There was a time, for me at least, when it became expedient to appear to join those who would refute the Bill Gates’ “content is king” mantra in favour of something more transactional, like “it’s how you use the content that matters, not the content itself”. It played well, in relation to legal content, to those for whom some of it was too difficult, obscure or specialist and to those who could not otherwise relate to it. It meant that focus could be put on practice and back-office management, on other technology and tools, on marketing, sales and distribution of content. It was as if they had some degree of equivalence in terms of importance, which reflected well on the non-content specialists, in whose interests it was more likely to be.
Obviously, this is not a binary issue and there are arguments to be made on all sides but, in my view, in legal information markets, optimum quality, value-added and secondary content is what matters significantly; some of the rest can, and probably will, come and go, especially if it looks or is claimed, by someone trying to sell something else, to be easy. Without the expertise and intellectual capability, there is no starting point and the end is in sight, although when predictions of doom are made, it is wise to examine them and understand in whose self-interest it might be to make them; some seers are more believable than others, especially if they have nothing to sell. Of course, the greater extent to which proven value-added features, such as analysis and explanation, search facilities, structure, curation and editing are applied, the more monarchic the content becomes; that seems simply to be self-evident, all the more so as in the UK, as the creation of a national hub for court judgments is considered and such commoditisation of primary legal content is extended. Logic dictates that if vendors downplay the importance of and commoditise their own content and regard that of others in the same way, and users of it do likewise, then the ability to charge for it diminishes, hence the downward trend, at best, towards open access. Much depends on what individual views are taken as to why to publish legal content at all and how optimally to do it, but I think that cheap and trashy rarely works. Good and fair content and service provision is at its best when it combines making life better on the seller side, allowing for growth and profitability, and benefiting clients. Among those vendors which appear to understand the relationships of deeper content with news and technology, vLex, as it continues to create partnerships, appears to be able to put it into practice. Smartness and quality might be key to survival, if Hugh Logue, director and lead analyst at Outsell is correct. He writes that, in legal and regulatory solutions, “only the strategically agile will be able to handle the rapid change driven by the pandemic and the coming raft of new legislation”.
As I see it, the frequent desire to subordinate the accuracy, quality and value of legal content, to make it purely a component or simply to feed technology, is found in many places, sometimes not among the ideal internal key driving functions within the industry. It extends into many other areas in which people have their own reasons to play content down in favour of other factors; among these are design and other creative skills, behavioural manipulation, public relations and, clearly, in order to minimise cost. For some of these, content is just a tool to support another motive or money-grabbing feature, as can be the case with magazines, newspapers and for some online services, wherein it features just to support advertising revenues, or metaphorically, to fill in the spaces between the advertisements. In law, as in other sectors, legal content and, indeed, book-writing, are often used as a “whistle or bell” to sell marketing or occasionally questionable coaching and therapeutic services. Paula Black writes of “the power of writing a book for business development purposes […..]is a big audacious business card”. I would certainly not disagree entirely with this, though I think it dispiriting to find the various categories that are found under the umbrella of law publishing grouped together as if they were of equal significance. For example, there is important, high quality publishing addressing issues relating to the business of law, but it might be wrong to confuse it with content about the law itself, which operates at a different level and to a significant extent serves a separate professional, rather than business management market. In the UK, Globe Law and Business’ acquisition of ARK Publishing’s book portfolio will be an example of the two types of publishing operating together. Specific market legal focus is important, as Informa might consider in relation to its legal information business in its intended data units’ review. In my view and experience, whether it is a lawyer writing about law or a publisher of material of this kind, unless the primary purpose is to achieve excellence, and not for marketing, public relations or other corner-cutting purposes, failure is likely and well-deserved. Some of the divergences from serious legal content, which itself underpins the ability to provide serious legal advice, open opportunities to introduce “emotional intelligence”, comprising insights such as self-awareness, motivation, empathy, social skills and the like. There are those, with appropriate authority, who would suggest that all forms of intelligence are not equal, not least in the means by which to measure the relative merits of each of them. Whether or not there is actual and real intelligence, contrasted with made-up, bogus, subjective and unmeasured, new-age, nonsensical, so-called emotional intelligence, is a separate topic in itself, best left to those who are expert in such matters. However, within the world of legal and other professional publishing are to be found no more or fewer charlatans, grudge-bearers and dubious characters as in other areas of business, although I think that they might be on the increase, the easier it becomes to behave in these ways.
It is obvious that excellent design and presentation are essential in legal and professional publishing, as they are elsewhere. That stated, the use and abuse of them can be a familiar diversion, as often unnecessary time, money and energy is directed at these elements, often encouraged by those who benefit from it. The danger can be, especially in relation to legal and other professional content, that “nice”, “attractive”, “jolly”, perhaps even embellished by some amusing and distracting cartoons, heavy on feelings and emotions but light on jurisprudential reasoning, are sought to be equated to core and necessary characteristics. In serving conservative, evidence-driven professional markets, it may be unwise to be led disproportionately by design, fashion or trend, as this might unnerve people within them. Recently I witnessed competing aspects of this, in efforts to justify suggested design alterations to a particular publication. With no supporting evidence or descriptive metrics, there were references to “modern”, “old-fashioned”, “clear”, “readable” and more. Proposals were laid for a design overhaul with a change of look, comprising revisions to layout, colours, typefaces, content signposting and logo, all based on the views of the design person who had the greatest personal interest in making the changes, for which no proof of benefit was offered; this is seen frequently and often works because others are embarrassed not to be seen on the side of change for the sake of change. The existing brand logo was simple, clear and without doubt, meaningful, but the proposal was to create an inexplicable replacement one, about which some spurious argument or other was offered. Until sanity was restored, what was ignored was the fact that among the world’s most trusted (however hateful and despised) brands, such as Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Coca-Cola, Mercedes-Benz, McDonalds, BMW and others, they make infrequent, minor or no changes to their logos over extremely long periods. Yet, for lesser entities, it is frequently done on a whim and, inevitably for little benefit, or worse. The problem is often because those who shout loudest are heard, as the quieter content providers simply sigh, in despair and disbelief. The use of committees in discussions of this kind can often be destructive because of the character of decision-making that often emerges from them. Nor is it likely that many of those involved, especially those with design, administrative, PR and, sometimes, marketing talents, will have the slightest idea as to how, for example, legal content is used in practice and, therefore how, optimally and with fairness, to deliver it, thinking, as is necessary, like a customer and not a technical supplier. Similarly, they might be less in tune with the different styles of writing, presentation and delivery which are suitable for a range of market sectors and segments. Alternatively, it may be the case that those who have been less close to established traditions are better able to introduce the merits of disinterest and lateral thinking. Those deriving and delivering the benefits of Substack might be interesting examples.
Relating to law publications and the use of them, design-led aspects were satirised in an episode of the law firm-focused television drama, The Good Fight, wherein the impressive legal reference volumes on display in the elegant offices turn out to have no printed content within them. It is admitted that they are there only “for looks” as, “when they remodelled, it made it easier to move the books”. The fake tomes are trivial interior design artefacts; entertaining fiction only, but probably it is a sign of the times. They still serve to impress visiting clients, though, and make the lawyers look smarter than they might, in reality, be. Clearly, though, this massively underestimates the potential value of law books, as well as books about law, the conceivable breadth of their content and the great heritage of law publishing, as exemplified by the celebration of the bicentenary of the Scottish Session Cases Reports.