NEW YORK — THE books in the ``Bowker Legal Reference System'' will probably never be monster best-sellers, like the latest historical saga by James Michener, or a sociological drama by Tom Wolfe, or an international intrigue by Tom Clancy. But for budding lawyers who could wind up providing expensive services for authors like Michener, Wolfe, or Clancy, as well as anyone else needing legal help, the books by Bowker add up to timely and profitable reading.
R.R. Bowker Company is a New York-based publisher of some of the best-known reference books found in many local libraries. Its reference titles also include ``Books in Print'' and ``Uhlrich's International Periodicals Directory.''
Now Bowker is joining other publishing firms, such as Matthew Bender (a division of Times-Mirror Publishing), West Publishing, and John Wiley, in providing a series of books designed to aid the huge and growing legal industry in the United States.
That business, says Fred Barstein, an attorney and director of Bowker's Legal Reference Publishing Division, has to be seen as a fast-growth industry. Sales of legal publications for the 750,000 or so attorneys, judges, scholars, and other legal professionals in the US bring in some $3 billion annually, up from around $2 billion at the beginning of this decade, Mr. Barstein says.
``There are now something on the order of 136,000 first-year law students in the United States,'' Barstein notes in his crowded offices on the West Side of Manhattan. ``As more and more lawyers enter practice, they tend to specialize. At the same time, the number of laws and court decisions have tended to increase.''
The upshot, says Barstein, is that professionals find it increasingly difficult to keep abreast of all the printed materials coming out on legal issues.
Bowker, which was taken over in 1986 by Reed International Ltd., the owner of Reed Publishing in Britain, spent more than two years and some $1 million just to develop its new ``Index to Legal Books.''
The Index is a subject-oriented guide to more than 1,000 widely used legal books.
Bowker also publishes ``Law Books and Serials In Print,'' a three-volume bibliography; ``The Code of Federal Regulations Index,'' a three-volume guide to the 185-volume ``Code of Federal Regulations;'' as well as ``Bowker's Law Locators'' - used by attorneys specializing in such areas as tax and real estate law.
Bowker is also introducing a new monthly periodical, Bowker Legal Publishing Preview, which provides short abstracts on new or soon-to-be published works on the law.
Legal indexes and bibliographies such as those published by Bowker are very important, ``particularly to law libraries that are developing, as opposed to maintaining, established legal collections,'' says Diana Vincent-Daviss, who is librarian of the law library at New York University. They may not be as important to large, extensive law libraries, such as NYU's, she says. Ms. Vincent-Daviss is on the editorial board of Oceana Publications, which is one of Bowker's main competitors. Still, she generously calls Bowker's new ``Index to Legal Books'' a ``class act.''
How does a publisher like Bowker keep up with the huge volume of law-related materials pouring forth month after month? With the help of many friends, Barstein says with a laugh. He notes that Bowker has only two full-time legal editors, although it employs some 100 free-lance writers who keep the publisher up to date on the latest legal issue.
The legal profession, Barstein says, has really taken off in the past several years, in large part because of two factors:
The October 1987 stock market plunge not only provided work for a lot of lawyers in such areas as tax and estate planning, but it reminded Americans of the need for legal support during periods of economic difficulty, Barstein says.
``And then,'' he notes, there is ``the popularity of such television shows as L.A. Law,'' which, for many young people in particular, helped to ``glamorize the legal life style.''