The Dead Tree Status Symbol

by Erik Y. Adams
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by Okinawa Soba / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In 1989, my law firm made a change regarding desk copies. Up until then, all litigators were issued a six volume, loose-leaf set of local court rules. Starting that year, this set of books was no longer handed out; instead, there were two copies in the library. If an attorney needed to look something up, they could pay us a visit. It was not entirely a popular move, but it did save the firm money.

I think we are now entering the twilight of desk codes. Just as the regular print collection has slowly been transitioning to electronic, so have desk copies. Some firms still give out print codes and other books, but every law librarian I know tells me desk copies are not as common or as plentiful as they used to be. The pace of change isn’t uniform—some law firms are more aggressive, and others less so—but the trend is universal: fewer books are found in attorney offices.

In California, the popular California Practice Guide series used to be a feature on every attorney’s desk. No tax practitioner would be without CCH’s Standard Federal Tax Reporter (and its many black binder friends). The Securities Act Handbook was commonplace. The list goes on and on. Print books that were once widely available to attorneys and maintained at firm expense are now only available electronically.

I used to have some sympathy for people who preferred a physical desk reference to an online resource on user experience grounds. I would hear that it made for a more
comfortable work flow to have a book on the desk, open to the relevant code section, while the word processor sat full screen on the computer monitor. An attorney could easily glance down at the book and then back at the work product without the jarring context shift that accompanies an Alt-Tab jump between word processor and web browser. I don’t feel that way anymore, now that we live in an age of 20-inch monitors (many attorneys have two!) and screen real estate is no longer at a premium.

I’ve talked to colleagues at other firms, and everyone has a horror story about an attorney that wouldn’t make the move to electronic or for whom an exception was made. One firm recently encountered this when a large group of lateral attorneys joined the firm and asked for books their previous firm provided, but which the new firm does not. This has always been a potential problem. A firm might provide the content from one publisher but not another, frustrating new hires used to something different. But now it has the additional hurdle of the move from print to electronic.

Curiously, some publishers use restrictive licensing schemes (like West’s library maintenance agreement) that create a disincentive for completely dropping print. I know of at least one firm that has multiple sets in storage, maintained but unused. Most of these volumes used to be in attorney offices, but in an effort to discourage that behavior (and encourage use the of the electronic version), they’ve been mothballed. The books are still maintained only because the contract requires the firm to keep a minimum number of print copies even while allowing for an unlimited number of users for the electronic version.

I can’t help but wonder if part of our enthusiasm for electronic resources has given print a cachet among attorneys. A large desk and an oriental rug used to be the markers of importance at a law firm. But in an increasingly electronic world, the “dead tree” desk copy has become a kind of status symbol. I can almost hear the attorneys think, “The firm won’t provide this book to everyone. I must be really important.”.

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This entry was posted in ebooks, Legal Technology, Library Collections, Platform change, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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