(Justine Becket)

E-books would seem to be a technology particularly suited for law firms. They travel well (stored on an e-book reader, tablet or laptop) and require no expensive real estate for shelving. If a title is ever lost, it can easily be downloaded again.

Yet when The American Lawyer asked, in its last couple of law librarian surveys, whether firms were actually buying e-books, the overwhelming answer was no. In the 2013 survey, just 21 percent of respondents were investing in e-books—a figure that was down from 2012, when 24 percent of firms were buying them. In interviews, library chiefs noted their interest in e-books, but also the challenges in adopting them. Among those challenges: the use of incompatible formats by vendors and pricing models that were too complex and too pricey.

Many technologies—even those that have already proved vastly successful—experience growing pains. So, nearly a year after that last survey, we decided to speak once again with library directors to find out whether the kinks in e-books have been worked out. The short answer: Not quite. But the story isn’t all gloomy. While the challenges, and frustrations, of e-books remain, so, too does their attractiveness. The half-dozen library chiefs we spoke to have been thinking about and experimenting with the technology and the business models. They’ve got ideas for the industry about what works, what doesn’t work—and how e-books can be jump-started, finally, within law firms.

Make the platform “library-friendly.” Anyone who has ever wanted to read an e-book from Barnes and Noble on an Amazon Kindle has experienced a file compatibility—or, more accurately, file incompatibility—problem. Vendors often use proprietary formats for the e-books they sell, requiring the use of proprietary software, or apps, to read them (vendors provide these programs free of charge, making their money on the e-book titles instead). While “open” standards do exist—formats like EPUB and MOBI that can be read on a variety of reader apps—legal publishers have tended to taken the proprietary approach. Thomson Reuters, for example, uses an e-reader platform known as ProView, so its line of e-books must be read through a special ProView app. Proprietary formats aren’t necessarily a bad thing. In theory, they allow publishers to create unique and useful features. ProView, for instance, lets lawyers highlight passages, create notes and search across their entire library of Thomson Reuters e-books.

But when formats differ among publishers, lawyers who want to use a variety of e-books need to download, install and learn a variety of software. Meanwhile, law libraries, which typically administer, troubleshoot and train lawyers on the platforms, can find themselves devoting more time to technical issues—maybe too much time. “Already we have thin staffs,” says Holly Pinto, director of library services at Holland & Hart.

And there’s another, even bigger problem with most current platforms: They’re not designed for lending titles. Today, an e-book is typically a one-time purchase—a title that is bought for and possessed by a particular lawyer. It is registered for that attorney, resides on the tablet or PC of that attorney, can be used only by that attorney. And, in what is certainly no small detail, it will leave the firm when that lawyer does (provided it is on a personally owned device, which most attorney tablets are).

A better approach, Pinto and other chiefs say, would be a model that corresponds to how a library actually works—not giving away books, but circulating them. This would require a platform in which the book belongs to the library, is managed by it and can be pulled back into the library when a loan period ends or a lawyer leaves the firm.

The idea isn’t wishful thinking. One legal publisher, LexisNexis, has already built a platform along these lines. While the library directors we spoke with haven’t all signed on—or are even convinced that this is the ideal implementation—the consensus is that it’s a step in the right direction. (In the interest of full disclosure, The American Lawyer’s parent company, ALM Media, has a content licensing agreement with LexisNexis.)

LexisNexis’ key move was to partner with OverDrive, a Cleveland company that powers the e-book platforms used by many public libraries. Readers visit a Web site, browse their library’s selection of e-books and can check out available titles. They don’t get to keep the titles forever, just for specific loan periods—the same way that a conventional library works. OverDrive can be accessed via a PC or mobile device using the company’s app.

Right now, the LexisNexis Digital Library has some 2,000 publications available, according to Scott Meiser, senior director, research information, at LexisNexis. These include reference books, treatises, code books and primary law volumes. Firms that sign up for the service get a custom “e-library” website, created by OverDrive, that mirrors the print content the firm has from LexisNexis, at least for titles that are available as e-books. (Meiser says the list is growing.) The titles can then “circulate like the physical books,” Meiser says. If a library has 10 print copies, it can circulate 10 e-book copies at any given time. When the book is due to be returned, the platform automatically pulls the copy back.

