O'Grady is the Director of Research Services and Libraries at DLA Piper, US, LLP and creator and author of the Dewey B Strategic blog.
The reading public has widely embraced eBooks, but their future in law firms remains unclear. ...

A year ago I was wildly excited by the prospect of eBooks for law firms. In the near future could we be handing new associates an iPad loaded with a custom practice library? Could eBooks liberate law firms from the significant cost of housing, maintaining, and updating print resources? Could eBooks relieve librarians from managing the substantial overhead of staff time for processing, the cost of filers for updating, and the real estate footprint demanded by print resources? Could we be freed to spend even more time engaged in value added client support activities?

Having watched the legal eBook market evolve over the past year, I now am guardedly optimistic about the future of eBooks in law firms. The proverbial "devil is in the details" and as of today many of those details remain unresolved.

Twenty years ago, during a job interview, I was asked when I thought I could give the law firm a library that was "the size of a phone booth." I responded that this was contingent upon the availability of reliable electronic resources and the willingness of lawyers to adapt to them. At that time, the major information providers were not yet offering flat-fee contracts and CD-ROM libraries were heralded as the "Holy Grail" that would deliver the phone-booth-sized library.

Today I would add two things to that list:
1) The availability of resource management tools for distribution and workflow
2) Acceptable pricing schemes that eliminate additional costs for redundant content in different "containers"

While CD-ROM libraries briefly held promise, they ultimately were eclipsed by the emergence of Web-based products, which were, for the most part, platform and hardware neutral. Among the factors that slowed and ultimately doomed the adoption of CD-ROMs was the lack of standardization both in platforms and licensing terms. There are some parallels in the emergence of eBooks, but eBooks are entering the law firm market with some decided advantages.

Devices Driving Opportunity/ Productivity and Portable Personal Devices
Fifteen million iPads were sold in the first week they were on the market. It only took one week for a million iPad 2s to be sold. The Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group collaborated on a report stating that in 2010, 114 million eBooks were sold. The success of eBooks in the public marketplace cannot be questioned.

The recent turmoil in the legal market has underscored the need for lawyers to maximize their productivity as well as their accessibility to clients. Simultaneously, the proliferation of lightweight devices such as smartphones and iPads has blurred the line between work and personal devices.

IPads have been widely embraced by lawyers for personal use. It is the first technology which I have seen lawyers adopt well in advance of their law firm IT departments. While a few large firms have begun to provide iPads to all lawyers or give them the option of getting an iPad as an alternative to a laptop, this has happened before the major legal publishers had established products and workflows for eBook collection management.

The directory Mobile Apps for Law currently lists more than 300 separate apps that provide statutory codes. The "Wild West" quality of the legal app marketplace is suggested by the absence of major legal publishers from the roster. It is worrisome to librarians that lawyers may be purchasing low-cost codes from unknown publishers such as Appbrain, BigTwit and Tekk Innovations. It is hard to determine the editorial quality and updating policies for this wide array of publications. From a risk-management standpoint, law librarians are highly motivated to guide lawyers to high-quality eBooks. Lexis® was scheduled to release more than 1,000 titles in April 2012, and Thomson Reuters is schedule to release almost 500 titles in late 2012.

The major legal publishers, Lexis, Thomson Reuters Westlaw, and CCH, wisely have not raced to release content in advance of a long-term strategy addressing both the enhanced functionality needs of lawyers and library management workflows. While eBooks are being developed to be hardware "agnostic," the platforms and workflows for library management are at a critical development stage, and each major publisher is taking a very different approach from the others. This mirrors the lack of standardization that bedeviled the brief ascent and quick decline of CD-ROMs. The next year will be crucial, and may, in fact, be determinative of the long term fate of eBooks in institutional law libraries.

The scales finally could tip away from print – but only if the leading legal information publishers quickly resolve the complex administrative issues arising from the management and deployment of eBooks. It is not only lawyers who are under fire to increase their productivity. All administrative areas of law firms are intensifying their focus on this area. In a word, the eBook solution must offer administrative as well as practice and space efficiencies.

