A message to my legal publishing colleagues

Stop.

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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