Do lawyers dream of electr[on]ic books?

by Jason Wilson on June 1, 2009

“I have the sense that something is happening.” Dennis Kennedy

For decades, we’ve been using electronic law “books,” from law reviews to multi-volume treatises. So, the idea of a legal periodical or book being made available in an electronic form is not new or even that interesting. In fact, a lot of words have been written about how electronic legal content is king and the book is dead. But a couple of news items came out recently that got me to thinking about books as bits, and whether stories of the book’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Or at least, what the term “book” will mean for the next generation. The first was the news that Thomson West released their first iPhone App, the venerable Black’s Law Dictionary to the tune of fifty bucks, and the related blog post  by Greg Lambert (@glambert) suggesting that perhaps Thomson West had made a mistake by not releasing the app on the Blackberry rather than the iPhone because, he reasoned, more lawyers have a Blackberry than an iPhone.  The second news item was Jeff Bezos’ keynote announcing the third iteration of the Amazon Kindle DX (the DeluXe version), a 9.7 inch e-reading, pdf munching, Whispernet loving piece of technology, that could give you access to your entire library.

Black’s Law Dictionary on the iPhone.

I’m pretty sure Thomson West’s choice of the iPhone platform to release a single book title is significant, and I think their choice is being driven by two factors.

The first factor is consistency of experience. The iPhone is a closed environment. In a comment to Greg Lambert’s post I mentioned above, Dan Bennett, one of the developers of the Black’s Law Dictionary app (featured in this video talking about the app), gave the reasons why they chose the iPhone platform over the Blackberry, noting that the Blackberry code is difficult to work with, and implementation across the universe of phones (through firms and by individual user) would be challenging given the number of OS’s running out there.  Reading between the lines, I think their argument is that consistency of experience is not guaranteed for the effort that has to be put in to creating the product. But on the iPhone it is. And if you don’t think that that kind of design is important, consider this: have you ever wondered why Westlaw (or Lexis for that matter) operates at the same speed whether you’re logged on at 10:30 a.m. or 10:30 p.m.? It isn’t because it couldn’t be faster. It can be. It is designed that way so you will get the same experience every time you log on. And that’s important, particularly if you have over a million individual users logged on at any given time. This same principle applies to designing a single volume resource to be used on a mobile device. If I’m creating a user experience, I want it to be the same for everyone. That’s not a problem with a book, but it is with software.

The second factor (and common theme here) is law students. In the same comment mentioned above, Bennett concluded his thoughts with an interesting statement: “Black’s is most heavily used in the law school segment. Blackberry penetration is low there – but lots of students have iPod touches.”  [Note: this year's ABA Technology Survey reports that iPhone usage at firms is up, a trend likely to continue.] In a terrific article, Professor Robert Berring reminds us that when Westlaw was introduced in the 80s, it was viewed by lawyers as a “gimmick” for law students because the traditional epicenter of legal information was the mahogany-lined law library, a central theme for all firms and many movies. That gimmick now accounts for billions in revenue. [As an aside, I thought it very funny when visiting one of my potential author's firms in 1997, the partner explained that they bought case reporters and put them in the shelves because clients expected to see them there.]  

Law students are the next generation of customer for any legal publisher, and a proving ground for new ideas and technologies. We look to them for trends no differently than other businesses look to preteens and teenagers. The fact that Thomson West finds that most law students have iPods (and presumably iPhones, if not now, in the very near future) should give you some indication of where the technology tail may be wagging the legal content dog.

