21st-century legal publishing

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This article was first posted at Slaw on September 26th, 2006.

“I’ve been a lawyer in Toronto now for four years. Over this time, a lot of law magazines, newspapers and newsletters have crossed my desk. Even though these are publications for lawyers, I never feel like they are really talking to me. They always feel a little old, a little earnest and, well, a little boring.”

That’s not me talking — these are the words of Melissa Kluger, Editor-in-Chief of a new blog titled “Precedent: The New Rules of Law and Style.” It’s pretty good — entertaining and thoughtful, and that’s a tough combination to pull off. Hers is another fresh voice in the legal blog world.

But I was struck by her quote above, since I suspect she’s not the only lawyer who finds the publications offered to Canada’s lawyers old, earnest and boring (three characteristics my daughter will someday ascribe to me; I suspect I’ve got the second and third down already). Here’s a brief look at the major national and regional legal periodicals:

Magazines: National, Canadian Lawyer, Lexpert, The Advocate (B.C.).
Newspapers: The Lawyers Weekly, Law Times (Ontario), Le Journal Du Barreau (Quebec)
Newsletters: a couple dozen, including offerings from CBA branches, law societies, publishing companies and even law firms. A growing number are distributed by e-mail.

Let me know if I’ve missed any entries in the list above. This doesn’t include foreign titles like the ABA Journal, Law Practice, The Lawyer (UK), etc.

I edit National, I used to edit Lawyers Weekly, and I read all the others regularly. And you know what? Melissa’s not wrong. Each of these publications has its strengths, but “young, irreverent and hip” are not words you’d use to describe any of them. Among editors, I may be the youngest of the lot, and I’m perilously close to turning 40.

These periodicals are produced by bar associations, law societies and legal publishers — all conservative and risk-averse by nature. Melissa’s demographic cohort is not looking for conservative and risk-averse. But that’s only part of the problem.

It’s not easy to produce a legal periodical these days — printing and mailing costs are skyrocketing, younger readers are migrating to other media formats, and advertising dollars are more and more difficult to find. I’m not privy to publishing executives’ chats, but I imagine a few of these conversations concern the possibility (hope?) that one or more periodicals will fall by the wayside and reduce the number of competitors.

Not only don’t I think that will happen, I don’t think that should happen. We don’t have nearly enough legal publishing and legal journalism outlets in this country, because there are hundreds of important and interesting stories that go untold every year.

When I was at TLW, I would read scores of interesting court decisions every week, knowing that only a fraction of them would make it into the newspaper — at 20 pages a week, a fraction is all you can squeeze in. Here at National, our file folders are bulging with story ideas that deserve exploration, from practice-related tips to major international trends to controversial investigations — but we publish only eight times a year, and both space and resources are limited. We’re all starting to produce online content, but it’s still just a trickle compared to the potential torrent. The Internet is busting the legal publishing marketplace wide open, and it’s people like Melissa Kluger, Rob Hyndman, and the good people of SLAW who are breaking down the doors.

Legal publishers need to understand that the number of competitors is not going to shrink — it’s going to multiply tenfold. And these competitors won’t have overhead, distribution, payroll or marketing costs to deal with — they’ll write when they want to, promote themselves by word of mouth, sell as much focused advertising as they like, and establish themselves as individual brand-name forces. Seth Godin was right: blogs are going to create thousands of expert media outlets with a total staff complement of one. It’s already started.

What does this have to with you, the 21st-century lawyer? Two things. First, the day is soon coming when you won’t have to accept whatever the legal publishers decide you should know about. You can order tailored, in-depth legal news delivered to your desktop, be it through RSS feeds from the local courthouse, Yahoo! legal newsgroup postings, or a free e-newsletter from a sole practitioner outside Winnipeg who tracks the federal child support guidelines religiously.

Second, you should take the opportunity right now to become one of those publishers. As Troy McClure so rightly said, “It’s remarkably easy!” All you need is excellent knowledge of your subject area, a real interest in talking about it, and a ten-minute introduction to blogging. Ask Mike Fitzgibbon, David Fraser, Christine Mingie, or any of the bloggers on Steve Matthews’ list — they’re the vanguard of tomorrow’s legal periodical publisher.

Ten years from now — maybe sooner — that list of magazines and newspapers I provided earlier is going to seem archaic. The doors to the legal publishing marketplace are swinging wide.

Addenda:

— Where do blog networks like the ALM Legal Blog Watch fit in? I give ALM full credit for trying to work blogs into a somewhat traditional business model. ALM’s problem is going to be maintaining its own importance in the partnership. The bloggers supply the content, the advertisers supply the money, and ALM gives … what? Distribution? Profile? Legitimacy? These are all things that ALM provides now, but that the individual bloggers are rapidly acquiring on their own. Eventually, the bloggers are going to ask ALM: what do we need you for?

Dennis Kennedy and Jim Calloway, to cite just two examples, are becoming brands unto themselves, and more are following all the time. In the long run, the most widely read bloggers aren’t going to need a traditional distribution network. And eventually, the ALM blog network could start looking a little like Saturday Night Live — a launching pad for future stars who keep leaving to strike it big on their own.

The only successful blog network model I can foresee is one that’s grouped around a specific set of themes and ideologies — the Huffington Post looks like a good example. It helps to have entertainment celebrities blogging for you, of course.

Lexpert was the first publication to recognize that this is a fragmented profession with dozens of niches waiting to be filled, and that narrowcasting is the way of the future. It deserves full credit for recognizing this and for seizing an important niche early on. That’s a lesson that needs to be understood by everyone who wants to supply services, information or opinion to lawyers today. Trying to be everything to everyone dooms you to be nothing much to anyone.

— I keep wondering myself when the online providers like QL/Lexis and Carswell/Westlaw will be affected by the democratization of legal information on the Internet. I get the sense CANLII has taken some of the market share (I’d be interested in knowing how much), and full RSS update capacity in every court would take some more, I imagine.

But until someone like Google creates an advertising-based free-access legal research functionality — which seems plausible, at least — the online providers should continue to do alright. I think Simon Chester touched on these sorts of issues in a Slaw post last November, “What would Microsoft research make of law?”

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