After years of development Wolters Kluwer is preparing to release the secret platform that has been referred to internally as Project Cheetah at the AALL conference in July. Wolters Kluwer recently offered to “lift the veil” so I could get a look at Project Cheetah. Will Cheetah be just another hyped up launch of a marginally new product? Will it be a “head scratcher” like IntelliConnect?  Can Cheetah find a home in the wild world of legal research? Can Cheetah outrun the competition? Read on.

The Bottom Line

Cheetah is NOT an IntelliConnect makeover. Bob Lemmond, President and CEO of Wolters Kluwer Law & Business  describes it as “a complete reimagining of WK content.”  The real question is not “have they come up with a better product?” which I believe they have. The big question is “have they come up with a better product in time to grab some additional market share from shrinking pool of law firm budgets?”  Like law firms, legal publishers are facing a world in which most revenue growth will come from stealing market share from the competition. Clients hate cost recovery more than ever. BloombergLaw the “Wunderkind” of 2009 which was expected to upend the legal research market, appears to be stalled in a holding pattern.

I imagine that Wolters Kluwer selected the Cheetah name to refer to the lightening speed of its retrieval engine. But Cheetah also suggests the speed with which Wolters Kluwer  must displace competitors.

Context Is Everything.

Wolters Kluwer bought Commerce Clearing House in 1995. CCH began as a tax law research and compliance product in 1913 at the birth of the modern US federal tax system. In order to keep up with the frequent and massive changes in tax law and regulation CCH developed a system for coding and updating their publications. For almost a century CCH products dominated tax and other highly regulated practice areas including securities, banking, trade, energy, government contracts. Their gold tooled, black binders where workhorse mini libraries where a practitioner could navigate through codes, regulations, commentary and collateral regulatory materials. The editors invented exotic marvels of specialty research including  indices, finding lists and conversion tables. It may be that the books were so iconic to loyal practitioners that the editors and corporate leaders had trouble thinking “outside the book” at the dawn of the digital age.

Wolters Kluwer (CCH ) dominated the topical legal publishing market at a time when information printed on paper inserts and delivered weekly via the postal service was considered breathtakingly current.

In the early 1990s I bought what was then the “cutting edge” of research technology: the CCH tax service consisting of 10 CD-ROMs in a networked tower. This was a clunky but serviceable solution which was later replaced by the CCH Research Network. The CCH Research Network was basically an online version of the CD-ROM, and the CD-ROM was a really a digital version of the books. The working assumption appears to have been – “we got it right with the books – we’ll just keep pouring the old content into the latest digital wineskin.”  In 2009 CCH tried to reinvent user experience with the introduction of a platform called IntelliConnect. It is now widely maligned as one of the most disappointing product revamps in legal publishing. It was criticized as a disorienting platform, full of duplicate content, and overly complicated to search. In fairness, many specialists who learned the IntelliConnect system will defend it. It was never a system for a casual user. And as we all know, people become power users after spending time as a casual user. IntelliConnect just seemed to aggravate most people.

The one indisputable breakthrough function offered by  IntelliConnect which no publisher has yet to match is a feature called Smartcharts. This innovation allows lawyers to generate 50 state surveys of a topic in seconds. This feature will be retained in Cheetah.

Customer First
I outlined the recent transformation of Wolters Kluwer toward a more customer centric organization in a prior post about Robert Lemmond who was appointed President and CEO of Wolters Kluwer Law & Business earlier this year.  Lemmond describes Cheetah as being the product  of “our ‘Customer First’ development process [which] has resulted in a seamless integration throughout the user’s workflow, whether at a desktop, or on the go with a smartphone or tablet.”


Thinking Outside the Hype Cycle

Wolters Kluwer demonstrated its commitment to reinvention when it recruited some IT “star power:”   Andrew Little and Alfred Kahn to lead the development of Cheetah. If you are an IT groupie you would know that Andy Little is credited with developing the concept of “the hype cycle” which defines the stages of technology adoption.

Andy came to Wolters Kluwer from the Gartner Group where he was Vice President of the Strategic Technology Group. While at Gartner, Andy was instrumental in the realization of many solutions that have become synonymous with the IT Industry. In addition to the “Hype Cycle” he helped develop “The Total Cost of Ownership (TCO),” ” Magic Quadrant” and the “Market Clock” research methodologies. He also created an innovative technology suite to produce many of the self-assessment tools in use by Gartner clients today.

