Truth to Power

It was some years ago that I first came across the “House of Butter” blog, set up and run by Sean Hocking and forming part of Australia-based Sean has made many Slaw contributions, so the origins of and thinking behind House of Butter are recorded in several articles, particularly in the period 2010-2014. Prior to Practice Source, he had established and published the regular PDF alerting service, Law Librarians News.

Our first exchange may have been after I read a piece from him which, I thought at the time, may have been a little dismissive or disrespectful of many whose careers are dedicated to providing the highest standards in law publishing. It may have been his Slaw post, Happy Hamsters Are Back on Their Wheel and the specific sentence You can, though, substitute any legal publishing executive (hamster) from either of the companies and it’d all read the same”, which will have triggered my perceived need, having been one of them (a legal publishing executive, that is, not a hamster), to send Sean an email, to which he replied graciously. With hindsight, and on learning more, I realised that I was wrong, and it is clear that he is on the side of the good guys of legal and professional publishing, having been one of them himself, and that he understands and supports their talents, intelligence and the best of their objectives, often in the face of almost impossible challenges.

Since those days, although we have not met face-to-face or even spoken by telephone, I have remained in regular contact with Sean Hocking and regard House of Butter as an unmissable and essential daily read, as is Slaw. I follow the other blogs which form part of Practice Source less attentively, my focus and experience being in legal and professional information provision rather than librarianship, academia or professional practice. Without doubt, Practice Source and Sean Hocking have their eyes and ears on the bigger and ever-changing picture. Courage too, has been shown in addressing wide and important issues, concerning the environment and law, the defence and protection of rule of law and in support of those in legal practice who stand up for human rights and equality, rather than simply being focused on profit. Sean’s involvement with AnyLaw, is a testament to his support for the provision of certain free and accessible legal source material in the USA.

Inevitably, some will, occasionally dishonestly or in ignorance, write off observers and harsh critics, as bitter and twisted, with historical axes to grind, which is always possible, but for the most part, that misses the point. In fact, thankfully, House of Butter offers what I am sure is a safe and confidential place for company insiders and others, at all levels, to speak their truths, as whistle-blowers and to debunk the dishonesty that is frequently broadcast by the bigger information providers. The myth that everything that went before is bad and that everything present and future is good, is as naïve as the opposite of those notions. The problem may be that it is convenient for the idea to be propagated in order to sell ideas, products and services, even when they are unworthy, as well as to seek to justify actions, both good and bad, and, occasionally, to protect the mediocre, or worse. The “next big thing”, especially when no need is perceived to underpin it with evidence, can be tantalising.

It would be easy to fail to understand or appreciate the important function of House of Butter, a far-off, however healthily sceptical and challenging voice, which may well be lost in a sea of $£€multi-billion international, rampant capitalism; that would be a mistake. The blog, and Sean’s written output, are read by those within and at the heads of legal information businesses, large and small, around the English (and maybe Dutch)-language world. Where they do not, they would be well advised to do so. A champion of librarians and of law libraries, understanding the importance of both, as well as of legal practitioners, booksellers and distributors and those doing the work which makes the industry work, he is indeed speaking truth to power. He reminds us of the dangers that might emerge, if and when that which customers understand to be high quality information, combined with standards of service which might reasonably be expected, have become unrecognisable or have mostly disappeared, and become sorely missed. Hannah Steeves, in Using Vinyl & Spotify to Understand Legal Information Online, makes the relevant point that the connection between tangible, physical forms of information and the digital adaptation. They can’t flip through hyperlinks, but hopefully understanding that the digital is trying to emulate the print’s pages, indexes, and volumes makes their navigation of the online version a bit easier to comprehend”.

Like other critics, Sean Hocking is, I suspect, saddened at certain aspects of the direction of the industry. The current era of disposal of legal publishing businesses, not so much among publishers but from them to venture capitalists, is likely to have significant impact on the industry and its customers. Another recent recent example is the sale of West Academic, sold by Thomson Reuters to Levine Leichtman Capital Partners, and recently disposed of again to BARBRI Global, itself a portfolio company of Francisco Partners, possibly to facilitate the marriage of content to software. On these topics, Sean has intimated the view that, over time, divesting from legal education will prove to be expensive for the main information providers and that incoming practitioners will have wider, less-expensive and no-cost choices from a range of different suppliers. Meanwhile, the established providers increasingly offer technical developments to enhance research capability that are inclined to be overblown, over-complicated and over-priced, creating solutions in search of problems. They may be betting excessively on their technical prowess and may find themselves languishing behind paywalls that will remain expensive, ever more difficult to navigate and understand and, ultimately, they will suffer diminished brand awareness, the cost of which will be measurable. Lexis Nexis, he suggests, and recently V-Lex, appear to be trying to counter this with ever-more news-based products to compete with Thomson Reuters, but have come to this market rather late.

My sense (no more than that), as an admirer of House of Butter, is that it might be concerned that, from some of the major legal information and solutions’ providers, what they offer is sometimes considered unnecessary, taking advantage of customer inexperience and gullibility, while at the same time putting in the shadows those smaller and more committed providers whose motives are more genuine but whose voices and bank balances are more modest. Increasingly populated with people of influence who have no background, appropriate training, experience and knowledge in and of, or affinity with the law, if not antagonism to it, instincts are to defend and promote that about which they feel more comfortable. This may be what causes their greater emphasis on the business of law, well-being, technology, therapy of one kind or another, etc., rather than on the minutiae of the law itself. As the industry evolves, the best of those who remain might be the generic back-office technocrats who sometimes think that their needs and opinions should be appreciated more than the complex and nuanced requirements of customers. The worst are probably, as some believe, the horrendous venture capitalists, with their “get rich(er) quick(er)” objectives, short-term holdings and too much of other people’s money to spread around, but little else of deeper value to offer.

For all that, it must be remembered that angels only exist in the minds of children and the delusional, and that pragmatism, reason, logic, greed and fear are greater drivers of action in business than is outright goodness. Practice Source and House of Butter, like Slaw, for reasons that are obvious and necessary, take money from sponsors and advertisers and must look after their interests in order to survive. Some of those sources of funds are legal information and solutions providers now, or were in the past or will be potentially, probably limiting the inclination for certain comments to be made against them. I would go so far as to suggest, however cynically, that almost no critic, commentator or writer of advertorial-style content on the industry in question, and others in similar categories, can have genuine credibility for so long as they have something measurable to gain or lose from it, this being a likely reason for any commentary or opinions expressed; the Ross Intelligence saga might be a good example. Again, by example, even more overtly, a recent video interview with Wolters Kluwer’s CEO, hosted by an industry consultant, is, in my opinion, blatantly uncritical, unchallenging and laden with friendly background video, so as to deliver an advertisement rather than a representation of truth and accuracy. Furthermore, and back to House of Butter, in the past, Sean Hocking established and subsequently sold it to Lexis Nexis. There may be reason to imagine that, at some point, Practice Source might be acquired by Lexis Nexis, Thomson Reuters, or by worse still. It appears, though, that the major professional information providers are presently headed in the opposite direction, in divesting businesses associated with legal information, and while Thomson Reuters reports flat earnings in its legal segment. Still, it’s not as if much logic pertains. However, for so long we do not hear of the melting or fall of the House of Butter, and it remains independent, fiery and with sharp, hamster-avoiding satire, its readers should be appreciative.

Editor’s Note: This article is republished with permission of the author, with first publication on Slaw.
Posted in: KM, Legal Research, Legal Technology