On Vendor Swag

Westlaw iPod NanoTen days ago or so I received an email from someone at Westlaw.  It said, “Just wanted to send you a quick note… We’ll be revealing the new Westlaw on Feb. 1 at LegalTech New York… I’d like to get you some information about it… What’s the best address to FedEx you something?”  I sent my work address and didn’t think too much about it.

Flash forward to today.

My package from West arrived. There was some paper and a nice letter from someone, the details of which I don’t remember, because also included was what you see to the left.  An iPod Nano, 8GB with video capabilities, retail value $149.  I guess there’s a video or something on the iPod detailing the WestlawNext features, but I wouldn’t know as I couldn’t bring myself to open it.

Here’s the thing, y’all: I was absolutely livid when I opened this.

I’ve briefly mentioned before my feelings about accepting vendor swag.  It’s advertising, I understand that. It’s built into their budgets and it’s not like they would charge less if they weren’t giving out the pens.  However,  I also don’t feel comfortable being a billboard for the legal information duopoly in front of my students who expect me to speak freely about the pluses and negatives of each service, so I don’t accept the little gifts of pens, coffee mugs, note pads, etc.

But an iPod?  I don’t really like to take pens and here they’ve gone and sent me an iPod?  As I said to one of my correspondents today, “this is just re-goddamn-diculous.” (Pardon my language, but I was really mad.)   It does have “Compliments of WestlawNext” written on, but in super-tiny font.  It feels like a bribe, frankly.  Gross.

I guess I was expected to tweet/blog my “Thank you, Westlaw!” for it?  Well, thanks but no thanks, Westlaw.  I hate to seem rude or ungrateful, but I simply cannot accept this gift.  (1) I’m an employee of the Commonwealth of Kentucky and we have rules about the monetary value of gifts. (2) Even if I disclose the iPod receipt before blogging about the info sent to me, I still wouldn’t ever feel right about saying positive things about WestlawNext.  As I said to another one of my correspondents, “Congratulations, Westlaw, you just bought my silence.”  (3) My usual rules of swag acceptance are in effect, no matter how much I love the way it looks or the fact that it shoots video or that my Zune seems to be dying and ZOMG IT’S SO PRETTY AND SHINY AND I LOVE NEW TOYS.


So, here’s the thing: I’m not keeping it.   I’m auctioning my WestlawNext iPod and donating the proceeds to an appropriate organization or two.  The details are still being worked out (my legal obligations as an public employee, whether or not my target charities will accept the donation, how to set up an auction, if other law librarians want to donate their iPods as well…details, people, details.)  So, basically: WATCH THIS SPACE. I’ll have something hammered out by the end of the week.  If you received a WestlawNext iPod and would like to get in on this action, contact me at Sarah dot Glassmeyer at gmail and we’ll work it out.  And if you are Westlaw reading this (and I know at least someone at West does) and you’d rather that I not do this, I will gladly ship your iPod back to you.  Seriously, I’m not trying to be rude about this.

I know my standards are higher than others when it comes to accepting swag from vendors.  I have to admit to being a little weirded out by the trip to Minnesota some of my colleagues were offered. (Of course, I also wasn’t sure if there was some jealously on my part that I wasn’t asked to go, so I held my tongue.  Some of us are just kinda bigger deals than others, I guess…. I KID BECAUSE I LOVE, JASON AND TOM.)   I’m not entirely sure where to draw the line…coffee mugs? iPods? Drinks at the Bender Baby Dinner/Westlaw party? Trips to Minnesota?   It not an easy line to figure out.  Where does the appearance of impropriety show up?  When does one start to feel  a little like a corporate whore?

Despite all of my cheerleading for Free Law and complaints about pricing, duopolies, etc., I really don’t believe that vendors are the enemies.  But I also realize that they are in business to make a profit and that will always take precedence for them. The vendor-librarian relationship is complicated enough…..please stop clouding the issue with over the top gifts of swag.


  29 comments for “On Vendor Swag

  1. February 1, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    Hi Sarah: I had some of the same uneasy feelings you have had. I share them in the video over on my blog as I open the package (and I mention this blog post, too): http://conniecrosby.blogspot.com/2010/02/big-swag-mixed-feelings.html

    I am thinking of finding a way to make this iPod a charitable contribution–will let you know what I come up with.


