The new legal publishing niche: clients

Hey there, legal professional — looking for a career change in these uncertain times? I have a legal publishing niche to recommend to you. But first, some background.

This economic crisis has inspired some of the best legal blog writing I’ve seen in a while — urgent, direct, and relentlessly focused on communicating to readers exactly how serious a situation we’re in, and just how unique are the opportunities and threats lawyers face. If you haven’t been reading Patrick J. Lamb, Gerry Riskin, Dan Hull & Holden Oliver, Rob Millard, Susan Cartier Liebel, and the ACC blog the last few weeks, rectify that oversight. Click on these links and review what these commentators have been saying about the fundamental restructuring of the marketplace now underway, and why law firms of every shape and size need to respond in fundamental, game-changing ways.

What you’ll notice about many of these blogs and most of these entries is that they’re client-focused: that is, they either analyze the marketplace that buys legal services, or they explain the pressing and rapidly evolving needs of clients, or both. This is still a rarity in the blawgosphere: most legal blogs talk about developments in the law itself or address the business concerns of lawyers and law firms. Like most everything else connected with lawyers, most legal blogs are all about us. The image of the “client” that emerges from most law blogs is shaped by the perspective of lawyers — the client as a mysterious yet disadvantaged entity that needs lawyers’ help, makes demands on lawyers’ time, and pays lawyers’ bills.

But the most valuable and interesting legal blogs in the near future, like the few I’ve referenced above, will write from the perspective of, and serve the direct interests of, the client.  Whereas most lawyer blogs are created to explain the law (and promote the lawyer) to clients, these blogs will explain clients to lawyers — and that’s going to be a far more important service. They’ll paint in broad strokes, necessarily, since every client is different —  but they’ll still give lawyers powerful information about the drivers and priorities that lie behind every client interaction.

But there’s yet a further, still undiscovered publishing niche. Continue Reading

Customized casebooks vs. collaborative knowledge

Ready or not, here they come: electronic law texts are gaining momentum. A conference in Seattle this weekend on the future of the legal casebook will discuss how these books can be made widely available in electronic format (here are Gene Koo’s submissions for the workshop). The growing popularity of Amazon’s Kindle, especially the book-sized version on the horizon, has made the long-mooted concept of law school e-books a sudden possibility.

Judging from these articles, it seems there are two main concerns about law school e-books. The first is that students can’t scribble on and highlight a Kindle the way they can a textbook. Not to be too blasé about it, but I tend to think that’s only a matter of time and technology. Adobe already allows you to make highlights and place notes on PDF documents, and lets you copy-and-paste sections of relevant text when tagging an article for future reference; either of these approaches could point the way forward.

The second concern is that authors’ copyrights will be violated if their words can be copied and circulated by anyone with an e-book version of their works. I’m pretty sure this ship has already sailed: if you make your living off anything that can be copied and e-mailed, you need to find another business model or another line of work. This isn’t a technology or copyright enforcement issue so much as it is the ongoing challenge to publishers to find another way to monetize good content.

But I think there’s a third concern that doesn’t appear to be getting a lot of attention yet: that e-books might lead us towards a siloized approach to legal education and scholarship. Continue Reading

A message to my legal publishing colleagues


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. Continue Reading

Be your own platform

This morning, the Supreme Court of Canada released its long-anticipated decision in Keays v. Honda, a wrongful dismissal case that concerned the extent to which punitive damages should be awarded under Canadian employment law. The plaintiff, who had scored an unprecedented $500,000 in extra damages at trial, saw his notice period cut from 24 to 15 months and his aggravated and punitive damages wiped out altogether. It’s a powerful signal from the country’s highest court that punitive damages are to be reserved for the most outrageous instances of conduct, which the 7-2 majority felt were not present. But that’s not why we’re here.

