Content marketing will kill the law.

by Jason Wilson on April 19, 2011

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:

[Image (CC) by Pedro Moura Pinheiro]

{ 9 comments }

Gregory D. Luce April 20, 2011 at 9:32 am

Agree and disagree. Lawyers are shifting from less lengthy tomes to "content marketing" but it's not a wholesale shift. It's just that the content marketers, being savvy at marketing, are able to grab the attention currently. But there will be a mix of well-manicured courses as well as clumps of grass and dirt where you can duff your way to a triple bogey.

Just in the past month the Minnesota State Bar Association published a free electronic treatise, Minnesota Legal Ethics. It is scholarly, written by a national expert, and currently comes in at 400 pages and is a work in progress. It's not intended for print but it is hyperlinked to significant cases and articles, a real plus. A tome? Yes. Weighty? Yep, but just not in pounds.

So it's not that we are short of attention, can't find things, doom is coming. There's just a shift, and lawyers are just now catching up. In other words, there are par 3s, and then there are championship courses. People like to play both.

jasnwilsn April 20, 2011 at 9:39 am

You're right, it's not a wholesale shift currently. What I'm looking at is longer term, particularly when you start considering the effects of the marketers messaging on law students. Will there be lawyers that create weighty tomes in the future? Yes. But as an industry, we're already seeing fewer and fewer individuals willing to put the time and effort into it. In 80s and 90s, publishers had a much easier time with authorship. Now, not so much.

Gregory D. Luce April 20, 2011 at 10:08 am

Good points.

Ken Adams April 22, 2011 at 12:33 pm

Jason: Do you think your golf-course analogy could apply equally to the golfers? In other words, has the current emphasis on marketing rather than content had an effect on the demand for sophisticated content and lawyers' willingness or ability to digest such content? Ken

jasnwilsn April 22, 2011 at 10:29 pm

Ken,

I'm not sure. The Internet is an echo chamber, so the folks calling for marketing and the folks reading those messages is actually a small percentage of lawyers that practice law. I think Avvo and Findlaw actually reach more lawyers than marketers who post on the Internet (although they are marketers as well, so I'm not sure that clarifies anything). More directly, I would say that the more we pressure lawyers to think about marketing, the more they are creating crap pieces of legal analysis for SEO purposes, or perhaps not fully hatched ideas. This, in turn, influences, younger lawyers' ability to discern what is authentic and sophisticated. And this affects the practice.

I don't think any of this has anything to do with willingness. I think it has everything to do with the business of producing legal content and the intelligence (or diligence) of discerning between what is good and what is crap.

Nancy Scott April 23, 2011 at 9:18 am

Hi, Jason. I'm a "content marketer" and loved your blog post. In fact, you inspired me to write (on my own blog, marketingbrillo) something of a "response," but more of a "hands-clapping" for this thoughtful piece.

Carolyn Elefant April 26, 2011 at 7:31 pm

Jason,
A hat tip for taking up the solo/small firm cause. Unfortunately, most of the lawyers writing the garbage are the solo and small firms. I still find the biglaw blogs useful not because they offer much analysis (they don't) but they do link to the cases and keep me updated on new developments.

Of course, even if big firms drop off the earth, things are still better for solo/small firms than before. When I started my energy practice, I had to go to the Edison Electric trade association's public library to read the pricey trade press newsletters. At least now, I can catch snippets on their site, I can pick up feeds from the agencies and I can get an affordable LEXIS subscription. Finally, since I have a pretty substantive (albeit not regularly updated) energy law blog (www.renewablesoffshore.com) fewer biglaw blogs means more exposure for me!

jasnwilsn April 27, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Carolyn,

Thanks for the comment.

I actually find the Findlaw contract employee case to be interesting because I hadn't been aware of how much content the contract lawyers were generating for lawyer's blogs. Talk about quality control! Do firms even read the content or does it just get associated with their website as part of their subscription package?

My post wasn't meant to say no lawyers are creating valuable content. Obviously there are, and they can do it and achieve the lofty goals of content marketers everywhere. But from what I've seen, the vast majority of it is crap.

Edward May 3, 2011 at 8:26 am

Jason,
I would agree with some of your fears. The destruction of traditonal publishing houses suggests more than evolution. Economical, social and cultural changes are taking place.

Content can now be shared by video or audio. These channels may make understanding the law easier but not kill it. I wonder what people said when the first televison sets arrived?

In any event, your headline and post are part of this new order. You sparked comments and the exchange of ideas. That is a worthy concept. Unfortunately content copy cats will always out number original thinkers. It's pareto principle all over again.

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: