Restoring competitiveness to Canadian legal publishing

Restoring competitiveness to Canadian legal publishing

[This is the text and slides of a presentation given to the Canadian Association of Law Libraries annual conference on May 10, 2017 as part of a Compass/vLex breakfast sponsorship]

Thank you for coming. I’m excited to tell you about Compass; about our plans for vLex Canada and about our plans for changing the game in Canadian legal information.

Today the name vLex might be unfamiliar to some of you, but I assure you, that won’t last long.

Today, hearing me claim an ability to change the game in Canadian legal information might sound like a fanciful boast, but I assure you, this change will be swift and it will accelerate as you find yourselves with more bargaining power than you’ve had in years.

Today I want to talk about the past, the present and the future.

Let’s start with the past.

Started in 1968 by Eric Appleby, Maritime Law Book Ltd. was as an independent regional case law reporter. Over time, MLB added regional reporters in all provinces outside Quebec; it created important national reporter series; and it developed a unique and much-loved topical Key Number System covering all the content in its collection.

With many jurisdictions lacking official case law reporters, the MLB collections were often treated, and occasionally explicitly designated, as “semi-official” reports. Reproductions of and citations to the MLB collections have been accepted by courts across the country.


MLB was the first to include digital diskettes of its reported case law in the cover of its print reporters.


In 1997, it was the first Canadian case law publisher to transition to the world wide web as its primary digital platform; and in 2008 it was the first commercial provider to make a substantial body of unedited case law available online at no charge through its Raw Law service.

In short, it was revolutionary.

At its zenith in 2002, it employed 70 people and generated over $4M a year in revenue.

Around that same time, Hugh Lawford sold QuickLaw to LexisNexis and the new company then claimed to have a commercial relationship of some sort with 80% of lawyers in Canada.

CanLII was a couple years into its development, but its impact had yet to be felt in the market.

Then things began to change quickly

In the face of immense competition from full service competitors that brought not only international reach and resources, but that also bought out many of its fellow independent publishers, the Maritime Law Book model of being a standalone case law publisher was under stress. Even Wolters Kluwer re-valuated its model when it sold its Canadian legal publishing business to LexisNexis in 2014.

Add to this the fact that over the 15 years since Maritime Law book’s peak, Canada’s law societies and law foundations have put nearly $40 million into the development, expansion and maintenance of CanLII.

It came as no surprise to most that last August, Maritime Law Book announced that it was shutting its doors and selling its collection.


The competitive vibrancy once associated with Canadian primary law was seemingly destined to be permanently recast as a static world where pretty much all lawyers outside Quebec used CanLII and some also used LexisAdvance or WestLawNext.


And, consequently, all future innovation in case law research and research platforms would be dictated by the resources supplied to CanLII and to timing and pricing of two international companies who had previously shown a willingness to release their latest products in Canada years after they had been released in the U.S.


To be clear, as CanLII’s former CEO, I am and will always be a huge CanLII supporter.

And I also believe that Lexis and Thomson Reuters make excellent products, that the companies are run by very competent people and that they are capable of delivering any innovation that might be of interest. I just question whether the market provides enough competitive discipline to make this happen in a timely basis, at a reasonable price and without a need to buy items you don’t want to get to what you do want.

My objection, then, is to a future where Canadian legal researchers find the quality and functionality of their tools rapidly falling behind what we see around the world, even as the prices stay high.

It’s for that reason that in November of last year, we acquired the Maritime Law Book assets and proceeded to develop and launch Compass, and to expand its coverage to include all courts outside Quebec. We had no illusions that it would be easy, or even possible to really have a significant impact. We just knew there was a need for someone to try and an opportunity to build a sustainable business.

Look south of the border, and although you don’t see an institution comparable to CanLII, what you do see are many companies applying competitive pressure to the big guys.


The other thing you see are literally hundreds of legal tech startups trying to solve legal data and legal practice challenges, with dozens of these focused on improving legal research or on offering some unique way of looking at primary law.


Yes, Canada has a burgeoning legal tech scene and it is very cool, but outside of Blue J Legal who is working with Thomson Reuters, none of the organizations whose ideas involve analyzing primary law have a clear path to commercial sustainability, because none have adequate access to case law.


