Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Legal Materials Prices

The discussion on pricing of legal materials fascinates me. If I were an economist, I would be better able to approach the question.

In the court libraries, law reviews and SSRN are never used. Practicing attorneys and judges rarely read more than five law reviews a year. SSRN articles are never used. I know that in my library, I could cancel law review subscriptions without any marring of patron satisfaction, Even though law reviews are cheap, the time spent creating serial prediction records and check-in could be better spent.

Judges and attorneys heavily use the commentaries and annotations in the New York State codes. The indexes to print materials are very helpful. The West’s New York Practice series answers almost all of my reference questions that are not answered by the Matthew Bender materials.

What is the value of those items? And is the value applicable to the price? Practicing attorneys don’t pay for these materials. They rely on public investment. My library saves a lot of attorneys a lot of money. The court by subsidizing these materials promotes the more efficient use of court time. For the amount of people working in my unit, my proportion of court moneys is substantial.

The publisher’s editorial enhancements are a substantial intellectual effort to place legal effort within a framework. My most successful attorneys rely upon those editorial efforts. It is the self-represented who sit at the terminals composing searches. The attorneys use Lexis when they know what they want.

My question is—how can this intellectual effort be priced? Value is a different term than price. We are not happy with the price, but the attorneys are happy with the value of these resources. Right now, libraries are cutting back on titles. Will this damage court administration? Will there be less justice in the street because we cancel law reviews?

At some point, the merry-go-around stops. The courts could announce that they will only accept criminal cases. That was threatened at one point during the NYC budget crises. Civil cases would go to private judges and be handled only by boutique firms with their own libraries. That practice has affected court filings in California and by extension the California public access law libraries that rely on civil filing fees for their budgets. Solo practitioners might disappear; people cannot afford attorneys and the poor solos lead lives of desperation.

The states and courts have done a good job of making current law available over the Internet; it is the intellectual work to conceptualize the law which the private sector provides. I don’t see universities or libraries doing as good a job as the private publishers I don’t understand the calls for universities to compete with private publishers. Such an effort would require a complete reorganization of funding, promotions, tenure, and teaching, even clerkships because law reviews would have to be dropped. Law schools have a poor editorial record of supporting courts; the private publishers do a better job. Complain as we do about the prices, the publishers provide a service. We just don’t like the price. Our economy has shifted from manufacturing to information; maybe we have to start new ways of measuring value and price.

Sometimes I think the private publishers have identified government as the last growing part of the economy and price accordingly. They are in a spot. Their classifieds are going down; Craig’s list destroyed newspaper classifieds. The publishers have laid off staff and outsourced production. Where else can they go to make money, but government and courts?


Jim Milles said...

Jacqueline, have you seen my article, Redefining Open Access for the Legal Information Market, that just appeared in the latest Law Library Journal? I tried to address the same problems you discussed in your posting: the relative low cost and low utility (outside of the law schools) of legal scholarship and the failure of the law library profession to respond to the rising cost of commercial legal publications. I'm very eager to hear your reactions.

Betsy McKenzie said...

The other point you raise is the online provision of statutes. For one thing, they are missing the editorial enhancements, which are uniformly excellent in the annotated statutes and the practice manuals like Mass Practice and NY Practice. For another, I don't think any court or state government yet has certified an electronic version of statutes or regulations as being official. Until that happens, the print still rules, even through Lexis and Westlaw, which are just providing electronic versions of their print statutes. Claire Germaine is spear-heading an interesting project for AALL on certification of e-resources.