The Law publishers and Web 2.0

By Nick Holmes on August 25, 2008
Comments Off on The Law publishers and Web 2.0
Filed under Articles, Law publishing

(with James Mullan)

First published August 2008 in the Legal Web ebook Law 2.0 in Progress

Web 2.0 has revolutionised publishing. Technologies like blogs, wikis and RSS have made the publishing process so easy that countless millions are now publishers and yet more millions are contributors. And no longer is publishing simply about broadcasting a message one to many; with the facility for users to respond and contribute, publishing is also about engaging with users, conversing with them and eliciting their contributions. How are the established law publishers, whose livelihoods depend on profiting from their publishing activity, responding? What are they doing with Web 2.0? What are they achieving?

Who are the “law publishers”?

The “established” law publishers in the main have hitherto made their living primarily from print publications. During the late 80s and early 90s they produced CD products based on their existing print services and subsequently online services also based on these services. They have faced increasingly difficult commercial decisions as their market has split over the various media. Since all accept that “the future is online”, strategies have been to reduce reliance on print publications, to develop content specifically for online delivery (rather than as a by-product of print services) and to acquire other complementary businesses. For example, in 2004 LexisNexis Butterworths divested itself of a large number of publications it judged not to have online potential, selling them to Tottel Publishing, and is developing the LexisNexis online service not only with more and better content and content-related features, but also via the addition of various practice management tools.

A number of publishers over the last 20 years first established themselves as “electronic” or “digital” publishers, eg Justis. Unencumbered by a print legacy, they nevertheless faced challenges in converting their services to the web and from competition from the new breed of web-native publisher.

The focus below is on the longer-established law publishers, but all publishers of whatever provenance must consider the threats and opportunities of Web 2.0 which is rapidly changing the way the web is used.

Engaging with users

Most of the law publishers publish news and/or current awareness materials, delivered from custom content management systems (CMS). Web 2.0 provides tools – in particular, blogs and RSS – that both facilitate the publishing, distribution and promotion of such materials, but also challenge the publishers’ control over those formats.

Typically public access blogs are being used by the publishers as a companion to existing print or online publications: to provide an additional service for existing subscribers and also to drive non-subscribers towards the paid for services. A good example is Cecile Park Publishing who on their e-commercelawdirect site publish Gambling Law Blog and World Sports Law Blog, complementing similarly-named journals.

It is not just the publishers themselves who are using blogs for this purpose. Because blogs are so easy to publish, a number of their authors produce blogs which update and support their print publications. Examples of this synergy are (conflictoflaws.net which is officially associated with Hart Publishing’s Journal of Private International Law and the Employment Tribunal Claims blog which supports and updates Employment Tribunal Claims: Tactics and Precedents, published by the Legal Action Group.

Like many businesses, the publishers also see blogs as a way to reach out and engage with their audiences, blogging comment on and analysis of current developments. A good example is Legal Week who produce an Editor’s Blog, a Daily Dairy (one-stop gossip shop) and the multi-contributor Legal Village.

All businesses need to bear in mind that blogs need to deliver engaging material, not naked PR, and that their blog services should provide the ease of use and features that blog readers expect. If a blog from a high profile publisher falls short in these respects, law bloggers will be quick to criticise. For example, the Martindale-Hubble blog drew critcism (see, for example, ) for not having a distinct personality (being “inside” the Martindale website), for lacking some standard blog features, for requiring registration to comment and being littered with advertisements for Martindale/ LexisNexis product.

The facility for readers to comment on articles is an important feature introduced by Web 2.0, and one that can probably now be regarded as a necessary facility. Most publishers are taking the step of adding a comments facility to their existing articles services. That is useful, but not necessarily sufficient in itself, as the service must first engage the users.

Eliciting contributions

While blogs may elicit useful comment and feedback and act as a promotional platform for the publishers, Wikis provide them with a means to elicit contributions that more directly enhance their services.

Current public access examples are notable for their scarcity. Though not a classic wiki by any means, the Legal Week Wiki enables users to post comment about the top 100 law firms; after moderation, these are then incorporated in the “wiki” by Legal Week editors. PLC experimented with a Commercial Property Law Wiki which, by their own admission “wasn’t an unqualified success”.

Developing communities

In addition to the communities that form around bloggers of like interest or those who collaborate on a wiki, online communities may be actively developed by publishers by providing other facilities such as online forums in which users can discuss issues of mutual concern and submit questions to which other users may readily have answers.

Recent launches indicate that the publishers see communities dedicated to specific practice areas as a fruitful path to follow:

Company Law Forum from LexisNexis is a free access service for company practitioners who can create a profile, publish opinions, comment on opinions, ask questions in the forum, answer forum questions, comment on and rate news and message other users.

MyComplinet from Complinet is a free access, dedicated online global community for compliance practitioners in the financial services industry who can there connect, network, seek answers to compliance-related questions and access up-to-date information and analysis.

Networking

Publishers also have the opportunity to tap into the power of the fast-developing global online social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn. It is not yet clear how useful these services will be for that purpose and thus far, amongst the law publishers, only Sweet & Maxwell appear to have established an official presence on Facebook.

Syndication

Finally to a Web 2.0 technology that is immensely powerful but curiously under-used at present – RSS. In essence RSS is a web page format that enables information about new content to be “syndicated”, ie distributed automatically as it is updated. Once the RSS “channel” has been set up by the publisher, users who subscribe to the RSS “feed” are automatically notified when new items are added and can click through to the full text on the publisher’s site. Not only can users subscribe to feeds directly using an RSS reader, but also third parties can publish feeds on their web pages, ensuring that the original publisher’s information (linked to the original source) is promoted virally as widely as possible. It is thus an ideal way for publishers to distribute and promote not just news and current awareness, but also information about their latest publications, seminars, etc.

Some law news publishers – including Legal Week, The Lawyer and Times Online Law – do publish RSS feeds; inexplicably others do not. Equally inexplicably, with the exception of Wiley Law, currently no UK law publisher delivers latest publications information via RSS. It has been left to the law booksellers such as Wildy’s and Blackwells to fill the gap.

Behind the paywall it is understood the leading law publishers are actively developing RSS feeds for delivering current awareness within their subscription services. Well and good, but the opportunities for exploiting RSS to deliver free information that will benefit their audience and drive users to their services are being sadly overlooked.

James Mullan is an Information Officer at CMS Cameron McKenna LLP.