A message to my legal publishing colleagues

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Time out. Stop doing what we’ve always been doing. Put aside the deadlines and schedules for a moment. Put down the pen, those of us still using one. Push back from the keyboard, take a deep breath, and close our eyes. Make a mental list of all of our longstanding assumptions about this industry — what we produce, how we sell it, who buys it. Now, throw all these assumptions out, because it’s just about time for us to reinvent this wheel.

Here’s what legal publishers are facing now, or are going to face very soon.

  • Textbook sales drop, as law schools encourage cash-strapped students to turn to faculty-run wikis as reliable, and eventually authoritative, statements of current law.
  • Law reporter series and caselaw databases fade into irrelevance, as court decisions become freely available and searchable on the web.
  • Legal newspapers’ print editions become unacceptably expensive and dated, and online versions struggle to find a business model that delivers familiar profit levels.
  • Legal magazines, restricted to longer features that subscribers won’t read online, remain chained to the print medium and face ever-higher production and distribution costs.

It was ten months ago that I first wrote about legal publishing in the 21st century, and since then, the pace of change has only picked up. Today, Nick Holmes notes the rate at which blogs are becoming the dominant platform for legal publishing, while Stephen Baker raises the remarkable specter of artificial intelligence editing. Most provocatively, Scott Karp draws a parallel between what General Motors is belatedly trying with its groundbreaking Volt electric car, and what newspapers ought to be doing:

The newspaper business is being crippled by competition, which, like Toyota in the case of GM, is doing a better job of delivering what the market wants and needs. GM realized that to survive they couldn’t just catch up to the competition — they had to surpass it — and they had to do so by delivering the holy grail for consumers. … Newspapers need to stop trying to save the old business or searching amorphously for new business models and instead figure out what needs are going unmet in the market for news — and then be first in the market to deliver breakthrough solutions.

Legal publishing also needs to find breakthrough solutions, and that’s going to require throwing out the old assumptions and discovering new rules that will form the basis of new business models. Here are three to get us started.

1. Lawyers’ knowledge demands are changing. Databases and collections of cases are very close to being a full-scale commodity. What lawyers need now are leveraged applications of that commodity — applications that meet and even anticipate their client-specific, knowledge-based needs. When computers became commoditized, IBM transformed itself into a business intelligence company. Which legal publisher will be the first to transform itself entirely into a knowledge management colossus?

2. Lawyers aren’t the dominant market anymore. Almost every legal publisher still targets the professional marketplace: lawyers, law librarians, law professors, law students. But in the deregulated and pro se future that awaits us, the legal profession will be dwarfed by the armies of non-lawyer legal services providers and, more importantly, clients, from the simplest will drafters and self-employed litigants right up to Fortune 100 GCs. Who’s going to tailor products and services to this burgeoning marketplace?

3. Blogs point the way to a micro-publishing future. A decade from now, when the eulogy is written for the last giant record company and thousands of niche web-based music services are thriving, people will understand better what’s happening to the legal publishing industry. It’s going to be difficult, but not impossible, for any one macro-publisher to dominate the industry. Microbloggers will have small but devoted subscriber bases in thousands of region/specialty/niche combinations. There’s still a future for smart content aggregators, but the upcoming divergence of content and distribution will be permanent.

Let’s get our famously creative minds behind this effort, colleagues: what other old assumptions are ready to be thrown away? What new paradigms and playing fields will emerge from obscurity or enter the industry full-blown? Where’s the curve, and how do we stay ahead of it?

Update 7/24: Here’s something else to wrap your mind around: legal textbooks on Kindle.

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6 Responses to “A message to my legal publishing colleagues”

  1. Colm Brannigan

    Hi Jordon,

    Very thought provoking and I think you are absolutely correct but at the moment is there a “curve” or many “curves” in the game?

    I suspect many, and the crucial decision is to decide which one to take?

    As an example, I am considering writing an annotated guide to the Arbitration Act for a major legal publisher. There is none in print at the moment. My “old” assumption is that their marketing expertise and the “prestige” of their imprint will produce the best results (ie publicity and recognition) for me. But maybe I should dump this assumption and instead produce and host an online version?

