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Over in VoxPopuLII this week, Dan Dabney makes a number of good points about the proper role of LIIs and other public legal information providers. In his view, our useful purpose is to drive innovation up a ladder of value-added legal information providers.  West Group, unsurprisingly, occupies the top rung of his ladder.  I agree with him.  Duopolies are, in many ways, a terrible environment for innovation, because innovation is too often seen as a weapon to be used against the competitor rather than as a way of answering customer needs (I adhere to Guy Kawasaki’s view that your customers don’t care about eradicating your competition).   I am proud that the LII has contributed substantially to breaking the intellectual and engineering stranglehold that West and Lexis had on legal information twenty years ago.  And I think that we and our colleagues in the public sector have driven a great deal of innovation since.  You ain’t seen nothin’, yet.

Dan successfully makes the case — if I can equally reasonably shape his views into a different metaphor — that an average public-transit bus will never win a race against a Porsche Carrera GT.  And indeed it is true that LIIs have neither the holdings nor the editorial depth of Thomson Global.  Nor, I think, would we outpace them in any particular slice of American legal information. Though I might be willing to take him on in a street race with the US Code, for which I think we have better Web architecture, even though our edition is less speculatively up-to-the-minute than West’s.  But that is not my point. West is unquestionably winning the Grand Prix. The LIIs are just trying to help a lot of people get to work.

A couple of weeks ago, I started a draft article for this space with a self-conscious echo of Fred Rodell:

There are two things wrong with how we think about legal information. One is that we are not thinking about how it is produced, and the other is that we are not thinking about how it is consumed.  That about covers the ground. 

I want to concentrate on that second idea, because it would be fair to say that West and the LIIs are thinking about very different kinds of research consumers.

Dan Dabney imagines — as most law-school instruction in legal research seems to — that the aim of research is to support argument in high-stakes litigation, or in some other setting where potential hazard justifies the expense of a high-end service.  This echoes the position that John West himself took over a hundred years ago: the idea that legal information provides the lawyer with insurance against the loss of his case.  West was arguing for the superiority of comprehensiveness over selectivity in the publication of cases.  This is unquestionably true, and as West said the general policy of insurance is the best one.  It is equally true, however, that most people insure only to the value of the goods.  Few will throw $5000 worth of research at a $500 case.

Ken Svengalis has made himself endlessly popular with commercial publishers by making that point in the form of a buyer’s guide that stresses practicality over comprehensive acquisition.  And of course services like Findlaw and LexisOne are tacit nods to that principle, as are well-established, lower-cost commercial services like LoisLaw and FastCase. When we talk about those services, we are talking about services primarily intended for lawyers.  The aim of an LII — or at least this LII, for my colleagues elsewhere do very different things — is to provide legal information for everyone, something that they do by using technology in innovative ways.

And that means that we serve a type of legal research that is very different — not naive, necessarily, but different.  We primarily serve people whose aim is to manage risk using information, and to take bearings on the advice offered them by professionals.  In that respect, use of the LIIs closely resembles responsible use of something like WebMD.  And it continues a belief in responsible self-help that we have seen from diverse sources in the past — citizens advice bureaux, publishers like Nolo Press, trade- or interest-specific guides to the law, and so on.  This is not pro se representation, and it is not intended to take bread from the mouths of lawyers (my own belief, and Richard Susskind’s, is that it will increase the demand for legal services by lowering entry barriers).  It is simply a different activity (indeed, it was Dan who first clued me in to how different it really can be). It is aimed at those whose use of primary legal material is less rigorous because their aim is, perhaps, to get general orientation, or to make sense of the competing advice of professionals and pundits, or to fortify themselves for an initial encounter with a professional who, in their minds, represents a legal system that is scary and incomprehensible.

Of course, there are those with more sophisticated needs who cannot afford more highly priced services than ours.  In fact, most of our users are people making use of legal information in a professional context, not people having traumatic, episodic encounters with the legal system. An example I often use is that of a hospital administrator with a day-to-day need to know about public benefits law.  Many of our most supportive users are government lawyers, and I understand that in some agencies at least access to commercial services is at least limited by seniority if not altogether barred by the budget.  And quite recently the Permanent Bureau of the Hague Convention on Private International Law has become concerned with the high cost of legal question-answering across borders.  That is the problem with the Porsche:  it is fast as hell, well-made, and pretty, but far too expensive for a lot of people who need more ordinary transportation.

In a very recent paper , legal anthropologist Annelise Riles points out the existence of something she calls “the polycentric model of legal expertise”.  The idea, so far as I understand it,  is that there are benefits to be had from the distribution of a species of legal literacy throughout a population. She attributes some important aspects of Japanese legal culture to this phenomenon.  This, I think, is what LIIs are about in the long run: the promotion of polycentric legal knowledge.

That, and building shinkansen , which go almost as fast as Porsches, and carry a lot more people.  We’re starting to lay the track.

4 Responses to “What are we about?”

  1. Who is All This Legal Information For?…

    There’s a great dialog going on at Cornell’s Legal Information Institute between LII’s Tom Bruce and Dan Dabney of Thomson Reuters that very nicely captures two world views about the law and legal information.
    Dabney begins with a his…

  2. Domo arregato, Thomas sensei.

    As documents bloom
    On your LII website
    Enlightenment happens

  3. […] to be thoughtful rather than rushed.  I also felt that I’d made most of my rebuttal points in a previous response to a VoxPopuLII post by Dan Dabney, a West Group employee.  And if you’re looking for substance, I’d suggest that you […]

  4. […] Dabney, long of West and now Senior Director for Classification at Thomson Reuters, and a “friendly rebuttal” of sorts from Prof. Bruce usefully clarify some of the thinking about providing meaningful […]

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