Global Legal Publishing – a Bad Idea?

AuthorGary P. Rodrigues
DateMay 18, 2016

In Canada and elsewhere, we have seen a seemingly endless series of reorganizations in the multinational legal publishing houses. The pattern is one characterized by the acquisition of smaller legal publishing houses, followed by serial changes in their reporting lines, and ending with their disappearance altogether, as old established brands are dropped and replaced by the corporate brand. These changes are attempts to conceal a sad truth – that “global legal publishing” has proven to be a bit of a bust. Was it a bad business idea in the first place, or merely a good idea that was overwhelmed by unforeseen developments. The Canadian experience may provide a few insights into the matter.

Limited opportunities for growth

Global Legal Publishing always had limited opportunities for growth. The practice of law is primarily domestic. If a matter arises in another jurisdiction, the general practice is to obtain the services of a lawyer in that jurisdiction to advise and handle the matter. In Canada, lawyers rarely research the law in another province let alone in other country.

The use of legal information from other jurisdictions is primarily a leftover from failed empires. Canada was one of only a handful of countries where British legal publications were used on any scale. Butterworths and Sweet and Maxwell were the primary sources of this information and had created a sales network to maximize revenue from the sale of English common-law publications in the common law provinces of Canada. Juris Classeur played a similar role in selling civil law publications in Quebec.

As well, there was some demand for legal information from the United States, most notably in commercial law subjects, but also cases dealing with human rights in the early years after the Charter of Rights and Freedoms took effect.

Unfortunately, the demand for this international information in Canada had peaked by the time that Thomson, Reed Elsevier and Walters Kluwer determined that there was a great future in global legal publishing. For whatever reasons, the multinationals were blind to this fact.

Legal publishing was a small business then and remains a small business today.

Why legal publishing?

The strategy to acquire legal publishing houses was based on the view that these businesses were exempt from market fluctuations because they sold essential products with to a profession dependant on access to current and authoritative legal information.

As important as the dependant...

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