Letter to the Editor

November 1, 2001

Thanks for yet another well written piece. We really don’t see enough straight talking in the literature of legal information.

Picking up your point on publishers’ long-term commitment to free-access services I thought I would share my trials with Everyform, well-known to SCL members who voted it as the winner of our award for IT in 1999.

In case people don’t know, Everyform is a service which makes forms available as documents that you can type text into (like a word processor) as opposed to the ones free on the official sites which for some inexplicable reason are images rather than Word documents. There are also a few forms written by barristers/legal experts which are not statutory or official but simply constitute a good form of wording for a particular deal (precedents). (This is where more expensive competitors Oyez and Laserforms are currently streets ahead).

Everyform was bought by Butterworths/Reed in February. Initially, most of its Scotland-based staff were made redundant, later all of them were. My impression as a user was that no new forms were added nor any changes made to existing ones during the next few months, although I may be wrong in detail.

We also had an arrangement with Everyform that they would e-mail us to alert us when forms needed to be updated – this stopped happening. (Discovered, inevitably, while I was away and the forms were needed urgently: Murphy strikes again.)

I mentioned it to Ivan Darby, Butterworths’ Director of IT, in May and got a non-committal response. Frankly I was starting to give up. However, when reviewing the marketplace in July, I had the good fortune to speak to Mark Dorman, a member of the former Everyform staff now rehired as the Product Development Manager. Butterworths have finally made a smart move in this story.

Future development will concentrate on the Forms Assured product (the expensive version). It promises to be very impressive and relatively cheap. A technical improvement is planned to make it compatible with practice management systems such as Norwell. This means that you can open the form with some fields (like your address) already filled in. It may also retrieve client details by reference to the matter number. What is automatically put into what box is determined on a desktop-by-desktop basis.

I strongly suspect that the free service from Everyform will disappear completely – I am sure if you publish this letter then Butterworths will be getting back to us and letting us know.

It seems like the classice-commerce storyline: start-up > better IT than your rivals > win an award > sell the company to a big conglomerate & divvy up with the venture capitalists. (This may be unfair, it is how it looks to a user.)

Which brings us round to what a traditional business does with a service designed for a start-up model. And the answer looks like it’s going to be scrap the free elements and turn the excellent delivery mechanisms and online advantages into a stronger product at a cheaper price than the opposition. (Or cock it up by failing to support or retain Mr Dorman which still worries me and still seems a distinct possibility.)

This may be the long-term picture for many of the excellent free services we see now. Some of the best services are already provided by the publishers (lawyerlocator and Butterworths Direct news). They may stop once they are no longer commercial and as the e-commerce business model evolves. And the excellent legal information portals provided by Sarah Carter, Delia Venables et al are very vulnerable to the person doing it deciding to stop. As for the official ones like Austlii, they will survive as long as there is political will to bear the cost of the project and they can survive inter-departmental infighting. But it’s desperately optimistic to assume any given site will be there forever.

But what is most assured is that as the services we know and like to use go, new ones will spring up.

As you say marketing and alerting may be the single most important element to end-users.