PLC Which Lawyer has finally closed.
A staple of the legal directory scene since the 1990s, the directory shut its doors last month.
Unlike a number of the products that PLC Which Lawyer competed against, legal directories only accounted for a small part of Practical Law Company’s overall business.
As the know-how part of the business became increasingly successful, PLC struggled to find a place for the directory.
Back in the early days, PLC Which Lawyer had a unique position in the market.
Through its know-how services, PLC developed extensive relationships with both law firms and in-house legal departments.
It made sense to offer legal directory products to an in-house audience that was already tied in to your company’s other products.
If in-house departments were using your tools to put together deals, it was likely that at some point they might want help in choosing outside counsel.
As a result, PLC carved out an effective niche in the publishing world.
For a while in the late 1990s and 2000s, it looked like the PLC directory, known as Global Counsel 3000 before it rebranded as Which Lawyer?, might break through and become one of the very top directories.
It had everything going for it.
Alongside the rankings element of Which Lawyer, PLC’s handbook series contained paid-for articles authored by lawyers.
PLC was one of the market leaders in this space – a booming area of legal publishing in the 1990s and 2000s.
One of PLC’s advantages was a large team of talented editors on tap, most of them ex-lawyers, who would expertly edit the overly legalistic lawyers’ drafts into something clear and readable.
While co-publishing wasn’t for everyone, at least with PLC you got a well-written final product at the end of it, and a wide distribution among the company’s in-house subscriber base.
So why did Which Lawyer close?
Without diminishing its achievements – a respected and successful stand-alone business, even without the support of the wider parent company – PLC Which Lawyer never quite fulfilled its potential by going to on to become the market leader in the research directory segment.
In recent years, Which Lawyer experimented with different initiatives, and PLC appeared unsure what to do with its directory arm.
There were a few years when the format chopped and changed frequently.
Editorial commentary stopped, and then the ranking tiers were scrapped.
One issue was the relationship between the rankings portion of the guides and the sponsored editorial.
While the PLC Which Lawyer handbooks offered an independent view of the leading law firms and lawyers in a particular market or practice, it was sometimes awkward placing the rankings alongside the paid-for editorial.
After all, if you were paying thousands of dollars to write an article on the latest M&A developments in Poland, would you want a prospective client to first read your piece, only to see at the end of the article that your firm was positioned third tier for Polish M&A?
A more fundamental issue was the level of resources required to sustain and develop the product.
PLC’s Which Lawyer’s small team was dwarfed by the staff numbers attached to the more prominent parts of PLC’s enterprise, and the company’s efforts centered on expanding the know-how business globally.
To this end, PLC opened a New York office in 2008 and launched a high-profile assault on the U.S market.
Which Lawyer was ultimately a casualty of a business that had grown enormously and had to decide where it wanted to spend its time and money.
It’s just difficult for companies to be equally good at many things; you have to focus.
I got to know PLC pretty well over the years.
Almost all of the law firms I worked and consulted for engaged in the PLC directory process, and some of them wrote articles for the practice area handbooks.
So a sad development for the directory world (although possibly some relief for beleaguered legal marketing staff who now have one less set of submissions to compile).
More broadly, Practical Law Company is a remarkable entrepreneurial success story.
Deal value was never disclosed publicly but Thomson Reuters was estimated by The Telegraph to have paid between £200 and £300 million for PLC.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, the company was founded by two former Slaughter and May tax law associates, Robert Dow and Chris Millerchip, in 1990.
Their brilliant idea was to create precedents to help lawyers put together deals without having to spend an eternity wading through dense text books.
After beginning life as a magazine, the business swiftly moved online and a suite of helpful subscription-based templates and tools was created to make life easier for lawyers.
It’s one of those textbook entrepreneurial case studies: “identify a problem, provide a solution”.
Many lawyers today think to themselves: “what did we do before PLC?”