Publish and (Perhaps) Be Famed

Recently I was invited to make a written contribution to mark the 100th anniversary, in 2016, of the establishment of Tolley, now part of Lexis Nexis, where I was divisional chief executive until shortly after its acquisition in 1996. I was honoured to be approached and it set me searching through various documents and previously written materials from the seven-year period that I spent with the business. One such item was an article entitled Publish and be Famed (Gazette 93/24, 26 June 1996, p.20) that I wrote for The Gazette, the magazine of the Law Society of England and Wales and I re-read it with the usual degree of embarrassment that anyone does in reviewing past efforts. What was worse, it was clearly a barely disguised piece of advertorial located opposite a full-page Tolley advertisement to promote what we described as “client marketing”, that being content written by us, purporting to come from professional firms and publications branded with firms’ names and logos. I decided to try to redeem myself here by updating the article and rewriting a 21st century version. The intention is to reflect more honesty, maturity and objectivity, however much from the publisher rather than practitioner or librarian perspectives, in considering some of the merits of seeking authorship and publication in fields such as law, tax and accountancy.

It must be fair to assume that awareness, advertising, PR, communication and marketing tactics and strategies are important to many professional advice firms, though not all. Where they are, they are often dependent on firms’ needs to sell specialisms in particular fields of practice or market sectors. Practitioners competing for business among themselves and against other professional advisers may require high profile and tangible evidence of their firms’ capabilities if they are to win and sustain competitive advantage. Much of this is achieved through the firm’s web site, maybe set up and managed by a third-party specialist company that will customise knowledgeably. It is likely to be populated with appropriate content that is perhaps sourced from a professional publisher, combined with all the usual tools such as the use of blogs and social media, relevant news, podcasts, webinars, communication channels and so on. High fees may have been paid to deliver search engine optimisation and other features but probably, when pressed, few will be able accurately to measure the value of any component part of the strategy. It may not even be important to do so; it just has to be done, many believe.

There is much evidence that many law firms consider their own publishing activity as a PR and marketing channel rather than a directly revenue-generating one. For some people and in some circumstances, writing and being published is extremely important, career enhancing and of benefit to professional firms. Several such firms produce, often at significant cost, content which is usually offered free to clients. Other evidence of the importance of boasting their skills is found in their web sites which highlight those publications to which partners contribute, research papers, conference participation and the ubiquitous blogs and communications media in which they engage. However, commitment to these, including the need to maintain them on a continuing basis, can be very great. Yet a similar or better result might be achieved by forming an agreement with a professional publisher about the particular arrangements and client marketing services that are on offer. It might be cheaper and more effective for commercial publishers to produce content and tools for their clients’ clients.

Additionally, some firms may find that working closely with professional publishers helps them to achieve further aims, by ensuring that it is their fee-earners who write the most valued legal content. Where there are perceived to be mutual purposes and benefits for both sides, they are able to identify topics, markets and delivery media that work to the interests of both and maybe even of others. Both publisher and firm have their respective strengths and weaknesses and maybe special relationships with particular market sectors and the aim might be to see where they overlap or if one serves to assist the other in increasing business. Without doubt lawyers, accountants and tax advisers want their work to be seen by other advisers but more importantly need to be recognised by actual and potential clients of various kinds. As such, a carefully-chosen publisher, however harder that task as the inevitability of further consolidation continues, that can help put a firm’s name in front of a large number of appropriate clients, is likely to be a genuine asset. The cost to the law firm may be less than that of supporting unfocused marketing; the commercial risk is shared with the publisher and the results may be better, as the firm might gain a greater reputation in and generate income from a particular area of practice.

Left to their own devices these days, absurd it seems, but some legal publishers tend not to be exceptionally well-equipped to identify and deliver new publishing opportunities, however competent they are in other endeavours. In fact I was surprised recently to see an example of how far things may have changed, with one former professional publisher, whose short time in the trade is mercifully over, expressing the view that it was extremely difficult to persuade practitioners to write for professional publishers. Some other publishers, thankfully, are wiser, even though occasionally it is difficult to identify or understand their strategic objectives. For lawyers who want to enhance their positions through writing, although the law market is often said to be crowded with established products and services, there are many opportunities for new ones. The balance of power in terms of fee and royalty negotiation, may even have shifted in favour of writers and their firms. Chances are, if they turn their minds to it, practitioners and librarians might be better placed than some of today’s publishers to identify potentially successful new publishing ventures.

Of course it’s not for everyone and many believe that the creation and dissemination of content via firms’ blogs and in similar ways elsewhere is somehow analogous to legal and professional publishing; I tend to disagree. In my view, serious and evidence-minded people like lawyers make better authors than they do journalists but often I observe the risk of confusing legal journalism with legal blogging and with legal publishing. I see little reason in comparing blogs with the knowledge and genius that lies behind the great works of legal publishing. I think it’s, in part, a failure to understand or acknowledge the essence of the best and most important aspects of legal publishing. Publisher-side skills tend not to be those of journalism. No doubt that the news, views and updates side of legal information, to which might be added industry gossip and even notes on latest cases and legislation fall into a particular category that might be called journalism and blogging. But I believe these are conceptually distant from the tasks of the writing and publishing associated with deep and specialist understanding of legal subjects, where one actually has to know something or somebody else who does. In some fields the gap is less pronounced; for example, the significance of tax planning constraints and opportunities is impossible to understate, particularly in difficult and sensitive times. Tax law is such a newsworthy topic too. It’s impossible to read any newspaper without something on tax, more often than not misinforming taxpayers as to what are their rights and obligations, so the need for expert tax practitioners to intervene is perhaps greater.

I’m convinced, Wolters Kluwer’s Russian retreat and its sale of Loislaw to Fastcase notwithstanding, that however flawed the legal publishing trade might be, its days are not numbered, nor has it lost its importance. Fastcase’s enthusiasm as a purchaser, that of Lexis Nexis in the proposed acquisition of Jordan Publishing, which is under regulatory scrutiny and requires disposals to be made and the sale and purchase of Globe Law and Business, show evidence of life. For a snapshot of the UK market, the recent UK’s Competition & Markets Authority report is incisive. Dynamism is probably not so much the case when we see in adjacent markets the sale of Accountancy Age and Financial Director magazines, where the B2B market is more precarious. I would suggest that there is real money to be made, that there are opportunities for authors and editors and growth to be achieved where there is commitment to the market and some real professional publishing expertise applied. In my experience, although some of the more arrogant lawyer/authors with whom I have dealings enjoy playing down the importance that a publishing opportunity brings to enhancing their reputation, I think the opposite. Messrs. Chitty, Benjamin, Bowstead, Palmer, Archbold, Byles, Kemp, Bullen and Leake, purely as examples that come quickly to mind, and countless others, together with their many modern successors, suggest that, for those who are clever enough, media neutral, optimum quality legal writing is a smart and relevant thing to do. Probably, though, their financial fortunes are unlikely to increase dramatically in direct consequence. More importantly, it’s now official, as it appeared in The Guardian, that law book writing, can offer entertainment and fascination for its readers. The Joy of Tax by Richard Murphy may offer further evidence. Turns out, as I’ve always believed, they’re not dull at all.

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