  2. Ken Hirsh
    February 3, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Sarah and Connie,
    We’ve not received any ast UC yet, but if we do, we’ll have to return them to West under the Ohio public employee ethics rules, and they’ll be going back C.O.D. or otherwise in a way that West will have to pay for it.

  3. Michelle
    February 3, 2010 at 10:26 am

    Are you overreacting? Instead of thinking of it as a vendor swag, why don’t you think of it as an advancement of technology? Westlaw wants to send you more than just flyers. They would like you to watch videos about the product in the comfort of your living room. What about that?

  4. sglassmeyer
    February 3, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Hi, Michelle, I guess it is possible. But they could have also just sent me a link to a video. Also, just as an FYI, I do see and check the IP address of commentators, especially ones with generic email addresses like “getchilled.” How’s the weather in Minnesota, today?

  5. Mikhail Koulikov
    February 3, 2010 at 3:55 pm

    And this is exactly why our profession gets a bad name. Well, and why we keep angsting about our real or possible irrelevance.

    Exactly what’s wrong with West rewarding you *for* being a law librarian? And at the same time, yeah, for wanting to make sure that when you think ‘legal research’, you think them first, not Lexis or Bloomberg or Google Law or whoever. Well, and the final thing is, how can they know what you want or don’t want – to West marketing, you’re an address and a job title, and that’s about it.

    So, hot damn, enjoy who you are, and all the benefits that come from it. Heaven knows you paid enough to get there. And you can think whatever you want about their reasoning, but I really can’t figure out why you would be angry or livid or whatever.

  6. February 3, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Mikhail – wrong; Sarah – right.

    The gift is too large and reads like a bribe. It may not be intended as such, but the appearance of a bribe is just as bad as the actual thing.

    It’s basic ethics. Part of what we paid for when we went for the education.

  7. February 3, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    I, for one, applaud Sarah’s decision, on three fronts.

    One, as a government employee, she is subject to the same lobbying and ethics laws as our legislators, and her choice to be aware of that and honor them is laudable. Too many in our government — be they federal, state, or local — don’t think those laws and codes apply to them. They apply to us all.

    Two, as a law librarian, I would hope that she would work to demonstrate a strong set of ethics to the emerging professionals she works with, as they will themselves become part of our criminal justice system, where, y’know, ethics matter.

    And three, this kind of promotional action from vendors is a blatant attempt to buy favor from librarians. Period. The video could have been posted online, and the URL distributed via email or in a glossy marketing brochure. Instead, they chose to send a $150 piece of technology — plainly not the best venue for a sales video, as the screen on a Nano is TINY. And so, if it’s not the best possible vehicle for watching the video, why send it? The only logical answer is that they sent it to win favor with the recipient, who now holds an expensive gift in their hands.

    Let me be plain: We did not *earn* that gift just by becoming a librarian, or *pay* for it with our tuition, nor do we *deserve* it, as the previous commenter implies, for deciding to choose this as our profession.

    Librarians are supposed to provide the best possible information resources to our users, and assist them with their use — and nowhere in that professional belief system does it say “let corporations buy your favor with shiny toys”. We are supposed to be impartial about the information we provide, considering only quality, reliability, and authority. We are not supposed to consider which corporations we prefer to work with — if that were allowable, we’d all have said a few choice words to Elseviley and Wexis years ago — but consider which information is best for our users. The fact that vendors continue to try to woo us with shinies rather than *build the best resource and let us decide what’s best* leaves me, yes, livid.

    Responsible librarians shouldn’t allow themselves to be bought. Responsible corporations shouldn’t try.

  8. Elizabeth Farrell
    February 3, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    First, I didn’t know our profession had a bad name. I think the tradition of taking the ethical high-road and self-policing against bias is one of the basic elements of librarianship.

    One significant reason why West’s ipod “reward” is wrong is that many of the recipients are ethically and/or legally unable to accept them – and I’d call that a failure to understand their target audience. At $150, that ipod exceeds just about any government or academic employers’ rules/policy for gifts.

    Your call to enjoy “all the benefits” is naïve at best and just corrupt at worst. If ipods are okay, where do you draw the line? Are you really comfortable with librarians signing database contracts ranging into the six figures accepting gifts of such value?

