T. R. Halvorson is a lawyer in sole practice in Sidney, MT, President of Pastel Programming Co. , a division of Synoptic Text Information Services, Inc., and author of Law of the Super Searchers: the Online Secrets of Top Legal Researchers , How to Avoid Liability: The Information Professional’s Guide to Negligence and Warranty Risks, and Legal Liability Problems in Cyberspace: Craters in the Information Highway.
On January 26, 2001, West Group 1 announced2 the acquisition of FindLaw. Reactions were varied as loyal users wondered, speculated, or feared what might become of this highly recognized information service. Many users depend on FindLaw because it provides an exceptional range of information and services without fee. It’s a boon to many, not the least to solo law practitioners, public libraries, laypersons, and people in rural areas.
I interviewed Stacy Stern3, Founder, President, and Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of FindLaw Inc. on January 31, 2001, the day after her return to California from Legal Tech 2001 in New York. If she was travel-weary or conference-weary, one would never have known from the energy and optimism in her voice. “Everything people know and love about FindLaw is going to be the same. We’re just going to make it better. This [acquisition by West] allows us to make a quantum leap,” Stern said.
TR: “FindLaw works. I hope West doesn’t ‘fix’ it.
STERN: “West knows that we have a successful formula. They are aware that we have a lot of loyal users. They want to continue with what made FindLaw’s success.”
TR: You know people are concerned about content disappearing or going from free to fee-based access.
STERN: People are nervous about that. None of the content that is currently on our site is going away. People I’ve talked with feel a lot better when they learn the content will stay.
TR: How about the people? FindLaw provides human-selected information, so it makes a difference to users whether the people who have done the job will stay.
STERN: We have about 55 staff people right now, and we are keeping them. West wants to keep the team together. They really value the group that we have.
TR: Does FindLaw gain any staff in the transaction?
STERN: FindLaw staff will be working closely with the whole Lawoffice.com team and gain the benefit of their staff effort. We have a General Manager from West who is just awesome, Debbie Monroe.4 She was heading the most successful sales division at West. We also gained a CFO from West, Scott Nelson.
TR: Are you and Tim [Stanley]5 staying? What will your roles be?
STERN: Tim and I are sticking around. We’re staying on. We’re really excited about it. Our functions are going to remain pretty much the same. Tim is going to be the CTO and I’m going be focused on marketing. Of course, as an internet company we’re always reorienting our jobs. Every day my job is little bit different. So I can’t say it will be the exact same job, but we are sticking around and both of us be very prominent within the company.
TR: What’s the entity status? Will FindLaw have any measure of independence?
STERN: FindLaw is now a wholly owned, independent subsidiary of West Group. We will continue to be based in Mountain View, California.
TR: Does the acquisition indicate any change in the mission of FindLaw?
STERN: No. No. Absolutely not. This is a win-win situation for everyone. It’s a win for West because we’re going to provide a key conduit for the distribution of West products and services. It’s a win for FindLaw because we’re going to be able to do so much more and move forward more quickly with the resources and experience of West. It’s a win for FindLaw users because we’re going to be able to make FindLaw even better.
TR: Will FindLaw gain any content from West?
STERN: Yes. I can give you some early examples and there will be more. We just came out with out legal directory. West’s legal directory has a lot more listings than ours. We’ll be integrating a lot of those listings and making FindLaw’s an even better directory. Presently we offer 25 continuing legal education course. With West, we will soon have over 300, and within six months we’ll have over a thousand. We will be able to link to KeyCite, which is a tremendous benefit. West is making a big commitment of money, resources, and experience. We’ll be able to increase the amount of promotions we do for FindLaw.
TR: Does West expect FindLaw to be a profit center?
STERN: Oh, I think West expects FindLaw to make money. All of West’s companies make money. (Mutual and hearty laughter.)
TR: What will be the criteria for advertising on FindLaw. Will we see more West ads? Will Lexis, particularly lexisONE, still have as much opportunity as before to advertise on FindLaw?
STERN: Well, I think you’ll see more promotions for West products on the site. As for Lexis, I haven’t talked with anyone about that, so I don’t think I can answer that.
TR: Why did West buy FindLaw?
STERN: You’d have to ask someone at West what their strategy is, but FindLaw gives West a powerful web engine for reaching legal professionals, businesses, and individuals. It’s going to be a key conduit for delivering West’s product and services such as the West Legal Directory, continuing legal education, career development services, knowledge management tools, and legal news.
TR: Is West using FindLaw to compete with lexisONE? Who does West see as its cometitor in the market for services provided by FindLaw?
STERN: I’ve heard other people ask the question about lexisONE too, and it’s a funny question to me. FindLaw has been out there for five years, it has been the leader, and lexisONE has been around for six months. FindLaw is unique in its breadth of services and really has no competition with the same breadth. There are a lot of people doing pieces of what we are doing, and some do those pieces very well, but no one else is doing all of them. Some people are doing CLE. Some people are doing legal placement services. Some people have guides. Some people are doing just news. FindLaw takes all of that and creates a marketplace.
Stern’s perspective is easy to understand. Had I been there every day and night for five years developing a service like FindLaw, I’d hope someone would acknowledge that as point taken. Then again, as she herself acknowledges, to find out what West’s strategy is, one would have to ask West. Bargaining parties don’t necessarily enter into a bargain for the same reasons.
1 West Group is a division of The Thomson Corporation (TSE: TOC) and was formed when West Publishing and Thomson Legal Publishing merged in June 1996. < back to text >
2 West Group Press Release January 26, 2001. Same press release at FindLaw site. < back to text >
3 Stern graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University with an A.B. in Communication. She received her J.D. from Harvard Law School, where she served as an editor for the Harvard Environmental Law Review. She is a member of the State Bar of California and has written on Internet legal research and trends for such publications as The Internet Lawyer and LegalResearch.com. < back to text >
4 See West Group Press Release January 29, 2001. Monroe has more than 20 years of management experience. She previously was vice president, Small-Mid Law Segment Marketing for West Group. She joined the West in January 1998 as vice president and general manager of the Southern Market Center. Before joining West Group she was vice president at Landmark Communications Inc., a privately held media company, where she managed the strategic acquisition of publishing, recruitment, marketing and reference services businesses, building a strong portfolio of successful, business-to-business dot-com companies. Monroe earned a doctorate at West Virginia University and master’s and bachelor’s degrees from North Carolina University. < back to text >
5 Tim Stanley is Founder, CTO, and Co-Chair of the Board of Directors of FindLaw Inc. Prior to founding FindLaw, Tim developed Web sites and databases for the legal and medical industries. Tim sits on the editorial board of the Encyclopedia of Law and Economics, and on the advisory board of the Stanford Technology Law Review at Stanford Law School. He is a co-founder of the Coalition of Online Journals and a member of the State Bar of California, American Civil Liberties Union, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and Electronic Frontier Foundation. Tim holds a B.S. and M.S. from Stanford University and a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School. < back to text >