Sitting at dinner with executives from Thomson Retures Legal (TRL) in St. Paul, MN, one of my colleagues asked, “what do you expect from us?” The answer was that they simply wanted to tell their story. At the time I wondered if this was a direct hint toward a recent blog post I wrote, encouraging vendors to tell their story. I put the suspicion from my mind. My suspicions were re-ignited the next day at their headquarters in Eagan, MN when one of the reference attorneys presenting to us specifically referenced that blog post.

But the most amazing part of the trip was what TRL successfully did during that meeting, and have failed to do since. They told their story.

That’s why I had been planning on writing a post about the trip to Minnesota, and meeting with the WestlawNext folks. It was a unique experience and an interesting process that itself could be important, beyond the topic of discussion (WestlawNext).

And after February 1 when they unveiled WestlawNext at LegalTech in New York, I was prepared to blog about the value provided by the bloggers I sat in those meetings with, compared to the superficial tweets and posts coming from LegalTech.

But my friend and colleague Sarah Glassmeyer may have forced my hand a little by raising the issue of vendor swag and question of ethics, including the decision I and others made to accept an all expenses paid trip to Eagan Minnesota to meet with the WestlawNext team and preview the product.

Comments about this have ranged from the on point, to the factually inaccurate (all librarians on the trip had passwords which enabled them access to the product). And a larger discussion of librarian vendor relations has followed.

Now, I currently do not accept vendor swag. I used to. I do not remember the exact point at which I stopped accepting it (early 2009), nor do I remember the exact reasons (general feeling of ickiness). But I do not accept swag anymore. However, I did accept this trip to see WestlawNext.

I did not accept the trip immediately and not without some reservation. Yes, I questioned whether or not it was appropriate to accept a trip from TRL to preview this product. Beyond the ethical questions raised by accepting such a trip, flying to Minnesota, on about two weeks notice, in January at the start of the semester, is at best an inconvenience and at worst a pain in the ass. As my colleague mentioned this was not a trip to Hawaii.

Now here’s where it gets a little tricky.

I am a blogger – whatever that means to you – to me that includes some amateurish semblance of news gathering, editorializing, and simply passing on information. I decided long ago to not to place too much emphasis on counting how many visitors I have, subscribers to my feed, etc. I have had offers to monetize this blog and turned them down for one reason or another. But there are some people who do indeed read this blog, and find it valuable.

Now, since I am not employed as a professional news gatherer my organization cannot afford to send me to every event that may be valuable. I either use part of my professional development/travel budget, or pay my own way. Which is fine. In this particular instance, TRL decided to pay to fly me and other bloggers into Minnesota on their own dime. They gave me a place to stay for the night, and fed me. It was not a vacation. I spent most of one day traveling, and the second day in meetings.

I decided, right or wrong, that it was within my professional responsibility, and the scope of this blog to accept this trip. I mean that it may be advantageous to the organization that employs me (Yale Law Library) to have a staff member get an early insider’s view of an important new product, it may be advantageous to my career (I am up for promotion in a few years) to note that I was recognized as a blogger recognizable enough to be worth the cost to fly out to Minnesota, and valuable to the readers of my blog that I was at the meeting.

I stand by the decision.

Now some people,like this commenter, might think this makes me a less reliable authority on such matters. That doesn’t worry me. Long time readers of myself and Tom Boone know who we are and whether or not we are valuable, reliable sources of information. Frankly, I think devaluing our two voices (along with the other dozen or so bloggers there) is a disservice to any law librarian and their own professional reading.

There is of course a larger issue of vendor-librarian relations that I think should be addressed. And this is a wholely different issue than accepting an ipod (a gift I wasn’t offered and would not have accepted). FYI, I was offered but did not accept any swag while on this trip.

But I will save this larger post for later. Let’s consider this part 1.

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Quick question: did TRL invite any female law librarians? Just curious :)

February 4, 2010 5:12 pm

Yes.

February 4, 2010 5:14 pm

Jason,

When I read Sarah’s post, I was thinking one thought in particular, which you hit on nicely. You’re both a librarian and a blogger. As the later, you have the unique opportunity to be on the front of a major development and shape its debate, to ask questions of (and expect answers) the very individuals, as you say, “telling the story.” Taking the trip is an imperative precisely because you are read. As long as you disclose the benefit, your readers can decide for themselves whether you were swayed. But I can assure you, after having read the posts of everyone who attended, there is more good information and probing questions about this product than just about any CALR system I’ve seen or used. Information that will help decision makers (hopefully).

Now, with that said, I would be lying if I didn’t say it was cool to be invited. Whether you count the number of visitors or subscribers to your site or not isn’t important as much as the fact that Thomson Reuters thought enough about your opinion to preview the go-to-market strategy. And for anyone involved in that business, it’s flattering. Just don’t let it go to your head when you write the post. Like one that talks about how sucky secondary sources look on WestlawNext. (Thanks Tom Boone!)

February 4, 2010 5:18 pm

I have no problem with colleagues being flown in by a vendor for the purpose of viewing a product and talking about it afterwards. I trust you, Tom and Greg to tell us honestly what you think of what you saw, how it expands on current functionality, and what the implications are for us. You are not shy about speaking critically when you feel it is warranted, and if you hated WestlawNext, you would tell us so in your blogs.

