By Jason Wilson
A lawyer recently asked me about my thoughts on the current state of analytical content in the U.S. I asked him to imagine an 18-hole golf course, to picture manicured fairways and greens, cleanly raked traps, and smartly planned course deviations and elevations. An intelligently laid out course, Holes 1 through 18 flowing effortlessly, one to another. Now imagine playing it, as a novice and then a scratch golfer. Then I said, that’s what it used to be.
Today it’s just acreage overrun by trees, grasses, and weeds clumped together in patches. Every now and then you can see the parts that are still clean and well tended. There are a lot of other parts that look like they’re tended to, but if they are, it’s by absent-minded gardeners. As for playing a round or two, you can do it, but it will be difficult. You’ll likely lose a lot of balls in the process.
As you might imagine, the lawyer was a bit perplexed by my rather dour outlook on the state of things, particularly given the fact that I am a publisher of analytical content. Unfortunately, I’ve seen nothing in the tea leaves to suggest otherwise.
You see, until recently lawyers used to write weighty tomes. Firms, like Littler Mendelson, who produce a substantial body of analytical material are a dying breed. Now, thanks to the Internet, lawyers spend their time writing SEO pieces. Lawyers are no longer scholars organizing and explaining the law, but brand developers and managers. Writing about the law—what used to be an educational and somewhat prideful endeavor—is now merely a part of lead generation. The people that understand such things (“those people”) call this “content marketing,” and from where I sit, it’s going to kill the law.
When I say things like this, those people say, “You’re misinformed and myopic. Lawyers are producing more content than ever before. They are providing insight into relevant legal industry information and delivering it faster than a legal publisher can. Current and prospective clients and colleagues are reading this content and finding these lawyers to be “trusted experts” and “thought leaders.” They are engaging, and through this engagement, business will come. Surely you will acknowledge that?”
“Okay,” I respond, “but what is this insight, and how far does it extend? You use terms like content, curation, and real-time as if these are the Three Kings that will lead us to a new era of knowledge and understanding. But I’ve actually tried to understand areas of the law using only the content marketing I could find, and it has failed me up to now. Have you tried to practice law from it?”
And then I realize, we are approaching the problem from different sides. Those people see content marketing and think “clients.” I see content marketing and think “oh look, lawyers are giving up writing about the law.”
But not all lawyers see it my way. Some lawyers, the ones who’ve been blogging for a while, believe that their Internet gold is worthy of “weighty tome” status, so they print it all out, put a rubber band around it, and say “Here. Here is my genius. Sure, I may have written it to get tons of clients, but it’s scholarly work. I mean, other people have read it (that’s what my analytics stats say), some have quoted it (based on my pings and trackbacks), and others have retweeted links (I followed everyone who did that, so I could market it to them later).” But as a publisher, it doesn’t take but a minute to recognize louis friend. And much of it is that, which is why I’m right. There’s just no focus.
The end result of the shift from weighty tomes to content marketing is this: the disparity between the haves and the have nots is going to grow. Large law will compensate for the dearth of comprehensive analytical content by creating its own and using it in-house, or selling it to others at a steep cost. They’ll probably also develop some good filtering tools that will parse higher quality content marketing from the Internet. Small law and solos will struggle to find similar materials and will fall behind intellectually. They probably will realize their dream of free public materials, but it will be cold comfort when the only organizing principle they can rely on is a search engine. And in the meantime, a few curation startups will emerge, and perhaps some will be successful, but they will ultimately fail as a mechanism for delivering comprehensive coverage (and understanding) because they will lack an overriding taxonomic structure to preserve and organize the data.
Sure, there will still WestlawNext and Lexis. But what are they when the lawyers who used to write their books have left for weedier pastures?
Oh, and look. As I was finishing this post, this came across the Twitters:
Read this, it is good: 20 Business Objectives Addressed by Content Marketing http://bit.ly/ijHgkS – for law, replace “customer” w/ “client”
— Adrian Lurssen (@AdrianLurssen) April 20, 2011
[Image (CC) by Pedro Moura Pinheiro]