    Or maybe not?


  2. Jordan Furlong

    Colm, I suspect the answer may still have something to do with your audience. If the arbitrators you’re targeting still associate prestige and authority with the legacy publishers’ brand and format (i.e., hardcover books), then that’s a strong argument in favour of going with one of those publishers. As always, the publication’s real value is determined by the readers, not the publisher or the author.

    But I would think an annotated statute would be ideal for placing in an online format, for two reasons: (a) every annotation can be linked to the particular case’s CANLII page, so that the reader can instantly access the decision in question; and (b) updates can be provided quickly and effortlessly within days of a new case’s release, a new regulation’s publication, or the Act’s amendment. Neither of these utilities can be provided in a bound and printed book, and even a CD-ROM can’t be updated as fast as a blog, wiki or website can.

    There’s also the question of your own goals. Traditional legal publishing has rarely produced much in the way of direct financial gains to authors (and online publishing promises even less). But if what you’re looking for is publicity and recognition, then I really think an online publication can provide that as well — again, depending on what your readership values. Keep in mind that being a online author has rewards beyond a cyber-audience — high-profile bloggers who carve out a space for themselves online are being more and more frequently contacted by the media (legal and mainstream) for authoritative comment on a particular subject area.

    So I think you could go either way, depending on your audience, but I think your proposed project would be a great fit for an online operation. Just my two cents.

  3. Com Brannigan

    Thanks Jordan,

    It is worth more than two cents!

    I think I might give it a try and see what happens!


  4. nickholmes

    Jordan – Another old assumption we should throw away is that “legal publishers” means “old-breed legal publishers”. We tend to talk of the more recently established, web-native, innovative legal information/service providers (who by and large do get your 3 points) as a different species. They are not; they are a new breed of the same species! Maybe we should spend less time telling the old breed to change their spots and more time encouraging the new breed to steal their hides.

  5. Vulcan's Forge

    You made a comment in this posting which caught my attention and started me thinking about this from a technical viewpoint – namely the idea that law schools could or would soon turn to wikimedia as a means to effectively replace textbooks as a reliable and authoritative source for current law.

    I concur that this is a reasonable approach and an elegant solution to the problem which is more or less the reason for the existence of this blog – the publication of legal wisdom in the 21st century. Wikipedia, for example, has become an effective primary source for encyclopedic information; it is frequently updated, for the most part well-sourced, and by the efforts of a wide range of volunteer editorial staff, remarkable neutral in its point of view. It does suffer from near constant vandalism, and there is an ongoing battle between vandals deleting articles (or possibly worse, modifying the content with inaccurate information) on the one hand and the editorial volunteers reverting vandalism on the other.

    Which brings me to my point (in, I admit, a rather roundabout fashion): who would maintain editorial control of any potential legalwiki? Would it be accessible for anyone to edit? Or anyone at the law faculty supporting it? How do you confirm the data provided is accurate?

    A particular example struck me as I was thinking about this – say the wiki documents a precedent-setting case which has widespread legal ramifications. What if the wiki article for that case is edited by someone with a vested interest in misinterpreting or misrepresenting the outcome of that case – and does so in a manner which goes unnoticed for more than a few minutes? Not beyond the realm of possibility, given that this resource may be accessed by lawyers, paralegals, or the general public with a need for do-it-yourself law.

    The modern publishing environment allows you to set a “precedent” which is the diametric opposite of the actual precedent set by the case – and do so in a manner which goes unnoticed by everyone but those directly involved in the original legal action.

    I’m not arguing against any of the possibilities here…but I think it’s necessary to keep in mind that, while there are truly mind-blowing opportunities for the publication of knowledge in the modern digital environment, the opportunities to abuse those possibilities are equally staggering.

  6. halosecretarialservices

    Great article Jordan! I definitely think legal publishers who are ahead of the curve are going to reap the rewards. And online formats are so much more user friendly (ie the clickable links) that they can target more than just lawyers.

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