Column

Unknown Unknowns

The world continues to change greatly and, whatever the future brings and despite any wilful and devious political and corporate hyperbole that abounds on these matters, it may well be that some aspects of the past will disappear or will alter to an extent. In the case of much that has been witnessed of late, we might certainly hope so. Almost without doubt, the pandemic is likely to create beneficial modernisation and efficiencies that can be enjoyed by the use of technology that was previously little-known, avoided or unavailable. We have indeed been forced lately to question much that has been familiar, perhaps because many of us have spent too much time in lockdown. While we certainly do not know exactly where we are going, it is unlikely that we are returning fully and exactly to where we were.

Reflecting on legal information creation, manipulation, curation and publishing, a lesson reinforced has been that, clearly, it is not and was not essential. Weekly community applauding the work of its heroes and even for its customer bases would hardly have been appropriate. This serves to remind one not to be obsessive about that which is not too important and to recognise the difference between life-creating and life-saving activities and sometimes, just grubby ways of making money and paying the bills.

There are those who will purport to identify opportunity in everything. Among them are the seers and gurus who will use as yet incomplete outcomes to try and verify their predictions from the past; the ones which were never accompanied by time-lines, costings and other details and which, like every other prediction, were bound to happen at some time and in some way; best evidence is that they rarely know better than the rest of us but, like most of us, they have a living to make. In “Looking Back on the Future”, industry commentator, David Worlock, asks What happens when the list of changes you have predicted for the next decade largely take place inside a fortnight?”, seeking to unpick what might be temporary change and what might endure.

Managing and developing any endeavour, for the long-term and with success, is not just about watching for latest trends and fashions and instantly trying to exploit them. Recent times have highlighted that adaptability and ability to alter existing focus and preconceptions are obligatory. There may also be a time to make money and a time to use capabilities for societal benefit, without disguising the former under the cloak of the caring words of the latter. This would include the many examples in which crude commercial advertising masquerades in articles and suchlike as serious and honest information content. Ideally, calm reflection, honesty and strategy rather than panic would seem to be the correct approach; cries that “nothing will ever be the same” are likely to be, to a great extent, devious, hysterical and ill-informed. For the most part, we can eventually put people, places, things, experiences and events behind us and move on.

As I see it, one “known known” is the skill which the more competent law publishers have acquired to be able to determine very quickly and without excessive analysis when, in overall terms, they are being successful. This might be measured primarily through customer satisfaction, product and service quality and profitability. Choosing the right publications, electronic services and authors is not an instinctive talent but requires substantial insight, expertise, training and judgment to make it look easy and to win. Finding the right niches and authors in the market, working successfully with institutional partners, engaging with and being part of markets and delivering optimum quality is what, in my view, makes for a great professional publisher. Publishers can be infuriating though, when their systems and processes, or perhaps the lack of them, cause unnecessary delays in making important decisions, such as whether or not to commit to a project. As with justice, publishing delayed can be publishing denied, and similarly, often most unfairly and unreasonably. Of course, there is a time to publish and a time not to do so, for example, depending on the timing and schedules of legislative or other legal developments, budgeting tactics and strategies or for competitive reasons, but lack of efficiency does not fall into such categories.

Another is that English-language law publishing, whether it is serving Common Law or Civil Law markets is hardly novel, is not at all glamourous for those working in it and does not even produce nowadays the levels of financial reward that it did for market leaders in the past. So, why bother, especially as the need for it diminishes? The higher-tech world of artificial intelligence to conduct legal and other research certainly has its appeal and points the way to the future, without doubt. However, the satisfaction of finding and getting to know the best authors and editors in legal practice and in the academic world, working out ideas with them and collaborating to produce world-class publications of quality and significance, that genuinely add to scholarship and the development of the legal system, is as good a way as any, if rarely life-saving, to conduct a career. From the author’s and editor’s point of view, it is not dissimilar. Their challenges require a great deal of work, time and intellectual rigour to deliver the best in legal and professional publishing, the financial rewards are usually not significant, and the career benefits are sometimes nebulous. At the same time, for a relatively small and select number, there is a deep-seated need to take on the role of legal author, to explain, analyse and assume the status of a thought-leader in that environment. It is difficult to explain and often to understand why they do it but publishers should be extremely indebted to those who do so. Stating the obvious, the publisher who doesn’t value authorship would be advised to cut and run. At the same time, some authors can be horrendous, for their failure to meet agreed schedules and general procrastination, their frequent egoism, fetishism and self-interest in engaging with the process and their occasional inclination to want to share their personal problems with their publisher, all of which has to be (or carry the pretence of being) understood, supported and accommodated.

Life would be easier and simpler if there were little to it and it could all be overtaken by, for example, blogging. However, I remain unconvinced about the idea that legal blogging and associated software can be equated to “traditional law publishing”, or rather, what I would describe as “law publishing”. That trade’s primary functions are in providing learned and practical books, periodicals, integrated online content, solutions and documentation. It does not sidestep but, rather, embraces expert and in-depth cross-border judicial analysis, peer review, reference to and understanding of a range of academic and professional disciplines in such fields as tax, finance, accounting, economics, psychology, history, philosophy, sociology and of course, jurisprudence.

Whether or not legal and professional information publishing thrives, in the forms that we understand them today and in the tradition that has evolved over some hundreds of years, remains to be seen, though, personally, I doubt it. Wolters Kluwer’s recent strategic partnership with James Publishing, for example, may serve to highlight existing weaknesses and the need to combine in order to compete; its partnership with the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators looks quaintly old-fashioned. At the same time, as market conditions harden, it is hardly unsurprising to see, for example, Thomson Reuters sue a small competitor, claiming theft of proprietary data. As House of Butter comments, “Both TR & LN will fight tooth and nail to protect what they see to be their domain but in the end time and technology will render them redundant”; Ross is vigorously defending its own position. Probably, as ever, legal publishing will continue to change with the opportunities that technology offers and as the requirements of customers reflect the directions of legal and professional practice. That said, the suspicion and hope of law publishers might be that society, for so long as that word has meaning, will continue to have laws that keep developing and which, for the most part, are good ones, together with lawyers and other professionally qualified advisers whose jobs are to administer, interpret and improve them. Those customers tend to be serious and thoughtful people and good publishers should value, respect and understand how they think and operate. Perhaps only if that is the case, however different their own businesses might look, some great law publishing may have a role of sorts, at least for a while. If only they could be bulwarks against ever more appalling and corrupt legal systems.

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