  9. stephanie
    February 4, 2010 at 12:13 am

    It’s disturbing to me that vendors in the exhibit hall at AALL sometimes devote more energy to the swag-getting games than to answering very reasonable questions about their service, though (when *are* we going to get password management in the law school?). It’s flashy distraction, just like points and prizes for the law students. I suppose this is naive, but I’m just surprised that West has yet to learn that shiny objects aren’t the way to a librarian’s heart. Do they read, these marketing people? Not to mention the irony of a legal information vendor failing to account for state ethics acts.

  10. Leslie
    February 4, 2010 at 10:16 am

    I don’t know you, Sarah, but I wanted to let you know that I found this post very refreshing as I have been somewhat disturbed these past few days as law librarians have been trying to sell me WestlawNext as if they themselves are representatives for the company. Anything that has been released in regard to WestlawNext at this point in time has been promotional in nature, and I am shocked at the number of law librarians who are trying to talk up a product that they have only seen demonstrated by the company that created the product (most disturbingly, demonstrated by the company that created the product on a trip paid for by that company). Until we can actually start interacting with the product and try it out for ourselves, I wish people would actually take everything that comes from West with a grain of salt. I applaud your decision to refuse to accept this gift and the vendor swag more generally. Accepting such gifts certainly clouds our ability to evaluate a product fairly and anyone who says otherwise is most likely kidding themselves.

  11. Mikhail Koulikov
    February 4, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Are you really comfortable with librarians signing database contracts ranging into the six figures accepting gifts of such value?


    At any organization, whether a business, a non-profit, or a government agency, isn’t that how it’s always worked and will keep on working? Contracts are signed based not just on purely objective factors, but also on reputation, marketing, personal relationships, a hundred other things. Just because the building you work in happens to be called a library, it doesn’t mean that *how* you work has to be any different or unique.

    I agree with what you said somewhat – from a marketing point of view, this was not thought out all the way through. But West has a marketing budget that they need to burn through, and, hey, what you do with the toy once you get it becomes your problem, not really their problem or concern.

  12. February 4, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    I feel about vendor swag the same way I feel about lobbying. I think it stinks. I believe that it is impossible to receive gifts and stay neutral. I don’t think it is in the human nature to do so. Not for politicians, not for law librarians. I had a vendor give me a $5 gift card for Panera the other day. It totally took me off guard. I immediately gave it to my supervisor (she and our director received one too) for use at staff day or something that everyone can benefit from. But I would have felt better not having been offered it in the first place. It leaves a stained feeling in my gut.

    And, even though I really don’t want more stuff and want to get rid of a lot of the stuff I have, I truly am raccoon-like in nature in some ways so I hear you about liking shiny, pretty new toys! Good for you for overcoming your impulses to make a conscious decision about who you want to be as professional.

  13. Laura
    February 4, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    Mikhail, you’re just plain wrong. Yes, if you work in a library, you are generally expected to hold up certain ethical standards. Even though I’m not a member of ALA, and my colleagues are not, its code of ethics is upheld in every library I’ve worked in.

    A quick search suggests to me that you might be, in fact, a law librarian. It also suggests to me that you might also be a member of AALL? In which case I’d like to refer you to that organization’s code of ethics, which states “We have a duty to avoid situations in which personal interests might be served or significant benefits gained at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.”

    Sarah has duly avoided a situation in which her personal interests might be served. I commend her for doing so.

  14. February 4, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    Wow. Mikhail writes, “At any organization, whether a business, a non-profit, or a government agency, isn’t that how it’s always worked and will keep on working?”

    Um, when did “it’s always been that way” come to equal “this is the right way”? When did we all shrug and say “it’s always been like this, so…” and then abdicate our responsibility to look at our surroundings, say, “This is unethical”, and make — and demand — a change?

    What a disappointing perspective to see aired. I want to think better of our profession, but as long as people continue to put their own interests over those of their business, government, non-profit, library, or users, it will continue to be this way. A sad fact.

  15. Mikhail Koulikov
    February 5, 2010 at 1:43 am

    I’d like to refer you to that organization’s code of ethics, which states ‘We have a duty to avoid situations in which personal interests might be served or significant benefits gained at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.’

    With all due respect, my library’s users [I am on the staff of a fee-based, members-only library] expect me to get the most I can for their investment in the library. The costs I incur are passed on to their clients. And given what they are billing the clients, a $150-or-whatever gift that comes down to me is really not that big of a deal.

