Legal Publishing in the 21st Century

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:

Magazines: National, Canadian Lawyer, Lexpert, The Advocate (B.C.).
Newspapers: The Lawyers Weekly, Law Times (Ontario), Le Journal Du Barreau (Quebec)
Newsletters: a couple dozen, including offerings from CBA branches, law societies, publishing companies and even law firms. A growing number are distributed by e-mail.

Let me know if I’ve missed any entries in the list above. This doesn’t include foreign titles like the ABA Journal, Law Practice, The Lawyer (UK), etc.

I edit National, I used to edit Lawyers Weekly, and I read all the others regularly. And you know what? Melissa’s not wrong. Each of these publications has its strengths, but “young, irreverent and hip” are not words you’d use to describe any of them. Among editors, I may be the youngest of the lot, and I’m perilously close to turning 40.

These periodicals are produced by bar associations, law societies and legal publishers — all conservative and risk-averse by nature. Melissa’s demographic cohort is not looking for conservative and risk-averse. But that’s only part of the problem.

It’s not easy to produce a legal periodical these days — printing costs are skyrocketing, mailing costs are spacerocketing, younger readers are migrating to other media formats, and advertising dollars are more and more difficult to find. I’m not privy to publishing executives’ chats, but I imagine a few of these conversations concern the possibility (hope?) that one or more periodicals will fall by the wayside and reduce the number of competitors.

Not only don’t I think that will happen, I don’t think that should happen. We don’t have nearly enough legal publishing and legal journalism outlets in this country, because there are hundreds of important and interesting stories that go untold every year.

When I was at TLW, I would read scores of interesting court decisions every week, knowing that only a fraction of them would make it into the newspaper — at 20 pages a week, a fraction is all you can squeeze in. Here at National, our file folders are bulging with story ideas that deserve exploration, from practice-related tips to major international trends to controversial investigations — but we publish only eight times a year, and both space and resources are limited. We’re all starting to produce online content, but it’s still just a trickle compared to the potential torrent.

As Thanksgiving diners can attest, when supply is bursting at the seams, it forces open new channels of escape. The Internet is busting the legal publishing marketplace wide open, and it’s people like Melissa Kluger, Rob Hyndman, and the good people of SLAW who are breaking down the doors.

Legal publishers need to understand that the number of competitors is not going to shrink — it’s going to multiply tenfold. And these competitors won’t have overhead, distribution, payroll or marketing costs to deal with — they’ll write when they want to, promote themselves by word of mouth, sell as much focused advertising as they like, and establish themselves as individual brand-name forces. Seth Godin is right: blogs are going to create thousands of expert media outlets with a total staff complement of one. It’s already started.

What does this have to with you, the 21st-century lawyer? Two things. First, the day is soon coming when you won’t have to accept whatever the legal publishers decide you should know about. You can order tailored, in-depth legal news delivered to your desktop, be it through RSS feeds from the local courthouse, Yahoo! legal newsgroup postings, or a free e-newsletter from a sole practitioner outside Winnipeg who tracks the federal child support guidelines religiously.

Second, you should take the opportunity right now to become one of those publishers. As Troy McClure so rightly said, “It’s remarkably easy!” All you need is excellent knowledge of your subject area, a real interest in talking about it, and a ten-minute introduction to blogging. Ask Mike Fitzgibbon, David Fraser, Christine Mingie, or any of the bloggers on Steve Matthews’ list — they’re the vanguard of tomorrow’s legal periodical publisher.

Ten years from now — maybe sooner — that list of magazines and newspapers I provided earlier is going to seem archaic. The doors to the legal publishing marketplace are swinging wide.


  1. Jordan, what do you think about blog networks like the ALM Legal blog watch? Free content for traditional publishers who know how to monetize? or simply a valid exchange of increased profile for advertising dollars?

  2. Steve, I think it’s an interesting development, and I give ALM full credit for trying to work blogs into a somewhat traditional business model. ALM’s problem is going to be maintaining its own importance in the partnership. The bloggers supply the content, the advertisers supply the money, and ALM gives … what? Distribution? Profile? Legitimacy? These are all things that ALM provides now, but that the individual bloggers are rapidly acquiring on their own. Eventually, the bloggers are going to ask ALM: what do we need you for?

    Dennis Kennedy and Jim Calloway, to cite just two examples, are becoming brands unto themselves, and more are following all the time. In the long run, the most widely read bloggers aren’t going to need a traditional distribution network. And eventually, the ALM blog network could start looking a little like Saturday Night Live — a launching pad for future stars who keep leaving to strike it big on their own.

