CD-ROMs or not CD-ROMs – that is the question

April 30, 1999

Legal publishers have joined the technological revolution, making many oftheir important texts, law reports and legislation sources available for the PC.This has helped lawyers save on expensive office space and helped to speed uphumdrum research. However, as the market has begun to brim over with new andinteresting products, a dilemma has occurred. Do you invest in hardware tonetwork your CDs or subscribe directly to online systems?

Cherie Booth QC is an advocate of both systems and has found that they havetransformed her practice. In a recent column in The Lawyer (24 November1998), she commented on how electronic services are so much quicker and moreconvenient to use than books and looseleaf updates. Her chambers started withlaw reports on CD-ROM then expanded to include an online alerting service anddatabase of digests and transcripts of unreported judgments.

Lexis started the trend for online services, offering an archived library ofthousands of cases. This was accessed using special software and a telephonelink. Now, like other online publishers, it is available in a much simpler formvia the Internet. Investment in Internet technology is getting less expensive bythe day. Modems are integrated into most new PCs, thus cutting out the expenseof purchasing a modem. Dixons have started a trend for free subscription toInternet Service Providers, other companies such as Freenet have been quick tofollow suit. (BT Click is also offering a free subscription but are currentlyimposing a 1p/min surcharge on the telephone bill.) Larger practices, which havethe Internet available on networked PCs, have found using a permanent leasedline, together with a firewall for security, good value.

CD-ROM hardware can be expensive if a practice is intending to use multipleCDs and/or wishes to network them. Although all new PCs have single CD-ROMdrives, this is not much help if it is necessary to run several interlinked CDs,eg Weekly Law Reports and Electronic Law Reports (JUSTIS 5, published byContext). A CD-ROM jukebox can be purchased for a public access PC forapproximately £1,300. The hardware requisite for running CD-ROMs from anetworked stacker is far more costly.

Although the initial cost of running CD-ROMs may seem expensive, in the longrun they can work out much cheaper than online services. The cost of onlineservices is per annum, whereas once you have purchased the CD-ROM, the yearlyupdate is a fraction of the original price.

The information, supplied by online legal publishers, is far more up-to-datethan that of the traditional hard-copy looseleaf texts and CD-ROMs. This isbecause the online databases are updated at source, as opposed to going throughthe process of being compiled, published, and distributed to the user forinstallation. This process can take 4 to 6 weeks. However, although onlineservices will always be more up-to-date than CD-ROMs, they too have theirdrawbacks. Large files can take a long time to download and print. Sometimesthis can cause a loss of connection and, depending on the browser, may meanre-starting the download. This not only wastes time but can be quite irritating,although using an ISDN line will make this process quicker and should negatesome of the difficulties.

The Internet is not entirely stable. Accessibility is dependent on manyfactors: the quality of the telephone line; the maintenance of the server; andthe time of day. The increase in Internet traffic after midday, due to Internetaccess by the United States, causes the system to slowdown. However, Internettechnology is continuing to improve. Modems are getting faster; Internetsoftware is becoming more advanced; and digital telephone lines will become morewidespread. All of these improvements will make online services less problematicand far more efficient.

For the majority of legal practitioners, the choice of service will depend onthe law which they practise and the products available. Butterworths have mademany of their looseleaf texts accessible in a CD-ROM format. Where appropriate,they are updated on a monthly/annual basis. This is sufficient for mostnon-contentious subjects. However, litigators require daily updates on case lawand procedure. Online publishing is the most effective method for deliveringthis information.

Most legal publishers have established online databases and produce CD-ROMs.The services complement one another. Both Context and Sweet & Maxwellprovide an online updating service for their CD-ROM products. Butterworths usesimilar search software on their online databases which include Halsbury’s LawsDirect and All England Reporter (transcripts of unreported judgments) and theirCD-ROM of the All England Law Reports. In the future, it would be desirable toaccess multiple services, produced by different publishers, with the samesoftware. Alternatively, the data could be made available in a standard formatso that people can use their preferred choice of software.

With so many factors to take into account, the choice is not easy. It seemsthat the ideal solution would be to take advantage of the benefits of bothsystems. However, this may not be economically viable. If you do decide to godown the CD-ROM route, it is still worthwhile investing in a single Internetconnection. Many online publishers offer free services and trial subscriptions.There are a multitude of legal journals available free of charge on theInternet, eg The Law Society’s Gazette, The Lawyer and New Law Journal.Also, most of the broadsheet newspapers provide free websites, though you mustsubscribe first. For links to these and other free legal sites, see DeliaVenable’s legal resources page:

A comparison of both services is set out below.



Cost of services

The price of CD-ROMs is dependent on the material they contain and the amount of people who use them.
For a single user:
text books start from £205 (Green Book, published by Butterworths) and the full archive of the law reports are available for £10,000 (Electronic Law Reports, published by Context).

Online services are similarly priced – the more users, the higher the cost.
Online services appear cheaper than their CD- ROM equivalent. All England Law Reports, published by Butterworths, on CD-ROM start at £2,850 plus an extra cost for the updates.The online version is from £1,445 pa plus phone call.
Although initially the Online version is cheaper, after a few years the CD-ROM will work out more economical.

Cost of hardware

All new PCs come with a CD-ROM drive. If more than one drive is required, it will be necessary to invest in a CD-ROM jukebox. A 6-slot jukebox costs around £1,300.
There is extra expense involved in networking CD- ROMs.

Modems are now integrated into most new PCs so there is no need to purchase extra hardware.
The Internet provider market is most competitive. Businesses can negotiate very good rates for a permanent leased line so that access to the Internet can be made available across the network.
Stand-alone users can obtain free subscriptions to Internet Service Providers.

Availability of legal products

Law reports
Statutory Instruments
White Book
Green Book
Legal texts

Law reports
Statutory Instruments
Daily alerting services
Transcripts of unreported judgments

Multiple users

Yes but note expensive hardware.

Yes, either on a permanent line or via individual PCs


Use CD-ROM drive on laptop or if a link has been established, connect to firm’s network.

Need access to modem/telephone.
As long as it has been negotiated with legal publisher, can access website from any PC with an Internet connection.

Ease of use

Local availability, ie can access CD-ROM via CD- ROM drive or network.

Have to rely on temperament of service provider, the quality of the telephone line and have awareness of the time of day.
Large documents can take a long time to download and can cause connection to drop.


The access time depends on the speed of the processor and the CD-ROM drive.

This is determined by the time of day and the telephone line (ISDN is faster).

How up-to-date is the information

Even the most up-to-date CD-ROM will be at least 4-6 weeks out of date. This is because the information needs to be compiled and the CD has to be produced, then distributed.

Publishers of unreported judgments tend to update their services on a daily basis. Other services are often updated as and when necessary.

Who has responsibility for updating the product

The publisher updates the CD-ROM but the user must install the updated software.

The publisher is responsible.


This is a fairly simple process unless the software clashes with another product.

Launch Browser then type in the address of the Web site.