You’ve seen plenty of references to the decline of traditional news media here, usually in the context of similar struggles in the legal marketplace. Instead of dwelling on that industry’s problems, however, here’s what looks like one of its future successes, and how it might have potentially profound applications to the law. It’s the rise of hyperlocal news.
Maybe the best way to define “hyperlocal” is to cite new media commentator Max Kalehoff’s question in his blog post: “What is hyperlocal? Can someone please tell me?” We all know what “local” means, he says: content and advertising focused on a specific location or area, rather than on a state, provincial or national level. City, town, and community newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations all fit the definition of “local,” as do the organizations and subscribers who support them. So what does “hyperlocal” media mean, and how does it differ in a meaningful way from these local media that are dropping like flies all around us? A good answer comes in a comment from Mark Josephson, CEO of hyperlocal news provider Outside.in:
Historically, “local” was defined by city, town or zip. It was very “top down” and assumed that everyone who lived in a certain city, town or zip was interested in the same thing. Now, hyperlocal has come to mean “smaller than city, town or zip” and usually refers to neighborhoods or small town blogs. I think hyperlocal is defined by the individual, built from the ground up; that is, local media, news or information that is personalized by you and YOUR location. Hyperlocal is unique to everyone: what are the places, locations and neighborhoods that are important to you.
Hence, whereas a local paper might cover a town and a community paper might cover one section of a city, a hyperlocal paper covers a particular neighbourhood, block or even lengthy stretch of rural road. It reports on crimes committed in these neighbourhoods, school closures, pothole repairs, building permits, house sales, restaurant openings, and a host of other details that are meaningless to anyone a few blocks away but are immensely important for locals to know. Adrian Holovaty, founder of hyperlocal site Everyblock, prefers “microlocal” as a clearer and more accurate term, because “[m]icro implies intense focus, incredibly small scale and rich depth.” And he notes elsewhere that his company takes a very liberal definition of what constitutes “news.” If it matters to the people in the neighbourhood or block, then it qualifies as “news,” regardless of how narrowly a large legacy media provider might define the term.
Hyperlocal news is extremely specialized and customized news, and while the business model for such a tightly focused media outlet is still a work in progress, it’s a concept that dovetails nicely with the growing demand for personalized information. What interests me is the potential application of “hyperlocal theory” to the legal profession. I even think the model of a lawyer with a single, intense business focus has a good shot at being the future of solo practice and a whole new way of defining what lawyers do.
Here’s one variation on the theme: the geographically hyperlocal lawyer. We’ve had “local lawyers” for generations, of course: the traditional small-town practitioner is part of our collective professional consciousness. In a community small enough to support just a few practitioners, the local lawyer (usually a general practitioner) occupies herself only with the concerns of her fellow townsfolk, and her skills and knowledge are only as broad and deep as they need to be to address those concerns. But the traditional small-town local lawyer is under the gun: many communities that size are declining, and the lawyers there are older, less likely to have juniors to whom to pass on the practice, and generally work in areas (real estate, wills, document creation) most vulnerable to new competitors from outside the profession. The small-town GP is a vanishing archetype.
The geographically hyperlocal lawyer, on the other hand, might be more an urban or suburban creature: a neighbourhood lawyer in a community large enough to have many neighbourhoods. This lawyer would restrict his practice only to the people and organizations in a strictly defined area, maybe no more than several square blocks, and he would use that fact as the cornerstone of his business development efforts. He would offer a centralized office within walking distance of the whole neighbourhood, he’d circulate a hyperlocal newsletter of community news, business information and legal tips, he’d maintain a presence at soccer games and garage sales, and he’d benefit from word-of-mouth marketing over fences and during barbecues. In short, he would be a known and trusted commodity, a community focal point. The hyperlocal neighbourhood lawyer might never become rich and could face conflict issues with some frequency, but he should still have a decent and fulfilling career.
Another way to view the “hyperlocal lawyer” is from the perspective of practice area. Think of an extreme-niche lawyer who serves a worldwide “neighbourhood,” but offers services of an intensely focused type. Imagine a lawyer who takes on not all personal injury cases, not all brain-injury cases, but only swimming-pool-related brain injury cases; not all IPOs, not all high-tech IPOs, but only IPOs in the femtocell phone industry; not all immigration cases, not all business immigration cases, but only business immigrants from blacklisted countries who seek work in sensitive government departments. The hyperlocal-practice lawyer would establish herself as the best (and maybe the only) authority in the world on a micro-focused area of law. She would write a blog and would top the Google results whenever anyone searches for information on her niche. She would take on clients in her licensed jurisdiction and provide expert assistance and advice to those outside it. The hyperlocal-practice lawyer dives as deep into a practice area as there are clients to support her.
