Citing Legal Industry Disruption, West, Lexis Open their Data to Free Access

[Editor’s note added 4/2/14: OK folks, lest the date reference be lost, this was an April Fool’s joke. Sorry to disappoint.]

Last month, Harvard Law School hosted the conference, Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services, featuring Harvard Business School Prof. Clayton M. Christensen, author of the seminal 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. That came not long after ReInvent Law NYC, another conference that focused on innovation and disruption in the legal industry. Indeed, as I wrote then, we may be in the midst of a time of unprecedented innovation in legal technology.

Mike Walsh

Citing this very trend towards disruption in the legal industry, the heads of the legal business units within Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis issued an unprecedented joint statement this morning declaring to open their legal research databases to free access and to cooperate with each other in making legal information universally available to lawyers and non-lawyers alike.

“Our companies are jointly committed to eliminating barriers of cost and complexity that inhibit broad access to legal information and materials,” said the statement. “Beginning today, April 1, Westlaw, Westlaw Next,  Lexis.com and Lexis Advance will be offered to the public at large, without cost of any kind.”

The statement was signed by Mike Walsh, chief executive officer of the global legal business of LexisNexis, and Susan Taylor Martin, president of Thomson Reuters Legal.

Susan Taylor Martin

The statement quoted Christensen, who said at the Harvard conference, “Disruptive innovations are innovations that transform products that are complicated and expensive into things that are affordable and accessible.” Rather than be disrupted by smaller start-ups, the statement went on to say, the two companies had decided to lead the disruption themselves.

The decision to open their legal databases was also inspired by the work of the Free Access to Law Movement and its Declaration on Free Access to Law, as well as by public domain advocate Carl Malamud and his work through Public.Resource.Org to make government information more accessible.

Taylor Martin, who became president of TR Legal Jan. 1, may have foreshadowed this move in a January interview with Law Technology News editor Monica Bay. She told Bay then that the legal industry seemed to be on the cusp of dramatic change, adding that she could not say whether that change was a decade or two away or whether “we are on the brink of really quite disruptive change?”

Unfortunately, the announcement came with one proviso: Free access will be available only to those who register before the close of this April 1 calendar day. After today, it will be back to business as usual.