Wendy Beecham – New Head of Sweet & Maxwell/Westlaw UK

January 1, 2000

Wendy Beecham was interviewed by Laurence Eastham, themagazine’s Co-ordinating Editor.

The arrival of a new MD at Sweet & Maxwell, the oldest legal publisher,is not an obvious source of news for SCL’s members – a brief snippetperhaps, but hardly grounds for a full-scale interview. In fact such has beenthe frequency of change in that post that a change was hardly remarkable at all.What I think makes this arrival interesting is that we are about to see a shiftin the focus of one of our two legal publishing giants, and that must have animpact on the practice of law in England and Wales in the long term. What turnsthe interesting into something of relevance to SCL members is that that focus isto shift from mainstream publishing to online, and that online provision isgoing to be much influenced by the experience which Wendy Beecham brings fromher work with Westlaw.

When I met Wendy Beecham in October, the main launches were still to takeplace, as indeed they still are, but the attitudes and strategy were well setand are unlikely to be much altered by the time the main body of online productsis launched.


The PR handouts make something of the fact that Wendy Beecham was born in theUK and brought up (albeit briefly) in Kent, so her return is something of a fullcircle – although at her young age there are obviously a good few circles leftto turn. In fact the more interesting return is a return to roots: a return tothe law; although Wendy has a long history of involvement in the informationindustry (more than 20 years), her very earliest experiences of it were in a lawfirm library. Her experience with electronic research services there(principally, and with what now seems delicious irony, using Lexis) drew heraway from her ambitions in legal practice and into a career in the informationindustry.

Higher education in Texas and a stellar career in librarianship (but alwayswith online services to the fore) led to some ‘pretty sophisticated work incompetitive intelligence’, a significant role in the Society for CompetitiveIntelligence in the USA and the creation of an information retrieval system forthe pharmaceutical company she then worked for. The vendors of informationservices approached her and she began to work in sales for an electronicpublisher then she moved into product development. She first joined the ThomsonCorporation in 1986 and has climbed the career ladder there. Latterly, and nodoubt crucially, she was a Vice President at West Group, responsible for theacquisition and development of all content for Westlaw, westlaw.com and otherproducts for West Online.

The Online Focus

Wendy Beecham does not for a moment dispute that her arrival at Sweet &Maxwell is the result of concern over a perceived need for the company torespond to rival online products. That was as much an internal anxiety as anexternal pressure. In fact one of her initial concerns was that there was analmost desperate desire to ‘get online’ when the full import of onlineservices had not sunk in for all the company staff. So she is anxious tounderline the need for balance and that company growth can only come through allmedia.

The new services will be ‘Westlaw UK from Sweet & Maxwell’, anattempt to root a service new to most UK consumers in a name they know andtrust. Our discussions covered the question of the extent to which the Westlawinfluence had determined the UK product, and whether a retread of an Americansystem could ever fully cope with the intricacies of our legal system. Wendy wasat pains to emphasise that the presence of teams from Westlaw had been somewhatexaggerated and that, while the underpinning behind the scenes is Westlaw, theinterface has been completely redesigned for the UK. The UK interface isdesigned for searching cases and legislation in a way that is not appropriatefor the USA.

Changing the Way Lawyers Work

I could claim that my trip for this interview was the result of a majormisrepresentation. I went to hear about how the new services were ‘going tochange the ways lawyers work’. The main message from Wendy Beecham was that itis a fatal error to think like that. She referred to the pointlessness of tryingto make busy people adapt their working methods, when they do not even have timeto learn new software. But what makes such an approach out of the question forher is the perceived arrogance of legal publishers who think that they know whatlawyers want:

‘My perspective is that if you have not been inside a law firm in the lastsix months then you don’t know, because things change that quickly and youhave to have the customer interaction in order to really stay on top of what’shappening in the marketplace. Instead of just going to visit lawyers, you needto watch them work. In the product development process, I want to see marketmaps – some solicitors do research on their own, other market segments do not– I want to see that laid out and I want to see the automation readiness andadoption rates for those types of segments… I want to see a map of how peoplework and how they use our current products and then identify what’s missingand what we can build or integrate into something we already do.’

The watchwords are customise and research.

A New Era?

I was impressed by Wendy Beecham. It is true that I was charmed too, and myinterview technique is more properly compared with Jeremy Beadle’s than JeremyPaxman’s, but our lengthy and frankly enjoyable discussions were dominated byWendy’s real conviction and commitment. I focused earlier, at some length, onher background – and that was considered. I feel that the experience shegained as a practising librarian and at the sharp end of selling online productsinforms her understanding. She appears to have digested basic lessons which notall legal publishers are even aware of – lessons about what a product needs todo, about adding value and, above all, about meeting identified need rather thancreating it. She has, I gather from other sources, set a pace which has shaken afew of the older occupants of Sweet & Maxwell’s higher level offices. Thatcan be no bad thing because there is a history of complacency to overcome.

I rather think that she can and will change the corporate philosophy. If thathappens we could all benefit in the long run from online products that are tunedto real practical needs. The first pudding will provide the first evidence.