Google Squeezes LexisNexis and Westlaw Hard
November 18, 2009
Google’s Uncle Sam service is arguably a more effective way to find information from various US government entities. I heard a couple of years ago that Google was indexing the content on various state servers. During that time, LexisNexis (a unit of Reed Elsevier) and Westlaw (a unit of Thomson Reuters) have continued with their for-fee content services without much significant change. The legal world has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Many well-heeled corporate clients have holes in their shoes. The law firms to these giants have been asked – nicely, of course – to reign in their spending. Law firms are complying and some are even trimming their staff and looking closely at the expense account of some partners.
Google announced on November 17, 2009, that Google Scholar will contain the full text of
legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts using Google Scholar.
Bang. Just like that the worlds of the for-fee legal information services hear the shockwave of the Google hypersonic bombers buzzing their citadels.
I can hear the rationalizations now: “Our legal content contains footnotes and cross references to make legal research quick, easy, and trouble free.” Or “Google does not understand how to present complex legal information as well as we do.” Or “Lawyers cannot trust Google.”
These and other truisms may have some accuracy embedded in them, but the one big reality is that Google is indexing legal content. Furthermore, Google has some nifty algorithms that can and will add metadata to content so that the Google service will be “good enough.” For law firms struggling to pay their country club fees, Google’s service will be given a close look. My hunch is that the small law firms who cannot afford the fees assessed by the LexisNexis and Westlaw systems will use the Google system. Over time, Google’s approach will choke off much of the oxygen to the commercial legal firms. These outfits have to respond.
So, what are the options?
First, the smart legal publishers will want to figure out how to surf on Google. In my own experience, most of these executives will dismiss this idea, but I think some thinking about this approach is warranted. My videos at http://www.arnoldit.com/video might offer some ideas to legal publishers nervous about the Google’s legal content push.
Second, the firms on the fringe of legal information now have a way to access some information that can be used to enhance their existing content offerings. Google’s service delivers a Ford F 350 stuffed with information that is now accessible. Raw material in my opinion.
Finally, government agencies may just pump content directly into Google. This creates an opportunity for a different type of information service. Lateral thinking is useful for the companies in Washington, DC that recycle information for their constituencies. I see opportunities in this sector.
What is the financial outlook for the LexisNexis-type and Westlaw-type firms? Short term there won’t be much change. Over time, life gets tougher. I do quite a bit of work in online information, and I am not sure these outfits can adapt to the Google’s legal push. Just my opinion.
Stephen Arnold, November 18, 2009
A quick report to the Department of Justice. I was not paid by anyone to write this opinion. You, gentle reader, have not paid me to read it. Seems fair.