Legal marketers have been hit with increases in the cost of their Chambers profiles recently – the effect of new ownership at the publisher starting to bite.
Understandably people are grumbling.
Who wouldn’t when they see significant increases?
I hate it when my phone provider or electricity company pushes up my bill.
Companies in the main opt for incremental, year-on-year increases, designed not to be noticeable, or small enough that people will swallow without complaint.
Some of the recent rate increases at Chambers, however, part of a new commercial strategy implemented by its private equity-backed owners, are more substantial.
But before you tear up your renewal form, consider a few things.
I’m conscious that this piece will come across as a pitch for directory profiles.
That’s not the purpose – the directories have plenty of smart salespeople who can do that themselves.
But law firms need to appreciate the subtle relationship between the research-led nature of the directories and their commercial arms, and recognize that the directories must make money in an ever more competitive publishing industry.
And law firms should have a consistent approach, and get the balance right.
Specifically, does it make sense to spend a huge amount of time preparing directory submissions (with the time costs involved), and not to advertise at all? Or might not firms who don’t advertise be better cutting down on the number of submissions, or improving the efficiency of their submission process, and advertising instead?
Remember that Chambers profiles were cheap for a long time, and priced lower than similar products from other legal publishers.
Until the recent change of ownership, Chambers had never really been run as a business in the way that an MBA graduate would recognize.
Owned by founder Michael Chambers from the 1980s until last year, Chambers was essentially a research and publishing operation with a tiny commercial function tacked on to the side.
As the Chambers research team grew, from around 30 at the end of the 1990s, to more than 100 by the late 00s to more than 200 now, the sales team remained small.
You could count them on the fingers of one hand.
That’s the inverse of many publishing businesses, whose commercial team is often larger than the editorial arm of the business.
Chambers’ ethos was to produce great research, and let the money follow.
And it did – the majority of law firms that featured in Chambers also bought profiles.
The sales strategy was simple: acknowledge that firms spend a lot of time on submission preparation, keep advertising rates low, encourage as many firms to participate on the basis that it’s better to have more firms paying a relatively small amount than a smaller number of firms paying more (the usual approach from most vendors)
With due respect to the sales teams at Chambers during the “Michael” years, it wasn’t the toughest gig – most firms renewed their profiles year after year without much hard sell.
So while Chambers was a successful private enterprise, it wasn’t run as an aggressive commercial business.
I worked at Chambers for five years – it felt like a non-profit at times, with a rarefied, academic atmosphere.
While I got to know the sales guys socially, there was virtually no business contact between the commercial and research arms of the business.
We did the research, and produced the guidebooks, they sold the profiles.
The idea that a law firm could buy their way in, as skeptics and critics like to suggest, was so far from reality.
A law firm partner asked me a couple of years ago:
“I don’t get how Chambers makes any money. They have offices in central London, hundreds of staff, most of them highly educated, they print these huge, thick books and ship them round the world, and it’s free to take part in the research?”
I have been asked a variation of this hundreds of times over the years.
I’m sure that culture changed a little over the years as Chambers grew – the company had an increasing number of mouths to feed – but the essential ethos of the business remained pretty much the same for 30 years.
With private equity coming in, that will change.
It’s a lazy caricature to see private equity firms as Barbarians at the Gate-style asset strippers, but it would be daft to think that Inflexion invested in Chambers for fun.
I’m sure the first thing they did when they opened the books was wonder why, given Chambers strong market reputation, and loyal base of customers, they had been selling profiles at low rates for so long.
But if the cost of profiles has to rise to a commercially realistic level, how quickly, and by how much?
Let’s consider the purpose of a directory profile.
Tell your side of the story
The concept of the legal directory is based on presenting two kinds of complementary information to the reader – what we (the directory) say about a law firm based on our own independent research, and what they (the firm) says about itself.
Read our own proprietary commentary, and then contrast that with how the firm describes itself to gain a full picture, and that will allow you (the prospective buyer of legal services) to decide if you want to hire this firm – and contact the firm if you wish.
That is in essence the purpose of a legal directory: arm prospective buyers of legal services with information to enable them to make a buying choice.
In the old days, when the directories were published via printed books, the proprietary commentary appeared at the beginning of the volume, and the law firm profiles at the end, and that same structure is replicated online.
So if you don’t have a profile, you don’t have an opportunity to tell your side of the story.
The only commentary a reader sees is what the directories say – which may or not be to your liking, and may not reflect how you see yourselves.
Type the name of any law firm into Google, and you will see a link to a legal directory high on the list – usually just behind the firm’s official website and LinkedIn or Wikipedia.
Legal 500 scores notably well on this front.
Law firm websites have come a long way in the last 15 years, and some sites have turned into excellent resources for legal and regulatory developments, but many of them feature identikit designs and so much corporate waffle that there will be always be demand for independent reviews from legal directories and media sites.
