It seems to me that for law firms, “content” — articles, papers, case law summaries, legislative updates, alerts, and so forth — is really just a lawyer byproduct, a side effect of lawyers’ efforts to stay informed about the law. That’s a critical aspect of lawyers’ primary function, of course, which is selling advice and judgment. But clients don’t pay lawyers for standalone legal knowledge — they pay for specific legal action and results, making content at best a tertiary product for firms.
Nonetheless, there’s been a lot of discussion recently about law firms’ burgeoning roles as publishers of content, and what that might mean in this extraordinarily unsettled time for both law and publishing. Three articles in particular caught my attention:
- 2011: The Year That Law Firm Websites Become Publishing Platforms, by Robert Algeri, sets the scene: “[T]he content on the firm’s website is often scattered throughout sections like ‘Multimedia,’ ‘Experience’ and ‘Publications.’ Very few prospective clients can be expected to bounce around the website looking for relevant content in all those different sections. The solution: a publishing platform … a website that is designed to showcase a firm’s content in a way that maximizes its ability to help generate business.”
- Legal content on iPads and tablets: what’s the business model for publishers and law firms? by Kevin O’Keefe: “You [law firms] are in the media business, in that you share your intellectual capital via blogs. You’ve led with content for client development for years, and that will become increasingly important with the iPad and tablets. If you think you’ve seen wide distribution of your content via the Web and blogs, you haven’t seen anything close to what iPad, tablet, and other mobile devices are going to enable you to do as far as content delivery and distribution.”
- Transformation, by American Lawyer Media CEO Bill Pollak (hat tip to Jason Wilson): “The new constraint will be content. We’re going to need to create, curate, license and otherwise gain access to the content we’ll need for our rapidly growing family of websites and data products. Some of that content may be ‘news’ in the traditional sense, but I suspect only a small part. More will be substantive, must-have information that our audience values, either on its own or when integrated with other content that makes it more valuable. “
Each of these articles raises interesting and valid points, especially with regard to the impact of the mobile web on publishing of all kinds. Law firms, though, are still coming to terms with publishing on the immobile web. Firms have lots of content lying around, but it often seems they’re not quite sure why they have it or what they should do with it. So I’d like to consider the nature and purpose of law firm content — what is its practical purpose and point? What does it really mean for a law firm to consider itself a “publisher”?
Almost all law firms answer those questions by treating content as marketing material, as a way to show off their knowledge and expertise in hopes of attracting and impressing clients. That would work really well if no other law firm anywhere was producing content of similar quantity or quality. But since every law firm in the universe does, this content comes across to clients in much the same way as firm-branded highlighters come across to trade show delegates: easily obtained, rarely used, easily discarded. Most law firm content is basically a commodity.
The reason for this is simple: law firms don’t take the publishing of content seriously. Most firms collect whatever content lawyers feel like producing — the side effects of their own learning, the output of their own interests, the 30-page CLE paper that was actually written by a first-year associate — and offer them to the market; the market responds much as you might expect. Ask your clients how much of your content they’ve read in the past six months and how much they’ve acted on; the answer, in most cases, is not a whole lot. Most lawyers really produce content for themselves, not for their readers, and that’s why their readers (clients) mostly don’t care.
Publishers take publishing seriously because it’s their livelihood, focusing completely on readers’ needs and interests, which is why they’re much better at this than law firms are. But law firms can take publishing seriously, too. In fact, I think they should: in an era when legal publishers are getting into the business of providing legal services, law firms ought to think seriously about returning the favour. I don’t mean that law firms should try to make publishing a profit center — publishers are having a hard enough time of that themselves. I mean that law firms can use content to drive real results in marketing, prestige and business development — if they are extraordinarily focused about content, and if they become ruthless about the process of acquiring and publishing it.
Chief among the new rules of publishing is this: you can’t compete on volume, because the web will defeat you. No news publisher can beat Google, no bookstore can compete with Amazon, no record company can rival iTunes, when it comes to volume and size of selection; but all these companies are themselves up against the worldwide Web, great seas vying (probably in vain, long-term) with a vast ocean. Even the biggest law firm in the world will be only a pond by comparison. So law firms that take publishing seriously need to go in the opposite direction: ever more focused, ever more niched. They need to decide what specific area they want to occupy, and then they need to own it.
In his book The Dip, Seth Godin talks about the importance of being the best in the world at what you do — “the best,” not “the best you can do,” and “the world,” meaning “the specific universe within which your buyers operate.” If you’re going take publishing seriously, then you need to be the best in the world at what you publish. If you’re going to publish about wrongful dismissal in New York State, then your publication should strive to be the comprehensive, unquestioned, nobody-else-is-close authority on the subject. People should say, of your publication, “That’s the Wall Street Journal of wrongful dismissal in New York State.” Powerful, reliable, influential, indispensable — these are the modifiers your content should be pursuing, because they’re also the modifiers your firm should be pursuing, no?
How do you get to be the best? By being uncompromising about the creation and distribution of content. That means doing a lot of things that make law firms uncomfortable:
- identifying a niche strategically critical to your firm’s objectives and going after it, guns blazing;
- turning down proffered lawyer content because it’s not what you need or it’s not good enough;
- requisitioning specific content from lawyers, and having the power to enforce those requisitions;
- hiring professional writers and editors to create new content or greatly enhance existing content;
- pouring money into design, so that you rival what professional publishers produce in look, feel and accessibility;
- consulting professionals who understand both publishing and the law to provide strategic guidance; and
- making the (expensive) effort to deliver your finished product in a customized, mobile, timely manner to the clearly identified audience(s) of your choice.
Law firms that take publishing seriously adopt a strategic approach to it. They recognize that standalone content, produced more or less randomly and left to its own devices, serves little purpose. They also know that law firm content can’t be too useful, or else it becomes law firm advice and therefore a dangerous proposition. So they figure out what business development ends content can support, which specific firm or practice group goals it advances, and then they go get it. Specifically:
- They create websites built around clients, not lawyers — a key difference most law firms ignore.
- They blog about their specialty areas until they’re among the very few recognized authorities on the subject.
- They use Twitter streams to establish themselves as invaluable suppliers of target industry know-how.
- They build FAQ collections on their practice subjects so that web users seeking answers to their questions inevitably find them.
- They pay close attention to design and to distribution, which matter far more than lawyers think.
- They invest serious resources (money, time, personnel) equal to their serious ambitions.
- They ensure support for their work at the highest levels and participation from the ground up.
- They always, always, always ask: what does the client need and want? They find out, and they deliver it.
In short, they act like publishers — as well they should, because to play in this league requires measuring yourself against the leaders and taking them on. Commit to publishing as a key element of your marketing, brand-building and professional development strategy, and you’ll get results commensurate with high expectations.
For law firms, content is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Understand your end and commit the means: that’s how law firms can be publishers.