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Competing Without Trashing

It may indeed be fundamental to the task of competing in commercial markets that providers, for present purposes in legal information publishing, just like European governments squabbling over their respective Covid responses, must not only create value and unique selling propositions for their goods and services, but also seek to destroy those of others, usually existing and long-established businesses. Some criticise whole industries and communities, to help make their own goods and services look better. Some fictionalise the legal publishing industry, simplistically to turn the spotlight on the possibly overstated merits of their own endeavours. However, I doubt the value of much of this. As it might be with the Europeans or after a sudden bad small in an elevator, experience tells us where to look to surmise that it is more likely done in order to disguise the mishaps, weaknesses and insecurities of the attacker and might indicate that there are problems at home. The rude and unnecessary criticism prioritises as valuable only those qualities that the critic’s goods or services can offer, somewhat akin to the notion (but spare me from the psychobabblers!) of the person with a hammer seeing everything as a nail, or The Law of the Instrument.

That which might today be regarded as legal information publishing is complex, purposeful and of enormous value, created and evolved over hundreds of years, if not more, and continuing to evolve to meet changing needs and in consequence of opportunities offered by technological developments and innovations of many kinds. Therefore, if anyone were to suggest that the need for legal information as we currently know, understand, produce and use it, were no more, the reason being that their own proposition rendered it all useless, chances are that such a claim would be untrue and desperate, and the maker of it and their products or services should be considered suspect. At various times we have heard the predictions that printed legal publications would be obsolete within a short time; that newsletters, magazines and journals have more or less the same functions as books; that legal blogging and serious legal information publishing are synonymous; that Wikipedia is an adequate legal research tool; that electronically generated algorithms and artificial intelligence are a complete substitute for legal reasoning and expertise; that, at any given time, video content, podcasts, cassettes, cds, dvds, conference attendance and video conferencing are or were the new legal information media. There is accuracy, of course, in all of this, to some extent and over a range of periods, and I share the view that this is an industry in decline rather than growth; yet overblown, unmeasured and definitive statements tend each to be one-dimensional, at best.

Closer to the truth might be that in reality, and thankfully, the world is not just made up of top-end lawyers and the richest of their clients, so that the battle to establish, maintain and grow credibility, market share, reputation, revenue and profit is fierce. Available spend in the market is not especially flexible and in many cases is shrinking, so that everyone’s gain has to be someone else’s loss. Hence, that occasional perceived need to trash the competitor in order to achieve traction, rather than build growth and rewards in more dignified and ethical ways, such as working harder and smarter, with genuinely superior products and services, and looking after customers more attentively. Furthermore, when it comes to highlighting the many flaws and errors of the major legal information and technology suppliers, they hardly need any help, thanks to their countless own goals.

We rarely see the long-established providers overtly attacking each other or even defaming their minor competitors; they do not need or want to do so, partly because they have more sophisticated tools to deal with them. They have the resources to defend and protect their positions through the use of the legal system, as well as the means by which to flatter their new competitors by acquiring them and/or matching or exceeding their technical skills and ingenuity. This certainly does not make them better people; we know that to be the case for so many reasons, but it sometimes serves to reduce the hysterical noise.

There are, however, examples among the comparatively less-established legal information providers of more constructive approaches to growth, rather than seeking to build on the strength of a single innovative proposition. The merger of FastCase and Casemaker would seem to be a good example. From their separate starting points, FastCase acquired several companies that strengthened and broadened its services and developed a publishing arm under the name Full Court Press, to provide practice guides and other secondary sources; Casemaker seems to have evolved more organically. In parallel, v-Lex has taken a cross-border route to build, with strategic acquisitions such as Justis and the creation of strategic partnerships, to allow it to compete more effectively, rather than to claim that it was a credible legal information provider without such assistance. It seems to me that both of these providers are creating their own futures and understanding their customers, by building in ways that identify and satisfy customer needs. They have less need to claim that their larger competitors are dishonest or lacking in integrity or that their goods and services are defective, but rather can trade on the values of their own propositions. I expect that this will give them more secure futures, even if they merge further or are acquired. Just as marketing and selling tactics are more effectively conducted by highlighting measurable benefits over features, or indeed that instead of using anxiety, fear or loathing as an emotional trigger, it is wiser to focus on one’s own strengths and capabilities rather than on the alleged weaknesses and flaws of competitors.

The post-pandemic era will be one in which the weak and the strong, or perhaps the clever and the stupid, or perhaps the serious and the lightweight, will emerge in better or worse conditions, or maybe, not at all. While rejecting the myths of “good”, “moral” and “woke” capitalism, for my part, I would like to think that, in addition to being appropriately managed, financially controlled and delivering reasonable growth and profits, calm, intelligent, reasoned, ethical and honest conduct of business during and after the difficult period might deliver the winners. Ideally, the hope might be that Covid-19 and its aftermath will not be the direct cause of outright law publishing business failures, contractions and loss of jobs. However, it is saddening to note, with regret, the departure, apparently by reason of redundancy, and hardly the first in recent times, of the managing director of Bloomsbury Professional/Hart Publishing, the third person to hold that post since Tottel, as it was previously known, was acquired by Bloomsbury, in 2009. It is perhaps a sign of more of this to come, or worse.

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