Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Consumer Advocacy Caucus Meets

The new Consumer Advocacy Caucus met during the recent conference of the American Association of Law Libraries in a swank conference room at the Drinker Biddle law firm in Philadelphia. It was nice to see how the other half lives! It was also a pleasure to meet members of the Caucus in person and to learn that all different types of law libraries are represented in our organization. We had two reasons for meeting: the primary reason was to discuss our options for organizing, and the secondary was to establish priorities for the Caucus.

Before deciding how to organize, we reviewed the drama surrounding the drafting of the Caucus’s statement of purpose and the Executive Board’s rejection of the statement submitted for approval in April. The April statement was rejected on two grounds: legal (mainly antitrust) and administrative (only AALL can make policy, and no other group can speak on behalf of AALL). The most recent statement of purpose reads as follows: “The AALL Caucus on Consumer Advocacy will recommend to AALL that it petition appropriate governmental bodies for specific remedies of anticompetitive and unfair business practices by sellers of legal information.” This new statement of purpose was submitted to AALL President Darcy Kirk on August 3. I do not know whether she has responded.

To give some context to the day’s discussions, the meeting began with a brief summary of the history of consumer advocacy on behalf of purchasers of legal information. Consumer advocacy goes back to an article by the law librarian Raymond Taylor, Lawbook Consumers Need Protection, A.B.A.J., June 1969, at 553. Taylor recommended voluntary guidelines and action by the FTC, which was accomplished without any involvement by AALL. In the 1980s, other individuals and groups stepped forward to evaluate products and help consumers determine whether they were getting their money’s worth. One of the best sources of information remains Ken Svengalis’s Legal Information Buyer’s Guide and Reference Manual, which is still being published. Unfortunately, today many consumers get their product information from vendors, and there is no independent voice speaking on behalf of the consumer. AALL is not advocating for its members’ interests in this regard, and we have all felt the results of its lack of attention in the form of shoddy products, rapidly escalating costs, restrictive licensing agreements, and other dubious practices of legal information vendors. Everyone in attendance felt that it was time to speak up and mobilize. The Caucus is a step in this direction.

In terms of organizing, we determined we could either seek recognition as an AALL caucus with a new statement of purpose, or form an organization independent of AALL. Michael Ginsborg, the convener of the Philadelphia meeting and the prime mover behind the organization, passed out a thoughtful document that laid out the pros and cons of each type of organization.

AALL Caucus



• Reclaiming AALL as a consumer advocate increases the long-term odds of success because the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission recognize AALL as the official representative of our institutions, and because it would be easier to partner with organizations such as the American Bar Association and the American Library Association.
• The sentiment of AALL members has changed in favor of the Caucus.


• We can tailor almost all of the initially-proposed actions to the new statement of purpose.
• If necessary, the Caucus can bypass the Board's failure to act by proposing a resolution. In fact, Michael Ginsborg plans to offer a procedural reform to allow electronic ballot votes on AALL resolutions.
• The Caucus can attempt to elect its own slate of AALL officers.


• The Caucus would have to overcome AALL’s institutional barriers to consumer advocacy.

Independent Organization



• The Caucus would improve the long-term chances of success if it builds support without trying to overcome AALL’s limitations.
• Even if the Executive Board approves our recommendation, AALL may do nothing.
• AALL might try to marginalize our group even if the Board lets us form an AALL Caucus.
• AALL has a history of opposing strong consumer advocacy.


• An independent Caucus could take any consumer advocacy actions it deemed appropriate.


• It would be a challenge to build a wide base of support.
• The Caucus would have to create its owninstitutional framework and make it viable.
• AALL could marginalize the Caucus as an “outlier” organization if the Caucus pursues remedies with the Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission.
• The Caucus would have less leverage to strengthen the Fair Business Practices Guide and monitor the work of the Price Index Committee.

After some vigorous discussion of the pros and cons of the two organizational types, the members present voted to form a caucus and to seek recognition from AALL. This is our first priority. The indefatigable Michael Ginsborg was elected Chair of the Caucus.

Ken Svengalis attended the meeting, and raised ongoing issues with AALL’s Price Index for Legal Publications, which has suffered because of Thomson’s unwillingness to supply the information requested, i.e., the prices of discounted supplementations. Without this information, the Price Index is not nearly as useful as it could be. Ken has asked for volunteers to help him gather prices for the next edition of his book.

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