Accordingly, our intention with Compass was to build integrations that would allow innovators, secondary source publishers, institutions and even law firms to work with our case law collection. We also sought to develop partnerships with other publishers, both from within Canada and around the world, to create distribution and licensing arrangements or multi-product packages that would allow us to collectively develop competitive alternatives to what you find with Lexis and TR Legal. That’s how we met vLex. I’ll return to them in a minute.

We faced challenges in trying to build the business we wanted to.


Although Compass was actually ahead of its plan in acquiring paying customers to our case law platform, we were going to require more money than we expected to make the technical improvements we knew were necessary to be taken seriously. And, of course, if we weren’t taken seriously, we weren’t going to make a difference other than, perhaps, serving as a cautionary tale.

Enter vLex and Justia.


Last week, we announced that vLex would be taking a substantial interest in Compass; that Justia would also be making an investment; and that the CEO’s of each organization would join our Board of Directors.

vLex was founded in Spain in 1998, by two brothers – one a lawyer, the other a mathematician – who believed there could be a better way to collect, organize and present legal information. Since then, vLex has grown to over 150 employees, and provides access to over 85 Million documents from over 100 countries and across over 500 databases. It is a leading provider in Spain and throughout latin America, and it has recently established relationships that will allow it to present perhaps the largest digital collection of U.S. case law anywhere.

Justia, a California-based company that provides the public with access to the law, legal information and lawyers, was founded over 10 years ago by the same husband and wife team that created FindLaw in 1995. With multiple Stanford and Harvard degrees between them, they are true pioneers and stalwart supporters of free law via the internet movement, and they are the operators of one of the world’s largest legal and lawyer information websites.

Each recognizes the need and opportunity to bring new levels of innovation and information access to Canada.


They, along with our existing board and other new Board addition – renowned legal market analyst Jordan Furlong – will be establishing a new plan for Compass. One that begins in June with the launch of 3 new vLex platforms:


The vLex platforms are not merely re-issues of what’s been done elsewhere. In fact, the Canadian platforms will contain the leading functions found in vLex premium products and in many respects will include first-anywhere functionality as Canadian users will be at the front of vLex development cycles and not at the end.

And we expect to roll these out as early as next month!

Teams in Barcelona, Miami and Ottawa are working hard at bringing the best of the Maritime Law Book and Compass platforms, along with all historical and current case law content into the new vLex Canada platforms.

In the meantime, you can sign yourself up and begin trials today on some existing vLex country platforms.


Over the coming weeks, you will hear more about vLex and our plans for Canada, including how we intend to work with third parties like many of the independent exhibitors you saw in the neighbouring room over the past few days.

But for now, I invite you to think about three legal research futures.

·     There’s the omnibot

·     There’s the walled-garden, and

·     There’s the integrated ecosystem

All will coexist to some degree, and your actions will help determine which one dominates.

The Omnibot future is one in which the public and even professionals increasingly rely on the Siri, Alexa and their cousins to provide a single probable answer to a questions. It’s no stretch of the imagination to believe that there will be both creators of and buyers for intelligent legal information systems that ingest all information and are trained to find a correct answer, or at least an answer that may be right enough to serve the questioner’s immediate purpose.

The walled-garden future is one in which our options are limited to one or two dominant entities that have built or acquired their way to a such a breadth of integrated solutions, that you will never need to look anywhere else to find what you need.

The integrated ecosystem, one hopes offers the benefits of the other scenarios in a “no wrong door” environment where access to the tools and services of one organization can serve as a doorway to the related resources and functionality of another. The simplest example could be live links to full text of cases where those cases are referenced in a niche subject monograph prepared by an independent publisher. Other examples could include easy access to lawyer performance analytics developed by a third party simply by clicking the lawyer name in a published version of a case.

Through Compass and vLex, and with the support and philosophical alignment of Justia, we believe in the integrated ecosystem and will be working hard to develop it.

We hope for your support and we encourage your continued support and interest in all independent publishers and service providers.

Colin Lachance

Colin Lachance

CEO, Compass (formerly Maritime Law Book)