The Kindle Deluxe

If you haven’t seen it yet, the Kindle DX will be available this Summer. There are a number of universities signed on to test this latest hardware in the academic setting. It presumably (I don’t have mine yet) solves some of the problems folks like Tim O’Reilly have been complaining about in terms of rendering charts and other detailed information, which usually isn’t such a big deal in the legal content arena. [It is for us because we use a lot of charts to summarize legal information, and rely heavily on gray scale to make finding information easier for the end user.] What is important in this announcement is two things. The first is obvious: this is a product designed to be used by college kids. The second less so: by going electronic, it may be possible for casebook publishers to eliminate the secondary (used) book market, particularly if they adopt some type of DRM on their titles, which has historically reduced margins on those products. Frankly, in the textbook market I see some potential for growth for both traditional and new media publishers if the Kindle DX takes off. It’s certainly light enough to do so.

Dennis Kennedy (@denniskennedy), Tom Mighell (@TomMighell), and Adriana Linares (@AdrianaL) recently posted a podcast discussing the Kindle DX and its possible implications for lawyers. One of the better observations, I thought, was Mighell’s comment that with a larger screen, you’re able to get full-page .pdf screen views, which allows for page delineation. Something you couldn’t get on either the Kindle 1 or 2, and something that helps all people (not just lawyers) see the hardware as more accurately replicating a book. Mighell also thinks that having books he uses in the courtroom would be an extremely handy future.

The question

So, back to the theme. Do lawyers want electronic books? My take is yes, and no.

The next generation of lawyer will definitely expect everything they need for their practice to be an electronic format, and that’s where I see a distinction, that is, between the terms “format” and “book.” The Chief Scientist for Thomson Reuters recently stated that “[i]n the future, the book is no longer a product; it’s a service.”  I agree that long term, all content in the future will be a product; it seems inevitable actually.  But in the present future (at least for the next 5 to 10 years, possibly longer), I think lawyers will still want books as a product (print or electronic) and books as a service (in the cloud). It doesn’t matter that a print book is available electronically, what matters is whether the user appreciates the distinction between something that has a definable beginning and end that you browse (or even search, make notes in, etc.), versus something that is a service delivering legal content served up based on a query (non-linear friendly). I do think the hardware platform will drive this distinction as well (i.e., iPod or iPad = book as product; netbook = book as service). Given what I’ve seen with the Black’s Law Dictionary, Thomson West has found a way to add value to a print product by making it electronic. But make no mistake, it is still a book, just handier and lighter.

As for today’s generation? Well, Thomson West, Reed Elsevier, and other indies, such as my company, still sell a lot of physical books to lawyers. From my perspective, a well-designed, portable print format can work just as well as, and sometimes even better than, an electronic one. Despite the fact that some lawyers out there would like to lighten their load by putting books on their Kindles (folks like Mark Bennett (@MarkWBennett), for example), I don’t think the vast majority of lawyers will be clamoring for them. The ratio of practicing lawyers making noise on the Tubes to the actual number of practicing lawyers is still pretty small. Lawyers are slow to adopt new methods, and no matter how much you scream and yell about the end of days, they’re going to migrate to new platforms only when they’re good and ready to do so. Even when the reasons are compelling. As Nick Holmes of Binary Law puts it, “the law text book [will] be the last print format left standing.” I agree.

An aside

I want to leave you with a couple of things to consider.

The first is seeing the possible benefits of books as an electronic product, such as pushing updates (which could be particularly relevant to the law school casebook market where subject matter can change in the middle of a semester) and social media.  On the social side, I could see end users sharing notes, thoughts, insights for a particular book, hopefully leading to more practical understandings of how something works or should be interpreted. In fact, students do this already with used books, looking for the ones with the best margin notes before they buy. In fact, this last thought isn’t actually new, as Professor Robert Staudt demonstrated it with his Computer Law on Disk project back in the 80s.

The second is a question posed by Tim O’Reilly in his post about their new Twitter book: “Take a look at any ebook, and ask yourself how it could be richer, more accessible, more powerful, if it approached the job it was trying to do with fresh eyes, and a fresh approach.” I think as we begin to consider books and their electronic counterparts, we need to be asking ourselves these questions.  As one individual put it: ”E-book readers aren’t useful because they replicate books, but because they add value to them.”

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