“The novel technology here is that you can really maintain a digital library in a way that mimics print library lending and borrowing, instead of buying titles ad hoc,” says Jeffrey Bois, director of research and information services at Foley & Lardner, which has been using the LexisNexis platform. While there has been a bit of a learning curve for the firm’s lawyers, “if you are waiting for the perfect solution, you may be waiting forever,” Bois says. “Getting in now does a few things for us. It allows us to start getting accustomed to managing digital library collections alongside print, it exposes attorneys to e-books in a professional setting, and it lets us proactively work with vendors to shape how the use of e-books in this environment will evolve.”

Make pricing more fexible. E-book pricing has long been a sticking point for law firms. Generally, an e-book is considered a distinct product: Publishers don’t simply give you one because you already bought the print version. In fact, say some library chiefs, it’s not unusual for an e-book to cost even more than its print counterpart—something that rankles them. For one thing, when you buy an e-book, you’re really buying just a license to use that title. You’re not buying the book itself, as you do with a print title. “You don’t own anything for the purchase price—you are ‘renting,’” says Pinto.

Nor do the library chiefs think the added functionality of e-books, like highlighting and annotating, warrants a premium over print, since e-books enable publishers to save on printing, binding and other costs. E-books “should be cheaper or at most the same price as print,” says one library director who asked not to be identified. “I had to negotiate just to get one publisher to do an even swap, letting us give up our print copies for the same number of e-book copies. They wanted more money at first.”

Yet just getting to the point where a firm can do any print-for-electronic swap, even or not, is no small accomplishment. “I would have no problem purchasing an e-book for someone if they would be willing to give up their print version, but that’s not what we’re hearing from lawyers,” says another library chief who requested anonymity. “So we’d end up having both the print and the electronic copy, and I don’t have the budget for that.”

Some practice areas may be more amenable to e-books than others, a fact that firms could leverage to more efficiently deploy the technology. Last year, when DLA Piper told its litigators they could have traditional print versions of court rules or they could have e-book versions—but they couldn’t have both—about half opted for the electronic copies, according to Jean O’Grady, the firm’s director of research services and libraries. It was a surprisingly strong showing for the e-books, which gave weight to the notion that litigators might be a good place to focus initial e-book efforts. But the key word is “might.” The more telling statistic, says O’Grady, will be the percentage who continue with e-books once it is time to renew those titles. “Will people ask to get rid of them and go back to books?” she asks. “We don’t know that yet.”

Indeed, perhaps the only thing firms can be sure of about the transition from print copies to e-books is that it won’t be quick or seamless. One-for-one replacements won’t always be possible, so firms will need to experiment with and adjust the mix for years to come. This, say the chiefs, demands more flexible pricing models, under which libraries won’t be paying twice the price for twice the formats.

• Keep the user experience in mind. Not all titles work as e-books. While having court rules and securities laws on an iPad can be handy, treatises can prove cumbersome. “Lawyers want to see all the sections pertaining to a topic, and those might be across multiple volumes of a treatise,” says O’Grady. “Having them check out and check in different volumes is too clunky.” For working with treatises, she says, an online research service would make more sense, since it could readily display all the pertinent passages.

There’s also the matter of first impressions. They mean a lot with new technologies, and with new media like e-books. If a lawyer’s initial experience is a frustrating one, he or she may not return for more. For firms and vendors alike, focusing on the types of content most suited for e-book format—and putting others on the back burner—could help avoid roadblocks.

Adoption can be spurred in other ways, too. At firms that are members of the New York Law Institute, for instance, attorneys can try out e-books, for free, via the institute’s e-book library. Books downloaded to PCs and mobile devices and automatically expire at the end of the loan period.

“In ten or so years, the majority of books will be electronic, whether as 
e-books or as part of an online database,” Bois says. “But it could be a pretty long curve to get there.” Just how long that curve will be will depend on how firms approach this promising—but still fledgling—technology, and how flexible vendors want to be.

Contributing editor Alan Cohen writes about law firms and technology.