Do You Want to Know a Secret?

It was some time ago, while reading a few articles and columns offering opinions and insights into the legal and professional information publishing industry, that I perceived the extent to which the bonds between the employee and company appear, unfortunately, to have weakened.

Now just to put that into context, personally and subjectively, I believe that corporate loyalty can be much over-rated and more often than not is encouraged as a means by which to exploit workers. I’m much happier with the idea of a contractual relationship of obviously unequal parties in which each owes the other legal and ethical duties, with a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay being a reasonable standard to which to operate. I suspect, however, that the sum total of all those criteria, applied to a high and consistent level by all concerned, is relatively uncommon. The ease with which so many companies, including legal publishing ones, see the laying off of their loyal staff as the first rather than the last solution to profit retention, has created a climate of fear and occasionally, hatred, so that the idea of loyalty and fidelity have little place. I think it is a pretty innocent and unworldly middle ranker who sings the metaphorical company song, cheers too readily for the team and takes enormous pride in the boss’s family name, more than to his or her own.

That said, there are proper duties of confidentiality and fidelity and it is indicative of something unpleasant when they appear so often to be avoided by either or both sides. It is sometimes even surprising to read the negative comments about the major professional publishers, when the criticisms come, of necessity anonymously, from current insiders. A regular source of such insights is, of course,, which is justifiably trusted for its standing in the market and the assurance it provides that whistle-blowers’ identities will be protected. Sean Hocking certainly is never short of existing employees, never mind the former ones, who are able to express their frustrations through him. A few references below are as typical as any:

It would be easy to dismiss all this, and to some extent this must be done, as just a few sad, bitter and twisted, low-ranking third-raters having a go at the system but in my opinion, to do so would be disingenuous. I have no difficulty myself in encountering professional publishing industry current employees at many levels of seniority, who are desperate to find an outlet for their frustration, in the hope that their voices will be heard and improvements will be made. The era of trade unionism has gone, to a great extent, in UK legal publishing, though Lexis-Nexis UK’s National Union of Journalists’ chapel remains a negotiating entity. The extent to which such a channel to senior management has reduced may have created a need to find other ways to express opinions. Not that there were especially better times in the past, I would stress. They were just differently challenging and at the same time rewarding.

Another extremely important change has been the shining of light into dark places in the professional publishing industry thanks to Slaw and other media. As has been pointed out elsewhere, a positive aspect of the past few years has been the focus on poor customer service, pricing policies, profitability and strategic decision making. These seem to me to be areas in which the views expressed by those who care about the legal publishing industry have been most beneficial, particularly when combined with highlighting, in a positive way, areas of best practice that can be identified.

In my experience, with few exceptions, those who make their criticisms known, even covertly and who take the time and trouble to express them in an analytical, structured and balanced way, as is usually the case, really care about their industry and companies. Now and again, at the very top of their hierarchies, where there is less to be gained from going off-message, there are critics who tend to be senior executives who have taken financial and other rewards from their careers, but at a cost. They see how much better things could be for the majority of stakeholders and that incompetence, inefficiencies and bad practices serve in the interests of very few people, not including employees, ordinary shareholders and customers. As one insider reminded me, if all that matters is maximizing the share price and you hold a great number of shares and options, your primary focus will probably be on that protecting and growing that price.

There is no doubt that such comments and the practices to which they relate do not apply exclusively to the legal and professional publishing industry. However, the fact that and extent to which they do, serves in part to measure any malaise that exists within it. Whereas, up to, say, the early-1990s when legal publishing delivered greatly above average profitability and solid growth that resulted in little fear of redundancy derived from financial downturn, since then, some employees’ uncertainty and anxiety have persisted, arguably for understandable reasons. For example, David Worlock, the respected digital strategy advisor and consultant, imagines that the large legal information providers will seek to migrate through acquisition into the workflow outsourcing business, even though they are inclined also to outsource all their own internal functions, presumably contracting publishing industry jobs even further. In the earlier days in question, the problem was often one of old-fashioned and simply bad management that may sometimes have been abusive, criminal, stupid, secretive, greedy and discriminatory, thereby requiring the checks and balances of trade unionism and protective laws. Once the laws were to a certain extent in place but times became tougher, sometimes the management tactic became to use such tolerances and, arguably, weaknesses in them against employees, hence avoiding any notion of job security. Combine this with senior management that comes and goes with frightening regularity, the latest being there to pretend to clean up the mess of the previous one, until they too are found out and the circle continues. No wonder the only course of action is to keep one’s head down, retain an inane corporate smile and quietly spill the beans and air the concerns in the vain hope that positive changes might someday occur.

It would be nice to think that in a relatively civilised industry such as is legal and professional publishing, where most people are thoughtful, intelligent and decent, that there would be little place for behaviours that may be considered sneaky and underhand. The problem is, in an industry in which, especially in consequence of takeovers, skills can be sold to only a few employers, when you witness the mad, bad, sad and latest bonkers fad that’s driving your business and realise you’re being had, what else can you do?

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