Friday, November 02, 2007

Can AALL be saved?

As a 21 year member of AALL, I call on the current Executive Board members and the new Executive Director, Kate Hagan, to take this opportunity to save our organization. And I really mean SAVE AALL. Our board members and officers devote huge amounts of time and effort to working on our behalf at AALL, and I certainly don't want to minimize their efforts, or to accuse them of wrongdoing in an intentional way. But our Association has twice at least made efforts to censor reports going into the CRIV Sheet portion of AALL Spectrum and interfere with a planned program at the annual meeting. They have failed to press Thomson West to contribute pricing information to the Price Index and gone so far as to pressure the editors of the Price Index to drop their own efforts to gather information on West pricing.

It is one thing to fail to confront vendors about their unfair business practices; it is something else entirely when our Association attempts to silence members who are not even expressing personal opinions, but are reporting on either a vendor visit or a program at the annuual meeting. I say the Association must either reform itself or die and be replaced!

* Can our reps respond to growing member concern about failing to represent consumer interests and actually serving vendor interests in conflict with consumer interests;

* Will they explain what has actually been done by our association to represent consumer interests (have letters been written to vendors requesting they participate fully in the Price Index? are there guidelines for accepting gifts and support from vendors? how much money or other support has been received from each vendor and how has it been used?)

* Will they lay out for members what they plan to do (will they write letters to vendors? will they stop censoring members' fair reports on vendor actions and begin asking vendors to abide by the Fair Business Practices guidelines and the Licensing Practices guidelines? Will they hire a consultant and accountant to look into the Association's ties to vendors?)

A member of CRIV (AALL's Committee for Relations with Information Vendors) wrote a report on BNA. All articles for the CRIV Sheets portion of AALL Spectrum go past the Chair of CRIV as a matter of course. The chair thought the article was fair, balanced and complete. She sent the article on to AALL headquarters, and received a call from the AALL President, with concerns about the article. Initially, it was stated the article was too long -- but it clearly fit within the alloted space guidelines. Then it was said they wanted to edit the content. CRIV chair Tracy Thompson questioned the decision to edit the report for content and requested to see the revised version before it was printed to see the changes. She was concerned enough to talk to the author about her concerns. Tracy never was shown the edited version, despite her clear request to see it. When she saw the edited version, it had been censored to cut out criticism of the publisher that Tracy thought were fair.

AALL has stopped representing the interests of consumers. They cancelled a program at this summer's annual meeting in which Ken Svengalis had planned to explore Thomson-West's pricing practices. Ken managed to present the same information at his Globalization program (see OOTJ report here and Ken's excellent and informative PowerPoint from that program, by scrolling to the bottom of Rhode Island Law Press homepage). But he was pressured before the Globalization program to censor his evaluation.

In fact, since that time, AALL board members have tried to undercut Svengalis' analysis by portraying him as having a conflict of interest because he is also a legal publisher. This is a truly specious argument because Ken has been putting out the Legal Information Buyers Guide and Reference Manual since before retiring from the Rhode Island State Court, and it is his only item he publishes. He is in no competition with West or any other legal publisher as the only producer of a buyer's guide; he does not compete against them for buyers, for market share, and he makes the same amount of money regardless of how large any other publisher's market share becomes.

I have been told that West put pressure on AALL to remove their pricing information from the Price Index. The West argument is that they charge different prices to different purchases, and so no price properly characterizes the cost of West products. Wait just a darned minute! Did ANYBODY read the AALL Guide to Fair Business Practices for Legal Publishers? On page 6 of the 2nd edition, Principle 2.1 (Disclosure) states:

All information about products, services, prices and transactions provided by publishers to customers should be clear, accurate and easy to find. 2.1 PRACTICE TO FOLLOW 2: A publisher makes a description of standard discounts and variable pricing options for all products and services readily available.
And Principle 2.3(h) states
If offered in multiple formats, a full descroption of each available format, including any differences in scope, price breakdown, updating, and license restrictions. ... 2.3(i) Information on supplementation, iii. whether cost of supplementation is included in the flat rate subscription of separately charged by shipment or some other arrangement;

iv. Where possible, historic data on the cost of supplementation for the product.
I was willing to moan in private when it just looked as though AALL was failing to safeguard consumer interests. But as more stories come out about them actively moving to cut off members who attempt to safeguard consumer interests, I am deeply disturbed.


Betsy McKenzie said...

To see an eye-opening article from the Boston Globe on the effects gifts on the donees, see (will take you to the Boston Globe article "I was lobbied by the 'Israel lobby': A dispatch from inside the soft sell" by Elaine McArdle, October 7, 2007. The author tells about her own experience on a trip to Israel paid for by American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which courts both sides of the political spectrum in the US in order to promote Israel. But she also reports on "...John A. Bargh, a Yale psychology professor who studies nonconscious influences on behavior, and walked him through the details of my junket. Did he think I was swayed by the experience? "Of course you are," he said. "You'd almost have to be. And you can't know it."

A key tool in the subtle art of persuasion, he said, is reciprocity: offer someone a pleasant experience or gift and they feel an almost irresistible obligation to return the favor. The norm of reciprocity cuts across every culture, and the value of the gift is irrelevant: a cup of coffee is as effective as an extravagant trip. Another tool is to provide friendship and human connection - it's inevitable that a bond will develop when you spend substantial time with someone, especially in a foreign place, where you depend on them."

I believe the vendors' distribution of favors to our organization has affected the Board and headquarter staff's ability to be hardnosed with vendors. I do not believe it is a conscious decision by our representatives to avoid confronting vendors with our stated best practices. And I hope I believe that the sudden practice (well maybe not sudden, maybe I'm just suddenly aware of it) of treating members as the opposition that must be silenced or subverted is part of this subtle influence and that our officers and board are not aware of what they are doing.

Laura Suttell said...

Every AALL member should read Betsy's post and follow-up.