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Rear Window

The 1954 Hitchcock oeuvre, based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story, “It Had to Be Murder”, can be a marvellous mix of many metaphors and analogies. To some, its underlying theme is voyeurism, which may be the case at least in part, but the idea of the rear window view offers much more. It can apply to innumerable scenarios, including legal and professional publishing.

I have enjoyed and occasionally cited Peter Drucker’s notion of trying to predict the future being akin to driving down a country road at night with no lights, while looking out the rear window, the obvious risks and likely outcomes associated therewith requiring no further explanation. Had it been daytime or in better circumstances, maybe the most valuable information gained would have been to know whence one had come and about that which was left behind. However, it might also afford the benefit of knowing who is following, perhaps stealthily, with hostility, in hot pursuit or to offer succour of some kind. If it is regulatory, compliance or policing authorities, it might be time to moderate the pace or even stop; if it is Trumpian troglodytes brandishing pitchforks from the back of a stolen truck, it might be appropriate to press the accelerator of one’s powerful and smooth ultimate driving machine and leave them well behind and forgotten; if it is respected and clever rivals, a subtle mix of experience, planning and strategy will be needed to outwit them and prevent overtaking. In all such cases, the benefits of rearwards vision can be immense and avoid the need for screams of “behind you!”; warnings are usually in the form of “watch your back”, “back me up”, etc., rather than with a focus on what might be more clearly in view ahead. Keeping an eye only on what lies beyond the front windscreen might indicate a hope of a future destination but not necessarily with reason and direction. Looking backwards carries the risk of living in the past, recalling previous glories and trading on experience from times long gone, while ignoring and adding little to the present and future.

The figurative hostile rednecks are probably the least worrying, subject to the quality and speed of one’s own vehicle. They appear, make noise and quickly tire, break down and/or are arrested. In real life, they might be inclined, however, to refer to themselves, somewhat boastfully and occasionally without appropriate reason, as “disrupters”. I am reminded of an eminent and patrician law publishing house which was acquired and, to a limited extent, put in the management hands of local grifters. One critic saw the analogy with inept goons who had stolen the keys to a Rolls-Royce in order to tear around the neighbourhood, to everyone’s annoyance and indeed disruptively, pressing the various buttons on the dashboard but not understanding one from another. Inevitably they crash quickly, causing such damage as they do but, hopefully, the vehicle can be fully repaired. In the actual law publishing case in question, something along such lines was the comparatively happy outcome. The other examples of rear window images are more challenging, interesting and provide for greater learning experiences.

The fictional Rear Window photo-journalistic hero is a recognisable sort. Obviously worldly, resourceful, knowledgeable and independent of mind, but being disabled, he finds himself almost entirely impotent as he watches, calculates and seeks to make decisions but is never entirely sure what is going on. Probably normally more accustomed to the more varied, yet clearer media world beyond the metaphorical and symbolic front door, he is baffled yet intrigued by what might be going on amid the small, secretive and complicated inner workings that are kept out of sight. It is a similar sense which one has while looking out from an urban train, beyond the city central station, as it snakes its way around the unappealing but necessary, semi-hidden entrails of the suburbs and backstreets. Fascinating and/or troubling as it all might be to observe, especially and quite frequently, when it does not work exceptionally well, nothing seems to make any sense to the unaccustomed traveller, and little can be done to affect or contribute to it. As with some of the directions of legal publishing, from the outside and at a distance, trying to look through a dark and dusty back office window, might create an impression that much of what is in play is actually intended to reduce rather than increase profitability, focus on commoditised rather than added-value services, alienate markets and diminish the significance of scholarship, learning and knowledge. Perhaps the receipt by a Lexis Nexis/RELX executive of a United Nations Foundation Global Leadership award which recognises the company’s work in advancing the rule of law also falls risibly into such a category. In fact, on that topic, Lexis Nexis does not even receive a passing reference in a recent piece which comments on the English and Welsh Law Society’s report, Technology, Access to Justice and the Rule of Law. Even a brief cameo appearance by Alfred Hitchcock himself would not diminish the sense of bafflement to any significant extent.

In the non-fictional world of law publishing and elsewhere, it is wise to look ahead, to the rear and in all other directions to understand history and experience, seek to create and execute future direction and be attentive to and knowledgeable of potential challenges from wherever they might come. This is as true in trying to manage long-standing technologies as it is current and future ones. However resilient, for example, the academic law book might remain for now, methods of delivery, potentially including the impact of open access, may further minimise the role of the law publisher as informational intermediary. Thinking that one can predict and then create the future has to be, of course, the most difficult and least credible directional vision. In so doing, it may be unwise entirely to conflate the thinking as between legal publishing and legal publishing technology, though each has dependency on the other. Yet, online content and solutions’ providers have no difficulty in understanding, encouraging and exploiting the publishing function as a component of information delivery. Indeed, comfort might be taken from the knowledgeable words of Jason Wilson, a seasoned and distinguished law publisher, when he writes “Given what I’ve seen of legal tech over the last decade, I am optimistic about the future of improving lawyers’ access to knowledge and overcoming existing barriers in unexpected and inventive ways”. Verna Milner, with her substantial experience, however, commenting on Let There Be Light – the Primary Function of AI in Legal Research, expresses justifiable doubts.

As an aside, the later remake of Rear Window, even with the substantial help of Superman himself (the Man of Steel, perhaps to the surprise of many, had a charming association specifically with law publishing rather than journalism alone), was not nearly as good as the Hitchcock original classic. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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