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?