Penning their way in law

Ravinder Chahal discovers that the competitive world of publishing is a business not unlike the law. Ravinder Chahal is a freelance journalist.

The world of legal publishing mirrors the legal services market itself. Several major league players dominate the market, followed by a second tier of significant concerns, then a host of minor niche concerns which operate at the lower end of the scale.

Like their legal counterparts, dominant publishers have an international flavour which they achieve through multinational media parent companies. Butterworths is a subsidiary of Reed-Elsevier, Sweet & Maxwell is part of the Canadian Thomson group that once owned The Times and FT Law & Tax is part of the Pearson group.

Another parallel with the legal market is the possibility of merger or takeover. The head of one successful mid-tier publishing company says, only half-jokingly, that an article about legal publishing may attract unwanted attention from multinationals. He concedes that the major players know his company and are eyeing it with a view to possible acquisition.

Tolleys became part of the Butterworths group last summer and is currently adjusting to new work practices. Betty Demby, an editor with Tolleys since 1991, says the company is shifting its emphasis towards serving the law-to-business market, dealing with areas such as health and safety, employment and company law, and personnel and human resources departments in companies.

She says that as well as dealing with a conveyor belt of projects, she works closely with authors and keeps an eye on developments in the areas of law in which her titles have an interest. This allows her to decide when such developments mean new chapters have to be written to accompany journals and looseleaf texts.

Legal publishers do not simply produce the bound volumes we are familiar with, but an array of other products such as journals, and looseleaf texts that are updated as the law changes. There are also significant areas of electronic publishing such as CD-ROMs and online services, which specifically target law.

Richard Hudson, managing director of Jordans, one of the leading independent publishers, says legal publishing is not concerned with just one market, but a series of disparate markets with many different audiences. He also draws a parallel with the legal market: “The expectations and earnings of a City and high street lawyer are very different but they both make up part of the market for legal publishing.”

Hudson says that you have to “match a book to its market” so an area of law which develops quickly may be best served by a looseleaf text, updated several times a year to keep pace with changes.

The company has a number of integrated services. Under its specialist Family Law imprint, Jordans produces an annual for family law practitioners known as the Red book. This is supplemented by a monthly family law journal and a weekly updated web site.

Hudson believes smaller publishers can survive in the legal marketplace. They tend to be more flexible and, as such, can keep pace with the constant change in the law. He says it is all about identifying a gap in the market: “A new piece of legislation can often create a rush to hit the marketplace first, but it may not reflect what lawyers actually do at their desks.”

Helen Garlick, a solicitor at Richard Howard & Co and author of the Separation Survival Handbook for Which? Consumer's Association, says she always wanted to write. The amount of money she makes out of writing would not be enough to make most solicitors get out of bed, she claims, but it has opened a lot of doors for her. Her profile as a family lawyer has been raised considerably and she now edits a family law journal and has worked for television and radio.

She says it is not easy an area to break into and often happens through personal contacts and a good relationship with your editor. But she adds that “once you get started your reputation can be established as a writer and for other things”.

John Garbutt, who established the planning and environmental unit at Nicholson Graham & Jones in 1990, wrote handbooks on environmental law for John Wiley & Sons to market the new unit. He says that at the time, no environmental law books existed which were easy to follow and aimed at general practitioners.

The handbooks have won him the praise of fellow practitioners which is what he relishes the most. He says the royalties from them “will never make him rich” but in terms of marketing the department, the handbooks were a resounding success. So much so that he believes it may well be time to write a third edition.