If you are buying a hotel room, how many people go direct to the hotel’s website? Possibly, but you are more likely to go to a third-party platform to check out images, prices, and reviews.
It’s the same for individual lawyers as well as firms.
I just typed the name of a well-known London Magic Circle corporate lawyer into Google to see what came up.
His official firm bio came first, but on the first page of Google were links to articles and profiles in The Lawyer, Legal Business, Chambers, Who’s Who Legal, The Times, Law.com, and Bloomberg.
If you were interested in knowing more about this guy, or hiring him, you would almost certainly click on one of the legal directory and media links as well as his own firm bio.
The directories are increasingly moving to a position where firms and lawyers with paid-for profiles are prioritized both in terms of internal visibility within their own sites (how easy it is to navigate through the site and access information about them), and with respect to external search visibility.
Realistically, I can only see the distinction becoming even greater.
Some law firms take the view that profiles have limited value in and of themselves but that paying for profiles is justified in terms of a kind of “relationship management fee”.
Usually when you pay for something you do so on the understanding that in return you will receive a product or service, but some firms pay for directory profiles not because they expect them to produce a certain outcome, but because they want to maintain warm relations with the directory.
In other words, the annual profile becomes a line item that gets paid each year without too much thought, and keeps your firm in the mix with all the others that do the same thing.
Most legal marketers want an easy life, and is it worth the risk of pulling your profiles when most other firms are doing them?
Some firms choose not to pay for profiles.
They spend so much time on the submissions, being asked to pay on top feels like a stretch too far.
I mean, why pay if it doesn’t affect how you are treated in the rankings or what they say about you?
After all, the directories make a great play of the fact that they are independent, and you can’t buy your way in.
All true, but law firms need to be realistic.
Directories are not charities, and businesses will always seek to look after their customers – especially as the market becomes more competitive.
Imagine you are unhappy with your rankings? Or you want to schedule a meeting with the editor? Or you are trying to pitch for a new section?
Or the directories are launching a new general counsel event or panel session, and are looking for speakers?
Which firms will they turn to first?
Yes, the directories will treat firms that don’t advertise as equals – it would undermine their credibility if they distinguished between payors and non-payors (after all, someone who doesn’t pay today may do so in the future) – but I know that if it were my business I would be more inclined to listen to customers that had supported me for years over those who hadn’t.
Support the directories
Some firms choose to support the legal directories commercially because they recognize that they are vital to the industry.
Most directories have opted for a business model that means it’s free to take part in the research process, but featured law firms are asked to advertise afterwards.
There are alternatives: you could move to a subscription model, where only those who pay for a directory subscription can view the results, or you could charge firms to take part in the research.
But these options would be detrimental to law firms.
The current model, whatever its flaws, provides law firms with a huge amount of publicity across their many offices and practices.
Firms grumble about the submission preparation time suck, but law firms would be lost without the acres of positive commentary and glowing quotes.
Inevitably there will always be tension between what directories publish and what law firms wished they would publish, but no other organization provides law firms with as much third-party endorsement as the directories.
While I’m broadly supportive of the idea of directory profiles, that doesn’t mean law firms should sign big checks without pause and consideration.
If the rate increases look too high, then negotiate.
The directories have to be careful not to price gouge, and repeat the Martindale Hubbell mistakes.
For those who weren’t around in the 1990s and early 00s, law firms abandoned Martindale in droves after it jacked up its prices to unsustainable levels.
Martindale was a storied name in the legal publishing world and had dominated the directory market for decades, but law firms could no longer justify paying tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in fees.
And the Martindale implosion happened quickly, because law firms have a herd mentality, and once firms started pulling out, others followed suit, and a trickle of departures soon turned into an avalanche.
With regard to the actual profiles themselves, the directories need to up their game.
To be fair, they have made some enhancements in the last couple of years.
Legal 500 moved to a tabbed-type design, which enables firms to add extra information, and Chambers changed the way it presents firm profiles by moving them to a more prominent position next to its own editorial commentary.
Some of the US sites like SuperLawyers offer videos, and Lawdragon does some elegant and well written extended lawyer profiles.
But profiles by and large haven’t kept pace with law firms’ own websites – slick designs, microsites, great content, top photography.
The directories should assemble teams of designers, writers, editors, photographers, SEO specialists, to create richer, more detailed, better presented profiles.
And instead of just creating more boxes for firms to complete themselves, why don’t the directories help the firms craft the profiles?
Law firms spend a ton of time already updating their own websites, which in some cases have become big content hubs, and filling in details on a host of other sites, as well as badgering partners to complete their LinkedIn profiles.
The directories already have a goldmine of information within the submissions that they can use (most of which gathers dust as little of it finds its way into the published commentary), and a large team of writers and editors on hand.
Sure, firms would have to sign off as they are paying for the profiles, but help the firms out by developing nice profiles for them.
Lend them a hand, add value, and create a more compelling visual experience.
Law firms will pay if the value is there.