[The following column originally appeared in print in January 2010. I am republishing it as part of my continuing effort to maintain an archive of my published columns. Important note: I have not updated this since its original publication. While most of the sites remain as described, some may have changed. All information was current as of the date of original publication.]

Is there room in the legal market for a third high-end legal research service? That is the question as Bloomberg, a company known for its financial news, attempts to muscle in on the turf now occupied by Westlaw and LexisNexis. In December, it officially launched its comprehensive, Web-based service, Bloomberg Law.

For Bloomberg, it is a radical move. It is the first time the company has untethered a major information product from its trademark terminals. The terminals are ubiquitous in financial firms but have never achieved significant presence in law firms. This Web-based product represents Bloomberg’s concession to the legal market’s lack of interest in its terminal-based services.

For the legal market, the move is brazen. Bloomberg seeks to stake out a claim on terrain where West and Lexis have had years to shore up fortifications. In taking on these services mano-a-mano, Bloomberg differentiates itself as the only one that integrates legal content with proprietary news and business intelligence.

Bloomberg’s biggest challenge may lie in convincing the legal market that it needs another high-end research service. The trend in research is towards lower cost services and more open access to legal materials. Bloomberg would seem to be swimming against the tide.

One way Bloomberg will compete is by offering a uniform, fixed price as a counterpoint to the cryptic and confusing pricing plans of West and Lexis. A Bloomberg subscription is $450 per user per month. That is not cheap, but it covers all usage and is less than firms would generally pay to West or Lexis. It also offers a floating license for $1,250 a month that covers five users, but allows only one to log in at a time.

Swagger and Substance

Price aside, the bigger question is how Bloomberg measures up as a legal research service. This much is clear: Bloomberg is getting into the game with swagger. Not only is it loading up on primary legal content, but it is also creating reams of editorial enhancements. It has developed its own citator to rival Shepard’s and KeyCite, its own headnotes, and its own numbering system to rival West’s key numbers.

To accomplish all this and bring itself up to competitive speed, Bloomberg hired an army of lawyers – some 500 now on the payroll, I was told – and has them nose to the grindstone writing headnotes, tagging cases and readying a law digest.

One of those lawyers recently gave me a tour of Bloomberg Law and then gave me a trial account so that I could explore it on my own. (I cannot tell you his title because Bloomberg’s egalitarian structure does not allow job titles.)

A Work in Progress

My overall impression of Bloomberg Law was of a luxury yacht only partially constructed. It looks impressive and many parts of it are fitted out with top-of-the-line features. But as you wander around its decks, many doorways open to unfinished, empty rooms. It is seaworthy, one assumes, but still has a lengthy punch list.

This is ambition exceeding execution, perhaps. Take the Bloomberg Law Digest, for example. It is touted as a detailed index of legal topics collecting key cases, statutes, regulations and other materials. So far, however, many of the topic headings lead only to blank pages, still awaiting content from that army of lawyers.

Cases are another example. Bloomberg’s library of cases is complete, in that it has full collections of all federal and state appellate decisions and trial-court libraries on a par with those offered by West and Lexis. The cases include pagination.

However, Bloomberg Law’s reference guide and marketing materials say that cases include staff-written headnotes and points of law. Some do, but in my trials, the majority of the cases still do not have headnotes. Click the button that is supposed to display the headnotes and instead you get a message, “No headnotes available.”

One strong and fully executed feature is the Bloomberg Law Citator, Bloomberg’s answer to Shepard’s from LexisNexis and KeyCite from West. As you view a case, an icon alerts you to its status and a panel to the right shows a graphical summary of subsequent citations. A click of a button opens an in-depth analysis showing the case’s direct history, citation history and a list of the cases it cited.

A nice feature of Bloomberg is docket searching, covering federal dockets and selected state and international dockets. It is the only legal research service that has complete U.K. dockets, I was told. It also provides tracking and alert services for federal legislation and regulations.

A Marriage of Law and News

A key emphasis of Bloomberg Law is the marriage of legal research and current awareness. The idea is to provide lawyers with primary legal content while also enabling them to monitor their clients’ industries and businesses. It does this well, integrating law and news seamlessly in a number of ways.

To this end, the home page replicates a news terminal. The lead legal news story tops the page and legal headlines appear in a box to the right. The page’s lower half has tabs allowing you to choose among Morning Legal Briefings, daily reports of top news in various practice areas; Law Reports, more in-depth stories covering court and legal developments; and top news from around the world or filtered by topic or region.

The front page also has a watchlist where you can track company stocks and click through to in-depth information and news about the company. Every public company has a page. Among other things, the pages list all recent filings in which a company is named, including from court dockets and SEC filings.

A Design that Shines

One aspect in which Bloomberg Law shines is its design. It is fast, intuitive and thoughtfully arranged. I especially like that – as do most modern browsers – it uses tabs, opening new documents in separate tabs so that you never lose your research trail or have to backtrack through it.

Searching on Bloomberg Law is quick and uses either Boolean or plain-language queries. A search can be run broadly across a range of content types (e.g., court opinions, dockets and statutes) or more narrowly by jurisdiction, practice area or industry. Filters allow easy refinement of search results by topic and industry.

The Research Trail feature automatically saves all research and documents and stores them indefinitely for later retrieval. Another feature, Workspace, allows you to save research and documents in folders and share them with colleagues. Sharing can be done only within your own firm.

Tabs across the top of the screen provide ready access to a user’s Workspace and Research Trail, as well as to saved searches and alerts. Users can set alerts for virtually any type of content on Bloomberg Law.

The left-hand navigation pane collapses with a click to provide more viewing space on the screen. The pane provides links to all of the main sections of Bloomberg Law and also to a collection of practice-area pages. These pages highlight recent court opinions and articles related to the practice area, link to key resources for the area (including blogs), and provide shortcuts to search core libraries related to the practice.

Bloomberg of
fers a telephone and e-mail help desk staffed 24/7 by lawyers, law librarians and paralegals. I e-mailed the help desk at nearly midnight about a log-in problem and received an answer within minutes, much to my surprise.

Will it Float?

For now, Bloomberg Law is a work in progress. It remains to be seen whether, once construction is completed, there will be sufficient demand for it in the legal market.

The product is targeted at larger firms, but also at smaller firms with a need for robust docket searching and financial intelligence. Few large firms are likely to dump West or Lexis and switch solely to Bloomberg Law. That means they are likely to buy this only if they see it as a necessary add-on to their research arsenal or a partial substitute for higher-priced services.

Law firms heavily involved in securities and finance are most likely to buy Bloomberg Law, given its melding of law and financial news. For the broader legal market, Bloomberg Law has a tough sell ahead and a lot of work to complete in the meantime.

Copyright 2010 Robert J. Ambrogi

Photo of Bob Ambrogi Bob Ambrogi

Bob is a lawyer, veteran legal journalist, and award-winning blogger and podcaster. In 2011, he was named to the inaugural Fastcase 50, honoring “the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries and leaders.” Earlier in his career, he was editor-in-chief of several legal publications, including The National Law Journal, and editorial director of ALM’s Litigation Services Division.