    The only successful blog network model I can foresee is one that’s grouped around a specific set of themes and ideologies — the Huffington Post looks like a good example. It helps to have entertainment celebrities blogging for you, of course.

  3. A thought-provoking post, Jordan. When LEXPERT magazine first made the scene, it really created a buzz. It was slick, had an element of inside industry news (which in other circles might be called gossip) and spoke to the bottom line for those corporate lawyers who weren’t interested in court cases and other litigation-related news. And seems to me it is still the best at covering Canadian management-related issues.

    Still, I doubt it has a lot to say to lawyers such as those at Hardcore Superstar.

    There is a lot of room still in Canada’s long tail to find a niche in which to be heard.

  4. Connie, I can’t comment much on our competitors, but I will say this: Lexpert was the first publication to recognize that this is a fragmented profession with dozens of niches waiting to be filled, and that narrowcasting is the way of the future. It deserves full credit for recognizing this and for seizing an important niche early on. That’s a lesson that needs to be understood by everyone who wants to supply services, information or opinion to lawyers today. Trying to be everything to everyone dooms you to be nothing much to anyone.

  5. Jordan, that makes sense. One further thought I had was that Advertisers, who have traditionally been reluctant to embrace the online medium, may be even more hesitant to directly advertise on blogs. (?) And beyond legitimacy (which has now been a struggle since the late 90’s), I have to wonder if Advertisers are prepared to manage campaigns with hundreds (thousands?) of independents, rather than dealing with a single, central, well trusted partner? And if they are, that would be a major shift in the advertising realm, would it not?

    Connie, I have no doubt that Lexpert is well received on Bay Street, TO generally, or even among ANY of the seven sisters. :-)

  6. It would indeed be a major shift, Steve, in this industry anyway. While some major ad agencies and a few of the bigger corporate entities out there have both the insight and the resources to work directly with the most popular bloggers, that may not be the case for the relatively smaller operations that seek to advertise to lawyers, especially in this country. As a result, ALM and like operations will do well with such networks for awhile yet — but I do think it’s a transitory stage, because advertisers eventually adapt to the most effective model out there.

    Really, it’s the same with the “client revolution” we discussed yesterday, or any of the sea changes we often talk about (wish for?) in the practice of law. The change always seems to come much later than its boosters predicted — but much more suddenly than anyone was anticipating.

  7. Do you think these ideas translate to other areas in publishing, notably the online information providers? Seems to me every year there are a number of little niche start-ups springing up that pull a small part of the clientelle away from the main vendors. At what point will this effect really be felt, really make in-roads?

  8. Connie, I keep wondering myself when the online providers like QL/Lexis and Carswell/Westlaw will be affected by the democratization of legal information on the Internet. I get the sense CANLII has taken some of the market share (I’d be interested in knowing how much), and full RSS update capacity in every court would take some more, I imagine.

    But until someone like Google creates an advertising-based free-access legal research functionality — which seems plausible, at least — the online providers should continue to do alright. I think Simon C touched on these sorts of issues in a post here last November, “What would Microsoft research make of law?”

  9. The blog “precedent” is, I agree, entertaining and fresh; however, I disagree with the premise that older, more traditional journals should be holus/bolus replaced by new media and forms of communication simply because they can.

    I have regularly read the Advocate because it does exactly what it sets out to do. It is certainly easier and more informative than wading through a host of other information sources related to law and lawyers in BC and it has the advantage of being well edited.

    The discussion around the emergence of new forms of media should, I think, not fall into the trap of assuming they will replace the older, more traditional forms – they may provide a diffferent kind of thinking and learning, but just as print didn’t eliminate hand writing and manuscript, the history of technology shows that a new technology usually only displaces the older technology.

  10. I think that what these journals need is passion: enthusiasm for ideas and issues. To give two examples compare American Lawyer (Brill and post-Brill) and National Post (Lord Black and Asper). I disagree vehemently with the views of both Steve Brill and Conrad Black, but they were interesting to read because they cared about ideas and issues, and were prepared to fund good writers, and give them the space needed. And the graphical zip of the publications showed it.
    The challenge comes when they move into a corporate or institutional space, and are subject to the necessary pressures. The takeovers of all publications from founding editors is difficult.
    I am simply amazed that Lexpert has survived John Alexander Black’s exit, and that Wayne Bigby lasted as long as he did. Those who welcome a challenge can apply at
    And no I’m not aware of anyone on Bay Street who took the publication as seriously as John Alexander Black.
    I wouldn’t regard Lexpert as presaging anything about the market for Canadian legal journalism. Whereas Melissa Kluger might just be the new wave.