What Will be the Business Model of the 21st Century Law Firm?

Guardian Times The similarities between publishing and legal industries have already been widely commented on. Publishers of all kinds are at a crossroads, and are busy experimenting with business models.

Today News International unveiled their new web designs for The Times and Sunday Times, prior to them disappearing behind a paywall later this year. Murdoch is banking that a traditional subscription business model will work in the internet age.

Meanwhile Guardian Media Group has launched its Open Platform – the complete opposite of the Times approach. The Guardian and Observer are providing their content for developers to reuse and repurpose in whatever applications they want. Some types of reuse are free, others require registration and licensing or revenue sharing. Just to be clear – that means The Guardian will pay you to republish their content!

The Times wants to wall its content off from the rest of the internet. The Guardian wants to see its content (re)used as widely as possible.

Which model will work?

In an age where information is a commodity you need three things to operate a paywall: unique content, great reputation and niche, targeted information from which readers can derive value. That’s real value as-in money saved, or money earned. That’s why the Financial Times can operate a paywall, as can Tessa Shepperson. But the Times? I’m sceptical.

The Guardian on the other hand is embracing the idea of a sell-through business model where revenues are shared with distribution partners. This is a proven internet business model similar to the Amazon Affiliate and Google Adsense programmes that helped cement both of them as dominant players in their markets. I am certain this will lead to The Guardian having more online readers than The Times. Could it lead them to a dominant position?

What can we learn for the future of the legal profession?

Two very different approaches. One embracing all the opportunity (and risks) of the new technology, and one betting that old models still work. Which one wins will likely provide an interesting thesis for MBA students in the future, and an interesting reference for law firms.

My take?

  • If you are a large national firm, your objective should be to commoditize legal information. Give it away for free, share it as widely as you can, and use the mind-share you gain to sell services. Real services that provide real value.
  • If you are a small firm of solicitors, work to build your brand as an expert, then figure out how you can provide a subscription service that provides real value to the fans you have gained.
  • If you are a midsize regional law firm, you’d better decide which way to jump, because the average middle will be squeezed.

What do you think? Am I wrong? And what do you think it means for the legal profession… if anything?

It’s all about Values

Social Media Social media engagement is about having conversations. Conversations with customers and prospective customers wherever they happen to congregate on the web.

Shireen asked today how can you protect your brand if you allow staff to use Twitter, write blogs or use other social media?

Old style media and PR were about command and control. Create a brand and an image, employ a raft of people to craft words that fit the image, and then distribute them through mass media channels.

In the social media world of today your customers are having conversations about you in public. You can no longer control the message. But you can influence it. No policy will be able to cover all the aspects of a conversation though. Instead you need values. Values enable employees to make smart decisions by themselves about how to engage.

Don’t Zappos values say everything staff need to know about how to engage with people on social media? Microsoft’s blog policy is famously two words: Blog Smart. It’s about empowering staff to make smart decisions based on company values.

Instead of creating a bunch of command and control rules that nobody reads, think about the values that embody your company and how you can use them to enable staff to make decisions by themselves, engage customers, and win new business.

What do you think? Any other ideas to add?