I recently came across a blog post from a solo IP lawyer in the UK questioning the value of paying for law firm profiles.
who uses legal directories and why pay to be highlighted in one : discuss http://t.co/3pJE504cg0
— Barbara Cookson (@filemot) May 2, 2014
In this case, the comments were in response to an invitation by Who’s Who Legal, a well-established London-based lawyer directory
The skepticism expressed by the author and commenters could have applied equally to numerous other legal directories, legal publishers, and legal media titles that rely on the traditional business model of paid-for law profiles.
From the publisher’s perspective, it works like this:
Firstly we research the legal market independently, arrive at a group of names (individual lawyers and/or law firms), then we ask those selected names if they want to pay for an enhanced profile.
In some cases, you can only be listed at all if you pay – sometimes known as “pay to play”.
Often, payment grants you a higher level of visibility or prominence in the publication or website – a variation on what is known as the “freemium” model, where a basic listing is free, but a premium listing comes with extra features and visibility.
Legal directories, like all media, publishing, and content businesses, have wrestled with different business models for years – accelerated by the digital onslaught.
Some hold the view that asking lawyers to pay for profiles and listings is outdated in this online age.
Well, yes and no.
Despite it being old fashioned, the profile model has a tried-and-tested simplicity, which law firms understand.
I think there is room for profiles – especially if they are done well and offer something different to what you can find on the lawyer’s own website – but they alone won’t suffice as a revenue source for the larger legal directory publishers of the future.
What are the alternatives?
Subscriptions. How many people would pay to access a legal directory behind a walled-off site? Not many.
Awards. Legal awards are the most popular way for legal directory publishers to branch out and find new revenue sources – tables, sponsorships, follow-up reprints.
Diversification. Since the crisis, legal publishers have moved into related areas like events, conferences, seminars, training sessions, custom research reports. They’re all at it in an effort to reduce their reliance on traditional advertisements and profiles.
Online ads. Some directories sell online adverts. In some cases, you can pay extra to have advertisements removed from your profile, especially if those ads promote competing lawyers.
Or a combination of these things – and others.
I don’t envy the sales and business development executives working in the legal publishing industry – it’s a tough gig.
As we all know, original research and content costs money.
We’ve seen Martindale tail off in recent years after law firms became increasingly reluctant to spend the big bucks that they did in the halcyon days of the 1990s.
Pre 9/11, pre-Lehman, when the publishing industry was like an oil well that kept on flowing.
Legal directory publishers have traditionally pitched their sales offerings to law firms on the basis that they provide firms with publicity and a broader promotional platform than they would otherwise have.
This is because clients and others interested in finding or hiring a lawyer – without an existing relationship or unfamiliar with an area of practice or jurisdiction – are more likely to go to a site that lists or compares multiple lawyers rather than going to individual law firm websites.
In the same way that if I want to take an airline flight, it’s much quicker and more efficient for me to start my search at an aggregator or comparison site that lists multiple airlines rather than go to numerous individual airline websites.
It’s the same with legal directories, and this sales pitch is still a persuasive one, which is why, despite the skepticism, most law firms continue to advertise – to varying extents – in legal directories.
As there’s a limit to what firms will bear in this digital age, legal directories are aware that they have to wean themselves off profiles – their largest revenue source – but there will be considerable experimentation and upheaval in the years to come as publishers settle on new models to sustain their businesses.
(Pictured: an example of a lawyer profile on Martindale Hubbell)