Because you made the trip, you had considerable time to ask questions and find out the story behind the product, time that most of us don’t have. TRL took a big risk in inviting you there; if you had really negative things to blog about, the word would have spread like wildfire. And it would have been believed.

So I guess I see a difference between a trip for a specific purpose, disclosed by those who benefited from it, and a junket intended just to win favor. You guys are not easily won. Thanks for going and reporting back.

February 4, 2010 6:49 pm

This reminds me of another thing that annoys me about the iPod package…it was a glossy brochure, an iPod…..and that’s it. No password to test it out on my own. Very little of substance for me to evaluate and look at. Just a shiny toy.

Was your trip a “junket”? No. As I said in my post, but I will repeat again because I really don’t want there to be any misunderstanding about the great respect I hold for you, I trust your judgment and don’t think you would have let yourself be bought. As Anne said, you would have been the first person to speak out about faults you find with WestlawNext.

But overall I’m not sure how I feel about the trip. I don’t know if I would have done it. (But I might have! I don’t know! I’d have to see how it was presented.) I don’t know if it would have been more appropriate for West to just do a webinar to explain this information to its beta testers. I don’t know if there is subconscious jealousy on my part because I didn’t get picked to beta test. Because of my unknowns, I held my tongue until I got the iPod and (I thought) I just briefly touched on the Minnesota visit in that blog post, but that seems to be the part that a lot of people latched on to. I’m sorry if you feel your credibility has been impugned by others because of my post – I don’t censor comments on my blog or really get into debates with commentors. I just post my posts and that’s my say. I really did not intend for your professionalism to come into question.

You’re fried gold, Jason Eiseman.

February 4, 2010 9:34 pm

Look, I don’t know you personally, and the comment I was making on Sarah’s blog wasn’t meant to impune your character in any general way. Reasonable librarians can disagree on this subject, and I am okay with that.

It is just my opinion, that when someone accepts goods and services of that magnitude I view them as a less reliable source on that particular product. The appearance of bias is enough for me. I just prefer to get information on a product from a person that didn’t get a benefit of some substantial value from the company that created that product. I don’t want a judge deciding a case that I may be involved in if he has a financial relationship with the opposing party, even if that judge believes he has an ability to not let that relationship affect his judgment. I don’t want to rely on a study done by a scientist or doctor who may have received goods or services from a party that may be interested in the outcome of that study, even though the scientist claims that that relationship doesn’t interfere with his ability to reasonably conduct a study and interpret results (the recent retraction in The Lancent of the study that had linked autism to MMR vaccinations comes to mind, here). You may be entirely reasonable and reliable, but the fact that you accepted this service, in my view, gives enough of an appearance for bias for me to seek another source for information about the new product. That doesn’t mean I think that your judgment is more generally flawed, it just means that on this particular product I will probably prefer to get information from others.

I don’t disparage you the opportunity to interact with the vendor about their products. That is a great opportunity and we all should be educated about how to use new products. However, I would just point out, that you didn’t consider that opportunity of high enough value to be willing to pay for the trip yourself (even though you considered whether you should), because you declined that option and chose to accept the free trip.

By the way, I didn’t know that you were given passwords to use and try, and I apologize for that misstatement in my prior comment. That still, though, doesn’t affect my larger view, though, the one that I express here.

February 5, 2010 9:31 am

Impugn, sorry I didn’t mean to impugn your character not impune. Proofreading before I press post, certainly would help once in a while.

February 5, 2010 9:36 am

I want to applaud all the librarians, bloggers and writers who went to Eagan. I did a post on the trip a couple days ago on my blog and I stand behind what I wrote there and think it fits here. I want information about this product from my colleagues not from West sales reps. If TRL hadn’t invited this group up to Eagan to view the product and write about it we would have no information at all except what was spoon fed to us by TRL and our reps. Sure we’d all get a free trial password to look around but we wouldn’t have the experience of having the vice president in charge of development to ask questions and give feedback. Leslie—Have you watched the video from Jason, Jason, Tom and Greg? If not look at it you’ll see an honest open discussion of why they are excited about the strides this product is making and the draw backs. Look at some of the Tweets about it. There has been discussion that TRL may be going back on something they said in Eagan about giving it to law students right off. I’m not sure if that is true or not but we’d have no inkling about it at all without this trip. Plus they told a room full of people they wouldn’t be doing that and so if it happens, Tom and others in the academic world can hold them accountable.
This trip was not fun filled adventure. Ask someone who went. They had about 2 weeks notice they were going, flew in, had dinner, slept, all day meetings where they were fed, flew out again. Some of them were there less than 36 hours. This was a business trip. I agree with one commentor that TRL took a huge risk by bringing these writers and bloggers to Eagan because if the product sucked (and parts of it do) they will and are writing about it. Since the product is out and now being pushed upon us I’m glad that when my rep met with me on Tuesday and asked “have you heard about westlawnext?” I was able to say “Sure I watched a 40 minute video all about the product made by my fellow librarians and based on their comments here are my questions about the product.” Applaud these librarians don’t question their ability to be impartial because TRL flew them to Minnesota in January and gave them a couple of meals.

February 5, 2010 10:04 am

There has been discussion that TRL may be going back on something they said in Eagan about giving it to law students right off.

February 26, 2010 4:05 am

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