There are obviously risks and drawbacks here, too: choosing a practice area that’s easily rendered superfluous by technological and social change, or that will be rife with conflicts concerns, or that’s so finely focused that it can’t support even an efficient solo practice. But thanks to the internet, even clients with the most obscure legal issues can find the resources they need, something that was practically impossible a generation ago. An extreme-niche lawyer who writes a good blog and pays even rudimentary attention to website SEO could get all the advertising she needs courtesy of Google. This is the Long Tail era, after all, and an age like this invites the development of a Long Tail lawyer, someone who does perhaps just one or two things, but does them exclusively and exhaustively. The hyperlocal ethic is based on intense focus, and there are opportunities for practitioners who apply that focus to their practice.
So these are two potential angles from which to view a hyperlocal lawyer: geography and practice area. But for me, the really interesting potential of hyperlocality in the legal profession is from the client perspective. Let’s go back to Mark Josephson’s definition of hyperlocality, but this time inserting legal references rather than media ones:
Hyperlocal is defined by the client, built from the ground up; that is, legal information and services that are personalized by you and YOUR situation. Hyperlocal law is unique to every client: what are the legal issues, challenges and opportunities that are important to you.
What we’re talking about here, I think, is the evolution of the client-defined lawyer: hyperlocality not of region, or of practice, but of client.
Think of it this way: for many years, first in their brochures and then on their websites, law firms described their services in terms of “practice areas”: the litigation department, the trusts and estates department, the taxation department, and so forth. These are all jurisprudential, lawyer-centered terms — departments named after law school courses, basically. It was a “top-down” approach to selling legal services, and many firms still take this approach. Over the past decade, however, we’ve seen gradual movement towards practice and industry segments within law firms: the banking group, the oil and gas group, the wealth management group, and so on (there are even client groups within some law firms, better again). These are all legal services defined according to client needs, not legal knowledge — and indeed, most of these departments are cross-disciplinary, bringing in lawyers from several different backgrounds to serve a particular industry or type of client. This has been a welcome change, I think, from an inward to an outward focus on lawyers’ part, allowing a law firm to be described and defined by its users rather than by its members.
Extend that thought a little farther, and you come to lawyers described and defined by their clients. We already know what clients want from their lawyers: they want us to work closely with them, understand their needs, keep them alert to and updated on things that matter to them, look out for their overall well-being from a legal perspective, and be ready to respond to developments in ways that will meet their needs. Right now, clients hire lawyers who they hope will meet some or most of those criteria, some or most of the time, in between our other numerous obligations. What if a client had the opportunity to customize a lawyer who’d meet all of them, all the time — a lawyer “personalized by you and your situation”? What would that look like?
Well, of course, we already know what that would look like — there are thousands of lawyers who serve only one client and whose skills and knowledge are designed to meet that client’s needs. They work for government and in-house corporate departments. They have exactly one client, they align their skills to that client, and they focus all their efforts to maximize its interests — they’re client-defined hyperlocal lawyers.
But it’s extremely rare for private-bar practitioners to have just one client. Normally we have dozens, and sometimes we have hundreds, and the more we have, the happier we seem to be. We maintain a balance between keeping our knowledge and skills focused enough to deliver competent services in our area of practice, but general enough that we exclude as few clients as possible from our purview. There are costs to that approach, of course, and most of them are borne by the client: the inability to reach your busy lawyer when you need her, the time and cost required for your lawyer to refocus on your situation, the heightened potential for disqualifying conflicts of interest, and the lawyer’s relatively shallow appreciation of all your needs and circumstances. Really, when you stop and think about, having scores of clients is kind of an odd way to run a trust- and relationship-based professional practice, isn’t it?
So think about this: a hyperlocal private bar. A legal profession in which having dozens of clients is the exception, not the rule. Most lawyers have only a few clients, and some have just one. A lawyer’s overall professional profile is shaped, yes, by his interests and his acuity in certain areas — but the details of his knowledge and expertise and the day-to-day affairs of his working life are shaped by his clients or client. The client sees in her lawyer everything she needs, no more than she needs, and nothing that she doesn’t need — just as a hyperlocal media user gets all the news that matters to her, everything about that news, and none of the news that doesn’t matter to her. These are user-defined lawyers, providing holistic, 24/7/365 legal services to their new clients: legal health checkups, problem anticipation and avoidance, advice and judgment when needed, all on a monthly retainer basis with special fees for special events. These lawyers have far fewer clients than most lawyers have today — but they do much more for them, and on a wider and deeper scale.
Designer lawyers? A profession that surrenders a degree of its self-determinacy to its clients? Whether that sounds like a dream or a nightmare is up to you. But I think it might end up describing some of the legal profession, and much of the solo and small-firm bar, a few short decades from now, and maybe sooner.