Don’t you love the way that financial analysts run for the cover of the Big Generalization? So Thomson Reuters buying PLC (Practical Law Company) on 3 January is Consolidation. Big getting Bigger. More market share. Problems of law markets in the recession years need to be addressed by bigger content units. Simples? No, not at all. And this form of analysis entirely misses the point. Why did Thomson Reuters need to buy PLC now? Where does it place them in the evolving story of professional services? And what does this acquisition do to their existing services and their positioning in the place where there is growth – small and medium size law practices? In fact, what is this story which may be superficially easy to categorize but actually tells us a very great deal about what is happening to networked services in the professional sphere of activity.

I have written about this in several pieces in the last 3 months (“Beware: Lawyers at Work”, 4 November 2012 and “The Way Lawyers Work Now”, 13 September 2012). I have tried to underline there that this is not a new process. Robert Dow and Chris Millerchip, who founded PLC, left Slaughter and May to do so in 1990. As I recall the story, their very first impetus was to start a magazine which would advise lawyers on practical processing issues in dispatching routine legal matters, and only later did they turn to devising and implementing those pieces of process – precedents, practice notes, checklists, document templates etc – which would dig down deep in key sectors like commercial, corporate, employment, intellectual property, competition or finance law. They now have what the press release describes as a “comprehensive suite” and they do this in the US as well as in the UK. They are universally respected, used by 96% of the UK’s top law firms and 80% of the AmLaw 200, yet at around £50 m in revenue in 2011, surprizingly small. However, they are exceeding profitable, running subscription services which few ever leave (they become part of the way your law firm works), and often quoted as running ebitda returns in the high 30% range. Estimates of their sale price this week were around £300m, arguing 12X a forward ebitda of £25 m. We shall never know, but even these estimates indicate a very valuable company that Reed Elsevier’s Lexis and Thomson Reuter’s Westlaw have sought to buy for years. But they would never pay the founder’s idea of a full price. So why Thomson Reuters and why now?

I have tried to indicate in those previous pieces that Publishers (aka Butterworth or Sweet and Maxwell in 1990) would not have seen what PLC do as  publishing”. And, from the 1970s onwards, big law publishing had invested in the world of Research (which in lawyer terms mean that they were mostly concerned with litigation, always a bigger game in the Us than in the UK). As a result Westlaw and Lexis dominated law library budgets in major law firms globally, but their revenue base was very dependent upon a small base of litigators, and the ability of their costs to be charged through the system to the ultimate client. However, the practise of law is not mostly like that, but rather more like the patient game of form completion and document filing where PLC sought to introduce productivity game. It took a global recession but now the big law publishers get it too. The impressive attempts by Lexis in London to build practice tools and sell more use of research through them bear witness to that: strategy turns through 180 degrees when we realise that we are not in business to simply support and then replace the library, but that we are there to handle the whole business of the law office. This is about productivity gain, better decision-making and cheaper and more effective compliance, this “business of law” thing, and if we can do it for lawyers we can do it for any professionals. As the largest player in Law as Research, Thomson Reuters were the most vulnerable player as the market began to move towards these Business of Law considerations.

But, just a minute, a lot of those future customers in the law office context will not be lawyers. Even lawyers, as polled by Lexis in the UK, see the majority of routine work getting parcelled out to legal services and paralegal services players, both onshore and offshore. And there will also be Expert systems doing some of this work. Law offices will get smaller and more expert, and sell on their expertise alongside and within the workflow that they place with contractors. But how do you ensure quality results – unless the outsourcers use standard precedents and proven workflow modelling from verifiable sources. And what happens when these tools reach medium and smaller practices: quality gets improved and cost competition grows. It is not hard to see the law office and the corporate law/counsel office of the future. It runs on the network, uses work processed by a variety of hands in different places, employs standardized and compliance-approved workflow tools allows users to collaborate in alerting each other to threats or reversals (in the Courts) which may inhibit the utility of some of those processes. Thomson Reuters just joined this world, and not a moment too soon. Some of their thinking and some Lexis minds were there already. But now it is official: Business of Law is the Future of Law.

Two points remain to be made. We have to recall that Messrs Dow and Millerchip left Slaughter and May where they had been working lawyers in search of efficiencies. In other words, they were not the editorial/academic lawyers normally employed by publishers. This says something about the sort of people Thomson Reuters and Lexis will need to employ to get this huge transition right. Then again, one major player is yet to shift. Bloomberg is a private company and what it does is its own business, yet the maintenance of the infant Bloomerg Law separate from Bloomberg BNA is an enigma, as is the apparent indifference in the 12 months since the BNA acquisition towards global markets or these Business of Law issues. Perhaps having to have everything on the Bloomberg box, rather than in cloud/network configuration, has something to do with it. As it is , in contrast to Thomson Reuters and Lexis, Bloomberg’s offering looks a bit off the pace of change. Enough reason, perhaps, for Thomson Reuters to buy PLC in the first place?

Thomson Reuters Press Release:


Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind


1 Comment so far

  1. Go Read This | Developing digital strategies for the information marketplace | Supporting the migration of information providers and content players into the networked services world of the future. « Eoin Purcell's Blog on January 5, 2013 10:29

    […] David Worlock | Developing digital strategies for the information marketplace | Supporting the migra…. Share this:FacebookTwitterLinkedInGoogle +1EmailPrintMoreDiggRedditPinterestTumblrStumbleUponLike […]