Anyone who worked in the legal market in the late 1990s and early 2000s might remember the Insider’s Guides to Legal Services.
Published by New City Media, the series of legal guides burst onto the publishing scene, and, for a short while, looked as if they might muscle into the upper end of the “research directory” market, which at the time was dominated by Chambers & Partners, Legal 500, Practical Law Company and Euromoney’s Legal Media Group.
Although long since gone, the Insider’s Guides still come up in conversation from time to time with legal publishing folk, and clients occasionally ask me about them.
So I thought it would be interesting to go back in time and take a look.
According to Mark Brandon, a senior Insider’s Guides editor:
“The Insider’s Guides were initially conceived as a reaction to the traditional directories. Each was a sector-specific, A5-sized bound book. We kicked off in 1999 with one on digital media, and went from there.
As well as being more detailed than the traditional directories, the guides were distinctive in that we spoke to up to 200 clients for each one. They operated on a similar principle, that of a questionnaire, but as they went to individual departments, they were spread out over the year so there was less hassle for the law firm support staff.”
After Digital Media, three further sector guides were published in 1999 – IT & Telecoms; Brands; and Pharmaceuticals & Biotechnology – the themes reflecting the widespread interest at that time in “TMT” (telecoms, media and technology).
Over the next couple of years, new editions were added: Property, Corporate, Insurance & Reinsurance, Corporate Rescue & Insolvency, and Employment.
Publisher New City Media was the newly-formed media division of a leading legal recruitment consultancy, Quarry Dougall, seeking to move into legal publishing.
To get the guides off the ground, New City Media hired a strong editorial team.
Mark Brandon worked at The Lawyer in the early 1990s, before moving to another London-based legal publisher Legalease in 1994, where he edited the Legal 500 directory, In-House Lawyer, and set up a weekly newspaper, the Legal Times.
As well as the Insider’s Guides, New City Media launched the first ever legal student publication, Lex, later bought by the Legal 500’s parent company, Legalease.
On each Insider’s Guide, research was led by a senior editor, with support from a couple of junior researchers.
Each guide took about six months to complete.
Ahead of its time technology-wise, content quickly moved online at the dawn of the internet age, where readers could search for lawyers and firms by sub-discipline.
The editorial commentary was organized by firm in alphabetical order, with the addition of numerous pull-out tables.
Individual lawyers were ranked using a 1-5 star-rating system.
“Surprisingly, we had few adverse comments about our star ratings,” said Mark Brandon.
“And to be honest virtually nothing but praise for the editorial. It was often critical, with justification, but was always written with the user in mind.”
Revenue came from traditional paid-for firm and individual profiles, and the guides managed to turn a profit in a short space of time.
Another way in which in what the Insider’s Guides differed from other products at the time was through targeted sector distribution.
Mark Brandon elaborates:
“In terms of distribution, we sent it to anyone we could think of who might be useful within the particular industry. As such, there was much wider distribution within the sector than the big directories, and because it was specific, we had much better readership.”
“Once I got four calls on the same day from various digital media lawyers. They had all been pitching for work from Freeserve, a huge internet service provider at the time, and all related the same story: the ten people interviewing them all either had copies of the Digital Media guide or print-outs in front of them, and all the questions were directed to our editorial. It impressed and frightened the lawyers, but was great kudos for us.”
Edward Bannell was a sales manager on the Insider’s Guides:
“There was a genuine desire to develop a new product, and it was an enjoyable experience working there. The editors really energized everyone. Initially some firms were nervous about getting involved in another directory, but the sector focus, particularly in the “buzz” areas like digital media, went down well with firms, and a lot of them were prepared to give it a go. The sales targets were high but we hit most of them.”
After a rapid ascent, however, the Insider’s Guides were short-lived.
Parent company Quarry Dougall was taken over in 2001 by a large recruitment business, TMP, that wasn’t interested in publishing.
“There was a real sense of disappointment in the market when the guides ceased” said Edward Bannell.
There were discussions with Centaur, the owners of The Lawyer, about taking on the Insider’s Guides, but Centaur had banned acquisitions after some bad experiences.
Some private equity investors expressed an interest, but that came to nothing.
Sadly, the company was wound up, and its staff scattered throughout the legal sector.
Edward Bannell joined Chambers & Partners as a researcher in 2001, and now works in business development at Taylor Wessing.
Former editorial director Catrin Griffiths joined The Lawyer in 2000, and continues to edit the legal trade magazine.
Mark Brandon went on to forge a successful career in legal recruitment in the 2000s, before setting up a consultancy in 2010.
Motive Legal Consulting advises on recruitment strategy, business planning, and training.