In the last 24 hours, I’ve received three e-mails and one phone call from lawyers advising me that the SCC decision was imminent and offering to write an article or be interviewed for a piece in National on the judgment. Among other things, these requests are a compliment to our magazine: they demonstrate that lawyers consider National a leading publication with which they would like to be associated — that our brand carries sufficient weight within the profession such that it would be beneficial to their reputations to appear therein. I’m certainly happy about that.

Now, here’s the thing: we’re the wrong publishing vehicle for them to pursue. In practical terms, National publishes just eight times a year, and the issue currently in the editorial process won’t be circulated until mid-August — and even then, this edition’s lineup is already set; the next issue with any degree of lineup flexibility arrives on lawyers’ desks in late September. By the time we publish anything on Keays, months will have passed since the decision was released and it will be the oldest of old news.

Moreover, National covers a wide range of issues, as befits the periodical of a nationwide lawyers’ association, and employment law is not our focus. Employment lawyers seeking to raise their profile should be looking at periodicals specific to this field, especially those to which corporate clients subscribe — that’s the audience these lawyers ought to be trying to reach.

But there’s something more fundamental at work here. Continue Reading

Burn your newsletters

Ah, the law firm newsletter. The simplest and humblest of law firm communication vehicles – a collection of lawyer-written articles on new statutory or case law developments, bundled together into a stiff, saddle-stitched document that’s mailed out to clients on a regular basis (or more recently, placed online and e-mailed). What could be a safer and more broadly acceptable marketing tool? Well, there’s the problem, really.

The necessity and effectiveness of law firm newsletters have been long overrated. Partly this is because the content is written by lawyers, and is therefore a reliably tortuous read. Partly it’s because a general legal update is of limited interest and use to clients, who don’t really have time for FYI documents that don’t deal directly with an immediately relevant matter.

But mostly, I think, it’s because law firms have never given newsletters the attention, support and priority to be anything other than pretty mediocre and indistinguishable from one another (if I took the banner off two random law firm newsletters and switched them around, could you tell the difference?) That’s because firms don’t take newsletters seriously as publications in their own right.

Law firms sometimes seem to think their newsletters, print or e-mail, are competing only against other law firm newsletters for clients’ attention. They’re not. They’re competing against every business and industry publication their clients read, usually produced by large publishing companies with decades of experience. Unlike law firms, these companies don’t regard their periodicals as a sideline, a nice marketing tool – they treat them the same way law firms treat their work product, as the lifeline of their businesses. So it’s not surprising that in this competition, law firms are outgunned from the start.

Have you read any of the top publications in your clients’ industry sector? Gerry Riskin used to ask this question at managing partners’ conferences, and would get only a few hands raised in affirmation. If you did read them, and you compared them to the newsletters law firms produce for the same client audience, you’d feel embarrassed for the firms. The leading industry publications receive focused editorial direction and excellent quality control, are written by experienced staffers or freelancers, and are professionally designed and produced with high-quality magazine stock (or web architecture), art design and imagery. Law firm newsletters, it can safely be said, don’t and aren’t. Continue Reading

How to write for the media

You might have heard of a new website called JD Supra — it’s essentially an online forum and database in which lawyers register, create profiles, and post court filings, decisions, forms and/or articles, free of charge and free to access. Check it out and see what it has to offer you. The benefits to lawyers include raising their profiles, providing research materials for consumers and other lawyers, and drawing journalists’ attention to a case or matter that the lawyer is working on.

It’s this latter capacity that caught my interest, since I quite like the idea of a service that can bring lawyers and the media together for their mutual benefit. Accordingly, I penned a short article with eight points for JD Supra’s users to consider before posting a document to “The Scoop” section of the site. Some of the specific points apply strictly to JD Supra’s setup, but others are more broadly applicable to lawyers’ press encounters in general, and I think you’ll find the overall principles set out in the article useful for all communications with the media.