    This is also how the rest of the law librarian world, outside the law school cocoon, works.

    [For what it’s worth, the member firm thinks they can do better legal research in-house, they are absolutely welcome to do so – even if I would advise them against the attempt.

  16. Cheryl Niemeier
    February 5, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    I did not get an IPod, rather only a chance to win an IPod if I viewed their online video. Wondering how Thomson West decided who would get them directly and who would have to enter a drawing for a chance to get one. I feel left out. 😉

  17. Cheryl Niemeier
    February 5, 2010 at 12:54 pm

    If you win the IPod from your entry for it in a drawing is that acceptable??

  18. February 5, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    OMG Mikhail. I sincerely hope you are just being a troll.

    I work outside the law librarian cocoon and totally see receiving a $150 gift as putting me in an inappropriate situation. $20 swag is the reasonable limit put on just about any Public Service ethical code. And that’s the way it’s been for a very very long time.

    Working at a fee-based firm is a slightly different kettle of fish, because it’s not taxpayer dollars. But as a client, if I knew my doctor received $150 ‘gifts’ from Pfizer, I would be reticent to take his/her prescriptions seriously. Even if they were the right prescriptions – the damage is already done. I can’t trust that my medicine is the right stuff and I incur costs (research, second opinions, experimentations with other options etc.) because of it.

    If it’s all ‘not such a big deal’ can I trust that you will disclose that you receive gifts of $150 etc. to your clients before you work with them? Sounds like it would be the only fair solution, right? Oh wait – that might not be in your personal self-interest right? And herein lies the problem – when personal self-interest eats away at decisions at the expense of clients/users then there is a ethical problem.

    While someone can admit ‘I choose to be unethical’ and take their goods, they cannot say ‘it’s okay to participate unethical behavior.’ Large scale ‘gifts’ (of a value more than about $20) really put professionals in a hard position. There really isn’t a whole lot of ambiguity here. It’s wrong. Plain and simple. The fact that people do engage in unethical behavior and get away with it has no bearing on the issue.

  19. Mikhail Koulikov
    February 5, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    If it’s all ‘not such a big deal’ can I trust that you will disclose that you receive gifts of $150 etc. to your clients before you work with them? Sounds like it would be the only fair solution, right?


    Maybe that’s the crucial difference. Past a certain level, we all know we spend a lot on marketing to other people, and also expect to benefit from others spending on marketing. This is why nobody says as much as a single word about sales people taking prospective clients out for dinner and drinks, or goodie bags at award shows and post-award-show parties.

    I completely admit I am trolling a little, but that’s also because sometimes, the world is not all rainbows and flowers and such, and a reality checks is a useful kind of thing.

  20. jonbee
    February 5, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    I tried to post something on your chat space but don’t know if it went through, so I’ll make a comment. I’m a long-time attorney editor at West, and I don’t have anything to do with marketing. The only reason I heard of your comments is that someone sent around an email titled “Wondering where your raise went? Maybe a little too much marketing?” It does seem like the marketing might have been over-the-top, but I know the company wanted to make a big push this last week or two to get the word out. (I went to a demonstration of WestlawNext and was very impressed with it.) Your comments are thought-provoking. Thanks.

  21. February 8, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    Mikhail, I’d suggest that you’ve hit on a crucial difference when you say “we all know we spend a lot on marketing to other people” — you’re discussing a subset of libraries in which that is perhaps true. It is not true for many of us, and so your assumptions, based on your for-profit worklife, don’t match ours.

  22. Judith Siess
    February 8, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    Using this logic, law schools shouldn’t accept free Westlaw/Lexis searching for their students. It is done to “capture” students for their search service so they’ll demand it in the workplace.
    If the didn’t get it free they couldn’t afford it at all and where would students be?

    I’m not a law librarian, so maybe these are LL rules. I take whatever they send (under my organization’s rules), but can’t be bought for a trinket, free lunch, or whatever. I decide what to buy and recommend based on merit alone.

  23. sm579417
    February 25, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Late to comment but I work in a medical library and there are strict rules for all employees at the hospital about accepting gifts from vendors (i.e. pharmaceutical but all apply).

    I understand that in other industries these practices are acceptable but vendors should know better where and when to use which tactics.

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