Form Over Substance in Legal and Professional Publishing

It is rarely that I read the opinions and perceptions of Gary Rodrigues and not almost entirely agree. This was very much the case with his article Legal Publishing and Market Research – Getting It Right, in which he succeeds in identifying “form over substance” motives in some publishers’ research and in so doing highlights something short of honesty behind much of it. It set me thinking about the extent to which, in more general terms, form over substance is a familiar feature of the actions, decisions and priorities of some of the legal and professional publishers. Whether or not it would be too much to suggest that dishonesty or deception may occasionally characterise some of what we see from them is a matter for debate.

An obvious area in which the talk might not match the action is when simple, straightforward honesty ought to be really important but may be in short supply. Only very recently one read about the possibility of “legal publishers up to their old looseleaf tricks”. It is a suggestion of less than the most honourable motives, particularly at the end of the financial and/or subscription year, in splitting looseleaf releases in two for the publisher’s benefit rather than in the interests of the customer. Everything might be legitimate, of course but equally it may be that:

  • in splitting a release in two, particularly where a January-December subscription year operates, the correct number of contracted releases are mailed, covering up for earlier failure to supply;
  • in splitting a release in two, where pay-as-you-go contracts apply, two individually higher invoicing opportunities arise, thereby increasing revenue and profit;
  • where such activities occur, it may be that financial targets and/or year-end bonuses are of greater significance than value for money and good customer service.

As with the various points that Gary makes on the purpose of research, in cases such as this, the motives behind the behaviours may not always be as transparent as they ought to be and the frequent ethical boasts of PR messages are rendered a little thin. How much better it would be to put even more effort into delivering real-time online content and transactional tools rather than repeat old ways of milking the geriatric cash cows.

Form and substance can often be at odds in other fields of professional publishing endeavour. To a large extent, for example, the internationalising of the enormous providers, although trumpeted as a way of supporting the profession(s), is much more to do with rolling out their own back-office process and cost-saving initiatives. That the lawyer in one country has easy access to the same platform, content and tools as a lawyer in another is, in many cases, likely to be neither here nor there, as both will only be concerned with the laws and processes that affect them in real life. Chances are they speak no language other than their own and would probably not be inclined to read and fully understand the law of another country other than in their mother tongue. The publishers often neglect to mention that their only real and long-term interests lie with a small number of huge, international firms where they can negotiate pricing and supply globally.

Perhaps the most ubiquitous statement made, certainly not only by legal publishers but by them in any case, is the familiar “our people are our most important asset”. This, when uttered, is usually immediately followed by another round of redundancies. The evidence is simply not there to support the statement and as often as not management considers its staff to be an unnecessary evil that gets in the way of progress. This was particularly in evidence not long ago when the chief executive of one of the big publishers boasted the extent to which they had reduced their editorial and creative workforce. In my view, this is a fact of modern life but I would simply prefer to see more honesty and transparency about it so that corporate pronouncements and high-minded statements of purpose and values and consistently matched by actual behaviours. Form and substance in harmony would yield an obsession for actually delivering consistently good customer service, price increases that relate, unless for special reasons, to inflation rates and not using price increasing and short-term cost-cutting to disguise bad decision-making and poor management.

Oddly, few people seem to be unduly surprised when form and substance are not matched, perhaps because it is such a feature of day to day life. When we are telephoned in mid-dinner by an unknown person who immediately tells us that they are not trying to sell us something, we know what is coming, just before we hang up. Likewise, when, for example, a legal publishing business announces that it is definitely not up for sale or interested in a particular acquisition or divestiture, we know what to expect.

It continues to be fascinating to see how the industry is going and indeed evolving. The long-established entities are taking progressively less of their profits from legal markets and the bigger news recently is in the merger of Macmillan Science and Education and Springer Science and Business Media. In law, the interesting action seems to be with further retrenchment by CCH, this time in academic law publishing in Australia, the likes of venture capitalist-held ALM and the strategic directions that they are taking and, of course, with Bloomberg. A directional snapshot describes recent activities well in Jean O’Grady’s article, In 2014 Change Was the Only Constant In Legal Publishing Leadership. It seems that the revolving door continues to spin, with all the obvious consequences, both positive and negative, thereof. House of Butter has recently again reported informatively a few times of possible outcomes.

Perhaps, the session involving Gary Rodrigues, Jason Wilson and me on the future of legal publishing, at this year’s CALL/ACBD Annual Conference, may see discussion of these issues and others such as:

  • the broad range of challenges and how legal publishers are responding to or anticipating them
  • changing market structures, including the impact of newer entrants and competitors
  • what the digital challenges cited above and others mean for law publishers and to what extent they require business models to be altered
  • who are likely to be the winners and losers based on current trends

We shall need to take steps to try to ensure that both form and substance are delivered in equal amounts.

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