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Knowledge Is Power, But It Doesn’t Come Cheap for Law Libraries

Lauren Odom | June 25, 2021

Knowledge is power. This phrase, though a cliché at this point, has been embedded in our brains for as far back as we can remember. It’s what our teachers told us in school, as they attempted to inspire a drive to learn. Guess what? Those teachers were right, and nowhere is this more evident than in the legal field where those who hold the knowledge have the competitive advantage. As a law librarian, you also learn rather quickly that the underlying information, on which you build this knowledge, is enormously expensive.

Over the last few years, we’ve all seen the legal information world expand, as both major vendors and startups have launched initiatives to carve out the future of legal research capabilities. It is an exciting time for information professionals, as vendor competition should produce new products and provide greater options for our budget dollars. Unfortunately, ideals often clash with reality and the lucrative nature of the legal information business, which means that legal information professionals need to be on guard.

As it stands today, yes, the legal information market is primed for innovation, but in practice, the industry remains dominated by a few major players. Law firm informational professionals have a responsibility to equip their firms with the best slate of resources to serve clients at the highest level, and this is where things can get complicated.

Vendor management has become increasingly complex, but there are strategies you can implement for successful negotiations and collection management. HBR recommends that information professionals examine their vendor contracts and relationships through the lens of the following:

 

1. Content and Access

Even with a few major vendors, the market is difficult to navigate, and an illusion of choice looms over contract negotiations. By way of acquisitions and internal developments, providers are expanding their offerings and integrating new content and capabilities into their platforms. The largest legal content providers are comprehensive, and attorneys can use these platforms as their one-stop shop for almost all their research needs. This is nothing new, but as the content and offerings expand, bundling and high out-of-plan charges can push law firm libraries into oversubscription. As legal research continues to transition online, enterprise access is being positioned as the price of admission. You are no longer paying for content; you’re paying for access.

Do you want to forgo enterprise access and subscribe to a package that better fits the needs of your firm? You have that choice, but you also must assume the risks that go along with that option. If an unexpected matter comes up, access to out-of-plan content will come with a steep upcharge that will continue to increase year over year. We have already seen some annual increases hitting 20%, so it will be interesting, or perhaps unnerving, to see where it goes from here.

While enterprise access is often positioned as the plan with the most value, there are steps that you can take to help select the best plan for the firm. Prior to beginning negotiations, it’s important to confirm the go-forward needs of a subscription. You can use a renewal as an opportunity to right size a collection and ensure it is aligned to present-day needs.

By leveraging usage data, you can identify the highly used or rarely used content. A few questions to guide your data review include:

  • Are there areas where you appear to be oversubscribed?
  • Are there any changes coming to the firm’s practice groups or matters that would impact the future use of the subscription?

 

2. Transparency

During the pandemic, law firms had the opportunity to use renewals to reassess spending and identify areas for cost reductions, and moving forward, we expect this practice to continue. If library directors are being asked by firm leadership to conduct thorough collection assessments, it is a reasonable expectation that their vendors, as partners to these law firm libraries, be transparent regarding content, usage data, and the drivers of cost increases.

Now, to be fair, we understand that there are costs of doing business and annual increases are to be expected, and when vendors invest in their products, their customers reap those rewards. What to be on the lookout for here is more transparency on what is behind these often high annual increases.

Keeping the lines of communication open with the vendor and simply asking questions can aid in making negotiations more transparent. Your vendor rep should be able to provide you with details on product roadmaps, as well as explanations of cost increases, so you are not taken by surprise.

If possible, you should document and maintain a record of your vendor communications, so you can consult it on a later date, if necessary. The ability to reference your historical data or experience with a vendor can give you an advantage in your negotiation. For example, if you had been receiving itemized pricing in previous contract negotiations but the vendor recently stopped providing that information, you may still be able to obtain the information on request, citing as example the level of detail that you had grown accustomed to relying on.

 

3. Choice

Content bundling has become a source of frustration in proposal review and plan negotiation, in that it limits choice. If a firm wants to subscribe to a vendor’s flagship platform, it will likely find that ancillary products are being added to the plan proposal regardless of need. In some cases, these product bundles include resources that are owned by departments outside of the library, creating unforeseen budget impacts.

If a proposal includes a bundled product that does not fit your firm needs, there is no guarantee that the vendor will remove or replace it when the issue arises in negotiations. Nevertheless, we recommend raising the issue and having a conversation when product bundles are not aligned with the firm’s needs. By partnering with the vendor, you may be able to identify a creative solution that will add value to the proposal, even if you cannot purchase content à la carte.

Ultimately, even if you are all-in with enterprise access and have a budget surplus, access to information is a core professional value for information professionals, so tactics to limit access or remove choice can feel personal. Even outside the lens of professional and personal values, law firm libraries have the responsibility to provide their firms with high value content and cost-efficient subscriptions. And as we all know, firm needs can change quickly. When the time comes to realign your subscription mix, you will want to understand all your options and make the best choice for the firm.

By leveraging these strategies, you can continue to play a proactive role in shaping your firm’s subscriptions, regardless of vendor tactics along the way.

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