Thomson Reuters ProView
Several years ago Thomson Reuters tested eBooks on Kindles and smartphones. The study revealed that lawyers have a fundamentally different kind of relationship and interaction with their eBooks than a public library user would have with an eBook such as a novel. Lawyers don't just read their practice books, they need to personalize them and interact with them over time. Their books need to be updated and provide links to primary sources and sources of validation. In response to this study, Thomson Reuters developed its own propriety platform called ProView.

ProView offers professional-grade eReader applications, which include significant functionality beyond linear reading. These features include:

  • True Boolean searching
  • Links to WestlawNext
  • Uniform experience across devices
  • Mechanisms for updating content
  • Personalization features, including highlighting, annotating, and bookmarking
  • A system for migrating users' notes to new editions of the book
  • Capability to search across an eBook collection

Thomson Reuters offers unannotated court rules from 125 state and federal courts and is on track to release 250 treatises as well as some topical statute slices in the second half of 2012.

eBook Management Workflow – The Last Frontier
Publishers are faced with developing a workflow for a new use model of distribution. Relying too much on traditional circulation models for guidance could prove to be fatal.

Publishers are faced with multiple use scenarios:

  • One Book for One Lawyer – Deskbooks, such as codes and rulebooks, offer the easiest distribution model. Librarians need to designate and centrally control the list of lawyers who have a practice need for these materials. After they are deployed, such eBooks need to be automatically updated annually for as long as the lawyer is an authorized recipient. In a large law firm the prospect of eliminating the annual processing and distribution of thousands of volumes of desk books makes a very compelling case for eBooks as a driver of administrative efficiency.
  • Multi-volume Books for Many Lawyers – This may be a model that dies of its own complexity. I am reminded of the Black & Decker CEO's quote: "People don't want to buy drills; they want to buy a half-inch hole in a board." Lawyers don't want to borrow a book, they want to obtain information. Any model that is not focused on facilitating the primary need of the lawyer to get information and adds too much complexity to the "process of circulating the eBook" is likely to fail. Circulation is inherently a print-based concept. Although circulation of eBooks works well in public libraries, law firms and lawyers are different.
    • Law firms are not public libraries. We are purchasing corporate access to content. We need a model that permits the unfettered access to appropriate units of content on an as-needed basis.
    • Treatises are not monographs; they are complex organisms that change over time.
    • Lawyers need information, not volumes.
    • Lawyers require updating by "push," not "pull." (We learned this lesson with electronic newsletters. Lawyers didn't go to a website to get the current issue of an electronic newsletter; it had to be delivered.)
  • Access vs. Circulation – Perhaps the most viable model for treatises is a model in which a firm purchases unlimited access to a defined collection of titles to which lawyers can simply log in and use the content as needed.

Reports from the Field
Several AmLaw 100 law firms have been testing eBooks in recent months. Debevoise & Plimpton has tested eBooks and platforms from all the major legal publishers. Bess Reynolds, the manager of technical services who has been heading up the project at Debevoise, thinks all of the eBook management platforms need additional development. "None of them currently satisfies the core need for a standardized and simple delivery process, a simple updating process, and increased streamlining of workflow." In addition, she feels that there are many open questions about licensing and access. "What happens when a lawyer needs access to a prior version of a court rule and it has expired?"

Ann Stemlar, director of research and library services at Goodwin Procter, wonders about ownership versus control. "How does a firm control access to an eBook after a lawyer leaves the firm?" Deborah Cinque, director of library and research services at Weil Gotshal & Manges, sums it up this way: "I think the transition to eBooks for mobile will be much like the transition to electronic circulation of current news and newsletters, if a little faster. People will eventually see how it benefits them, and a few will still like print."

The Bottom Line
The success of eBooks likely will hinge on a close collaboration of law librarians and legal publishers. It appears at this point that development of the optimal platform may require an iterative process of testing and improving, identifying challenges, and inventing new solutions. It will require open mindedness and creative thinking on both sides. It will take time, but the right platform with the best workflow at the right price could be a "win-win" for law firms and legal publishers and result in a library "the size of a phone booth."

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