Another key player in Cheetah is Alfred Kahn, who heads the customer experience organization to ensure that the customers’ voice is part of all WK development practices. Alfred and his team devised a persona-based development process, meeting with and observing hundreds of research professionals, attorneys, and associates to understand their work flow needs, requirements, and preferences. Alfred’s work helped create RBSource a recently developed digital version of the Securities Act Handbook.

Thinking Outside the Code

Cheetah is the first digital product from Wolters Kluwer Law & Business  which is not built on top of a statutory and regulatory code structure. The linkages between codes, regs, commentary and cases are still there, but these are not the backbone of the user experience. A user can still navigate through a table of contents for a code, but they also have dozens of other options for navigating and combining and filtering research results based on what they, the user need to do.

How Did they Do It?

The Cheetah team basically disassembled, purged, reorganized and enhanced the over 25 million documents in WK’s  various legal products. They removed all the duplicates which appeared in various CCH publications. They gave each document a persistent URL. This means you can now catalog digital versions CCH  titles and documents or add URLs to your portals and they won’t go bad! No more linkrot in your catalogs or portals. All content was enriched and enhanced with new taxonomies and ontologies and documents were coded using 40 meta data features. All research can be related and rendered in the context needed by the researcher in the course of their workflow.

The Dashboard
Cheetah will offer a customizable dashboard which is divided into three sections. The left column is for personalized content: favorites, current awareness, saved searchers, the center column is topically organized with practice specific content; the right column contains productivity tools such as Smartcharts.

Cutting to the Chase: Cheetah Offers A Long List of Enhanced Features

  • Each statute has a table of contents which can be expanded to allow navigation of the document
  • Unlimited scrolling provides continuous reading experience
  • When a user annotates a document, Cheetah will post the citation to the document
  • Content collection – users design their personal library shelf of materials  from all collections
  • A type ahead feature suggests words and phrases as you type.
  • The system recognizes citations automatically
  • Enhanced reading experience document review offers lightening fast continuous scrolling of documents
  • 40 new meta data items for search, filter and display
  • Each statute and regulation includes a “point in time” amendment history
  • Each users research history is saved for 2 years
  • A Worklist collaboration tool allows lawyers to share documents and notes related to project or matter
  • Every document has a persistent url  meaning no duplicate documents, no dead links
  • Users will have an identical user experience on every device, PC, tablet or smartphone.Responsive design renders an interface scaled to any device.

Rollout Securities will be the first practice area released in the Cheetah platform followed by tax and then other practice area content sets. There is no fixed conversion date for existing customers. According to Lemmond ” As part of our customer driven strategy we are consulting with our customers not just on product enhancements but also on migration strategies to help ensure seamless transfer between the platforms. Given our commitment to “Customer First,” it is our commitment to make this transition as successful as possible and with as little disruption.”

Can Cheetah Outrun The Market?

I assume that anyone reading my blog needs no introduction to the history of the online research cost recovery frameworks created by Lexis and Westlaw  which have survived for three decades. Bloomberg Law elbowed into Lexis/ Westlaw turf in 2009 with a disruptive new model which attempted to create a “research Utopia” as an alternative to the complex cost recovery systems which had driven the revenue of Lexis and Westlaw while driving billing partners, associates and librarians mad!  Bloomberg offered an all inclusive contract that was built to be a utility that would remain open all day on the desktop, and for which there should be no client charges or cost recovery. Bloomberg may have underestimated the impact of the recession. The market liked the content  and the concept but largely resisted the price tag.

Can Bloomberg’s Plateau Be an Opportunity for Wolters Kluwer?

OK, Wolters Kluwer doesn’t offer as much content as BloombergLaw. They don’t have the business data trove but they do have solid legal practice centers and have taken direct aim at the legendary BNA newsletter market by introducing their suite of afternoon topical dailies. Whatever Wolters Kluwer is charging for their practice libraries on Cheetah it will be a fraction of what the SuperSystems (Lexis, Westlaw and Blaw) charge. Law firms are still looking for ways to cut their spending.  Law firms still want to get out of the online cost recovery mess.Cheetah offers a  flexible, feature rich new research platform. Can Wolters Kluwer position Cheetah’s high performance platform to actually steal the market share that had been in BloombergBNA’s crosshairs? Can Cheetah lure users from Lexis and Westlaw with a promise of high functionality and relatively low annual cost which can be supported without charging clients for cost recovery? It looks like Cheetah is positioned to give them a  “run for their money.”