Legal and Professional Publishing: Has It Become Desperately Dull?
I’m pretty certain that most people, partly under delusion, at some time express the view that things aren’t as good as they were in the past. It’s usually wrong, of course. However, looking at the world of legal and professionally publishing, I wonder if I’m correct in thinking that it used to be enormously pleasurable, rewarding and creative but now appears, with some exceptions, to be desperately dull?
Its dullness is reflected in its lack of innovation, its shift away from new product development and its failure to excite and engage with its customers and with its own people. For me at least, on a scan of the main UK legal and professional providers’ web sites, their apparent lack of innovation serves to confirm the view. The use of the word “solutions” in the various web sites is almost as prolific as on the back of a plumber’s van and has as much meaning. A propos, we tend to think of solutions being applied to problems, hence generally a negative scenario. But what of responses to or generation and encouragement of opportunities for competitive advantage? Isn’t that about financial risk management combined with innovation, entrepreneurialism, creativity and expertise? Is the “there are no problems, only opportunities” mantra in decline?
In my view, the state of affairs is shown in the decline of profits, inability to grow and the sector’s lack of importance as an area of interest for managers and investors. Add to this the recent news of Lexis Nexis and Wolters Kluwer swapping legal publishing assets in Canada and Poland and one can assume that attempts are being made to make sense of respective strengths and weaknesses. Might Wolters Kluwer finally come to terms with its evolved position in the UK?
It may simply be, as a seasoned publisher suggested to me, that, as comments on Bloomberg Law indicate, the real action is no longer in publishing, as defined by the processes of editorial, production, product management, marketing, sales and product development but rather in other spheres, that are driven more by technology. He suggested that a recent graduate, presently steeped in the creation of mobile and tablet applications, is likely to be having the time of her/his life, seeing now as their moment. Obviously, if it’s true, it has to be great for those people but nevertheless I think it regrettable that the core professional publishing tasks may no longer be appealing.
I have a view as to why so many aspects of working life may be less interesting than previously, certainly but not exclusively in publishing. Perhaps from the early 1990s the extent to which employees, particularly those who are creative and knowledge workers, have been under the control of process management and system to do their jobs, has taken away the spark. Many of the opportunities for individual thought, application of personal intelligence, judgement, charisma and flair have been set aside in favour of project management rules and automated process systems. I was shocked recently to see an example of how far things have changed, seeing a Linkedin posting to try and find a suitable author/editor for part of a legal and finance publication. The reason was, allegedly, that “nobody wants to write any more, it doesn’t pay enough, they all have high chargeable hour targets and lots of the old ones have retired”There was a time when having all the right contacts and being in the midst of all the right people were key elements of the job. But then the publishing business in question has already made redundant any trained publishers it used to have and has outsourced most of its publishing functions to the Far East. In many large organisations, it seems that the business systems, keenly supported by back-office functions like finance, human resources, the monitoring of key performance indicators and information technology are the de facto management and sometimes the enemy of the brightest employees.
Whether, for example, the rigours of the likes of Lean Six Sigma process to provide goods and service at a rate of 3.4 defects per million opportunities is optimal, when applied to publishing activities, might be a matter of debate. I wonder, however, if it takes the fun out of it. Likewise, the various computerised project management software processes applied to everything are often a delight to the people in the project office but can often get in the way of successful outcomes, when the process becomes more important than the (sometimes financially measured) result.
Very recently I had experience of the absence of even senior employee power, authority and judgment, albeit in the rather more sensitive area of certain large financial transactions involving banking and financial institutions. Opportunities for “computer says NO” moments abounded, almost to the destruction of the deals in question, despite many well-meaning, intelligent and senior people doing everything in their restricted power to be positive. These were financial transactions, of course and we have learned much of late about the need for financial scrutiny and control. Still, more often than not, professional publishing businesses appear to be driven by constraints rather than opportunity and creativity. Sometimes humans need to have authority.
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the publishing entities that at first sight might look the most dull and unchanging, appear, in contrast to some of the publishers, to be quite dynamic. It’s usually quite difficult for law reporting to generate any excitement but maybe they are trying harder than the commercial publishers. In the UK, both the Incorporated Council for Law Reporting for England and Wales and the Scottish Council of Law Reporting have lately been going out of their way to promote their activities and images and to improve their service to existing and potential subscribers. In the former case, a fresh new web site, the hosting of related events, the use of video to promote their activities, active blogging and some well-placed PR activity serve to inform generally and remind us of their value. The Scottish equivalent , whose web site is designed and maintained by Justis Publishing, deserves congratulation of the quality and value of its five YouTube films listed on the site, on the role of law reports, together with related teaching materials. It might be that the law reporters are having an even tougher time than their commercial competitors, in a changing world in which innovation for them is difficult. The point is that they are trying hard, supported by creative and enthusiastic people in both cases. As is ever the case, the bigger the challenge, the more people rise to overcome it. The mainstream law publishers maybe have had it too easy until lately, the irony or perhaps hypocrisy of their changing situation being noted recently by David Worlock.
I have no doubt that in years to come, the bright young legal publishers of today will hark back to the earlier days of their careers which were full of challenge and adventure in contrast to that of their own successors. They’ll be wrong.
Print journals made obsolete by free downloads & electronic searching of “open source” journals.
(1) Writers publish for maximum readership, i.e., where the downloading of articles is free & the searching is electronic. Traditional paper-print journals cannot compete. They cost too much and take too long to publish the articles they accept. E-searching makes irrelevant that journals have bad as well as good articles. Convenience & lower price make the “prestige” of the best paper publications irrelevant. That’s why the fast food industry is so successful. Technology’s conveniences can undercut quality of content.
(2) Make $$millions, with no competitors–create a commercial version of LAO LAW’s legal opinion, and memoranda-download services. Do it before CanLII has to create it, because Canada’s law societies desperately need an answer to “the unaffordable legal services problem.” Otherwise, because they cannot make affordable legal services available, our law societies have no purpose, i.e., they have to be replaced. Meanwhile, the Benchers aren’t hurting, but the careers of young lawyers are.
— Ken Chasse, LSUC & LSBC. See my SSRN author’s page for more in-depth on “the problem,” and, the technology of centralized legal research. (SSRN = Social Science Research Network)
A brilliant, incisive and long overdue commentary on what is wrong with legal publishing today. I believe the root cause – from which the domination of systems and targets over talents stems – is the fact that the beancounters have taken over from the legal professionals. And we all know the intrinsic and inestimable value of the former – NOT!
I might add that contributors are often as much victims of the process as employees. From 1994 to 2010, I wrote for LexisNexis Hong Kong (Butterworths Asia, as it was in better times). I contributed substantially on arbitration to Halsbury’s Laws of Hong Kong and the Annotated Statutes of Hong Kong, as well as being a law reporter for Hong Kong Cases. I discovered accidentally, in late 2010, that I had been bounced out of all of these, sans warning or consultation. The reason: I had moved from Hong Kong to Australia. The fact that I remained heavily engaged in dispute resolution in Hong Kong, was the author of a leading arbitration book published by LexisNexis HK, a member of an advisory committee to Hong Kong Government and Consulting Editor to Asian Dispute Review, cut no ice with LexisNexis when I pointed these facts out to them. By virtue of an internal e-mail that was inadvertently copied to me, I learned that I was regarded as a “nutter” for complaining. And when my courteous complaint was escalated to managing director level, I got the rudest imaginable response from the LexisNexis HK MD.
Mind you, I had a bad experience with LexisNexis HK as early as 1997, when my book was published. They were very poor at distributing review copies to journals (they still are) and, when I remonstrated with them about this, received a brusque letter from the then MD telling me that they would not be dictated to by authors!
I can tell you that all this wouldn’t have happened in the good old days! Needless to say, the forthcoming second edition of my arbitration book will NOT be published by LexisNexis HK!
Thank you, Mr. Morgan, for your generous comments and your own insights. For my part, more than the bean counters, I would lay blame with the ignorant outsiders and bluffers who don’t know, care or understand but are desperate to set the balance more in their favour. First rule on conquest is to destroy the values of the vanquished.
I hope my next Slaw column, “Do you want to know a secret” explores the issue further by discussing the question of loss of employee loyalty.