This also gives me an opportunity to expound a little on a subject that’s been kind of aggravating me lately: press releases. In my capacity as editor of National, I get between 10 and 20 e-mails every day from law firms, law schools, corporations, and non-profit organizations looking for legal media coverage of one kind or another. If you’re one of the people who sends me these press releases, I’m sorry to report that I actually read maybe one in 25 of them, and I actually act on perhaps 1 in 100. I don’t think I’m especially unique among editors in this respect — editors of larger-circulation publications probably get scores of these e-mails per day and delete most if not all of them.

I don’t think communications professionals in legal organizations appreciate just how much potential downside there is to sending out a press release that’s not targeted, properly calibrated, and part of an ongoing relatiionship. For many people, e-mailing a press release is standard operating procedure, part of the publicity machinery: alert the media to our issue/event/complaint/opportunity. But for an editor, opening up a non-targeted press release is akin to a homeowner getting a telemarketer on the phone or an office worker receiving spam: at best irrelevant, at worst insulting.

Here are a few thoughts on press releases, what works and what doesn’t.

1. Read my publication before contacting me. Every month, a large law firm sends me its list of lawyers who’ve made partner or worked on a big transaction, requesting I place it in our “People on the Move” section, despite the fact National has never had such a feature (and if I can help it, never will), and thereby reminding me every month how little interest the firm has in what we actually do here. If you want to know what “bad publicity” looks like, that’s a good start. Continue Reading

Waking the neighbours

Ten years ago, it was rare to see more than a passing mention of law practice management or legal business issues even in the legal press. Today, the legal press has finally caught up, but the mainstream media also seems to be warming to this topic. In recent weeks, we’ve seen prominent articles on lawyer job-hunting struggles in the Wall Street Journal, on the continuing bondage of the billable hour in Slate, and now on the decreasing appeal of legal careers in The New York Times (love that hip, timely photo of the cast of L.A. Law in the NYT story).

I’ll leave the articles for your perusal — they don’t say much that critics within the legal industry haven’t been saying for awhile –but it is interesting to see the MSM take an interest in the effects of the profession’s broken business model. One explanation could be the old anti-lawyer standby, that the media has always liked kicking lawyers around at any opportunity. But I don’t buy it in this case: the tone and approach of these articles is fair and at times downright sympathetic. The writers and editors behind these stories, I’m guessing, have friends and colleagues in the law and have been struck by their misery.

I suspect what we’re seeing here is the sharpening of the crisis within the profession — the tension rising to a pitch high enough to be heard outside our cloistered walls. This is, in the long run, a good thing — it’s like when an addict’s friends arrange an intervention; it lets the addict know that there really is something seriously wrong. I look forward to seeing a segment on the billable hour on a future 60 Minutes — and that’s not as outlandish as it would have sounded even a couple of years ago.

Disaggregation and legal publishing

Here’s a neat thought: disaggregation of legal texts. Law books probably lend themselves better to this approach than other disciplines precisely because of the law’s extreme specialization. I can see a defence lawyer downloading only those entries in Martin’s Annotated Criminal Code that deal with DUIs, entirely bypassing the sections dealing with murder, aggravated assault and other crimes that her client base hardly ever brings in.

The larger question this portends is the future of the professional textbook itself. Just as the pop-music album eventually will be replaced by individual track download sales — relieving both artist and listener of the tedium of all those “filler tracks” — I can see massive legal texts being replaced by specialized PDFed chapters that are, in effect, mini-books on very specific subjects.

Carswell’s current business model doesn’t support commissioning, editing, selling and printing a 60-page book on, say, defending a securities class action launched by investors outside North America. But a 60-page mini-book that costs almost nothing to produce yet can find a very small and specialized niche market with huge demand? The profit margins on that model look real good. It’ll be “Legal Publishing Meets the Long Tail,” and the results could be both dramatic and a boon for lawyer consumers.

This post originally appeared as a comment to a post at Slaw on June 19, 2007. 

21st-century legal publishing

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: Continue Reading