The future law book

Two thought-provoking posts from the UK shed some light on the future of the printed word in law. Nick Holmes at Binary Law notes the accelerating demise of the printed law review journal and other hard-copy forms of legal scholarship: “Where online equivalents are already paid for out of the budget or where free access materials might substitute, print will suffer severely.” Only practice texts will survive the value cull, he forecasts.

Scott Vine at Information Overlord chimes in to predict that the e-book reader (Kindle, Iliad, Sony, etc.) represents the light at the end of the tunnel for legal publishers: “[I]f I were a lawyer, who could have all the legal journals I wanted and all the legal texts I wanted – displayed as they would be in a ‘traditional’ print run – all on one device that I could keep in my desk or take with me to client meetings etc., then I would be a very happy bunny.”

Like Scott, I think e-book readers are the future of legal publishing, especially if their creators take to heart some of Seth Godin’s many recommendations for the Kindle. The second-most important application for e-readers in the legal context, I think, will be the hyperlink: the ability to leap from the book on your lap to a relevant page on the Net with 0ne click. You could click from a judicial interpretation or expert analysis of a statute or regulation directly to the most current version of the statute or regulation itself; imagine how that would reshape publications like annotated statues or criminal codes. Or think about footnotes on steroids: instead of just a reference to another work of significance, you get a link to the work itself.

But I think the killer app for legal e-books will be RSS. As every law librarian and legal researcher knows, the drawback to law books lies in post-publication developments. Looseleaf updaters have been around for ages, and have never become less laborious to insert one page at a time. Legal publishers tried issuing new CD-ROMs every month, but I don’t think that really caught on. Online research services remain the most reliable source of updated legal information — but not only do they remain expensive, they also require you to seek out the information you want. But what if the information you needed sought you out?

An RSS-enabled legal e-book would update itself. An authoritative Court of Appeal case at the time of publication might later be overruled by a Supreme Court; within days or even hours, the e-book would automatically change to reflect that. The proclamation of statutory amendments or the coming-into-force of regulations would download themselves while you sleep. Bulletins from tax authorities or rulings from securities commissions would appear with that little yellow “New” tag. A legal book — be it a casebook, a reporter series, an annotation — would become a constantly self-refreshing authority, truly the latest word in the law.

Legal publishers wouldn’t be able to sell annual or subsequent editions of popular texts; but they would be able to open up a whole new market of real-time knowledge refreshment. The speed and accuracy of updates could become  points of competition between publishers (a category that could include the established giants as well as upstart individuals or bloggers).  In addition to downloading the new Supreme Court ruling, a publisher could also offer access to an analysis of the decision by its in-house expert, perhaps as a value-added part of the user’s monthly subscription that enables the downloads. Online CLEs regarding a recently revised subject area could be advertised as part of the update.  Or how about access to relevant wikis to which other e-book users contribute?

In ways like these, the legal e-book could become a dynamic, full-scale legal knowledge portal — 24/7 Net-connected, automatically updated, linked to a community of writers and readers, plugged in to a collaborative legal knowledge world well beyond the written word. That would do more than revolutionize the legal publishing industry — it would help change how lawyers view and use legal knowledge.



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