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Contents, conduits, contexts, and conductors.

By Jason Wilson

Or, in the words of the law librarian of Congress, Roberta Shaffer, “who are the legal information publishers, pirates, passers-by, pre-publishers, post-publishers, protectors and purveyors?” See Estes, AALL Vendor Colloquium Keynote Part 2 (Feb. 28, 2011). I’m not even sure how to begin to respond to this question given the number of participants implicated, but it’s certainly fun to think about. So let’s take it one at a time.

First, the “legal information publishers.” As best as I can tell from Estes’s posts, publishers are everyone generating content these days, with the possible exception of scholars:

Q: Why are fewer readers going to law reviews to identify trends?

A: Because of the ‘scholarly’ language used by law reviews. Readers expect shorter sentences, shorter articles, shorter words; look at the vocabulary and the text of the New York Times magazine and the New Yorker, which use simpler language now than they did previously. Law reviews are too theoretical and do not include enough fact matching or practical value.

And in a “I could have told you that moment,” our (i.e., Jones McClure Publishing practice manuals) content has been successful precisely because we write with efficiency in mind, and have been for 18 years. Although Shaffer responds to the question regarding law reviews, I would argue that this applies to many current treatises, hornbooks, and so-called “practice guides.” The demographic is changing (and has been for the last decade), and consequently the tolerance for the “academic approach” has been severely weakened. As practitioners, we don’t have the luxury of spending time to become “educated.” Rather, we want to “feel smart,” and that is achieved only through quick, short bursts of accurate information supported by “authority.” This is a reality of modern practice, and the sooner publishers accept it, the quicker they can figure out ways to make lawyers smarter with less language.

As far as everyone else generating content, there was this Q&A at the end of Estes’s post I thought was particularly important (but not prescient because its been written about before):

Q: Are different sources for legal information (blogs and podcasts) increasing in importance? Why?

A: There are fewer barriers of entrance for these sources. But, what kind of authority are they? By consensus? How do librarians respond? By managing them, maintaining them, and creating access to them?

Q: If libraries began storing and organizing blogs and other new web-based sources, could they become authority?

A: Yes, if we take the science model as an example, but scientists tend to believe the answer doesn’t already exist and must be found through experiment.

If you want to support this, then please get your firm to get behind Spindle Law. At the very least, it is one of the few portals right now trying to develop a universal taxonomy and professional participation that could create an authoritative source for people to rely on. And while I generally support the idea of law librarians being involved in “storing and organizing blogs and other new web-based sources,” I’m not optimistic about the institutional support.

Second, the legal information “pirates.” I have no idea what Shaffer means by this, and Estes’s post doesn’t given any more guidance on it. If I had to guess, the pirates are those that appropriate content and resell (i.e., scrape) it, such as a USLaw.com, which was highlighted rather prominently in Scott Greenfield’s post USLaw.com: A Call to Arms. Whether she means to include such sources as meaningful destinations is unclear, you know, because I WAS NOT INVITED. But whatever, she apparently said it, so you’ll have to ask her about it.

Third, are the “passers-by,” which I assume are consumers. These are the folks on the web looking for smart information that will help them make critical decisions, like (1) can I do this myself, and (2) do I need a lawyer. I’ll have more to say about this in an upcoming Slaw.ca post, but suffice it to say, lawyers should be spending time helping known and prospective consumers help answer these very basic questions on nearly every conceivable topic.

Fourth, are the “pre-publishers.” Who are these people?

Fifth, are the “post-publishers.” Yeah, same question.

Sixth, are the “protectors and purveyors.” Alright, this I get. It would seem that for any given segment of legal information, there is a protector (i.e., someone who secures the information) and a purveyor (i.e., one who sells such information). If you are a legal information specialist, this is not a foreign concept to you. Thomson Reuters and Reed Elsevier are protectors and purveyors, for example. But so are institutions like the Texas Legislature Online, right? And I see this as Shaffer’s nod to Law.gov, without explicitly saying it.  Who is going to both protect the law and purvey it at a price you can afford, or want to afford? Who, in the future, is going to control this conversation? Is it the governmental institutions or the private corporations who provide the “sponsorship” to enable them to push the law and its meaning to consumers?

DISCLAIMER: I have no stake in this post. It is, however, written from two perspectives.  The first perspective is this: I have just spent the last four and a half years with a development team and a group of California editors writing a pretrial procedure manual for California lawyers that I’m going to sell for … wait for it … $95. It’s a massive 1,450 page single volume tome that no one should have written because it makes no sense to do so in light of the dominance of Bill Rutter’s civil pretrial guide or the CEB pretrial manuals or Witkins, but we did it because no current publisher is thinking about the very things that Shaffer is saying: shorter words, simpler language, practical value. And yet, Jones McClure Publishing has thought that way for nearly 18 years, and we believe, honestly, that we’re about to do some damage  in California. Lawyers pay way too much for certain information, and it’s about time that changed.

The second perspective is this: there are a bunch of folks generating value for practitioners beyond traditional “protectors and purveyors.” For example, Adrianos Facchetti’s “California Defamation Law Blog” is one of the best Anti-SLAPP resources available on the Tubes—for free—that I can think of. It is a resource that I read weekly, and would encourage other lawyers to do as well. The real question, in light of Shaffer’s position, is how do resources like Facchetti’s fit into “traditional publishing.” And for that, I have no answer, other than to say, add his (and others) to an RSS feed, read them daily, and subscribe to (or own) a relevant product manual/guide/treatise that satisfies your needs. You know, preferably one that makes you feel smart, like mine.

[Image (cc) by casadequeso]

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