New York Times DealBook reported today  that ALM Media will be acquired by an investor consortium led by Wasserstein & Co. It was reportedly sold for significantly less than expected. The purchaser owned ALM once before. The company sold for $630M in 2007 but today’s deal price is reported at $417M.

By my count this is the 5th sale of ALM in the 17 years since founder Steven Brill sold ALM to Time Warner in 1997.   What could another PE owner bring to the table that will enhance the value of the American Lawyer Resources to law firms?  My worst fear is that the only thing it may bring is higher prices.  It’s not that ALM has been in a holding pattern. They have continued to add innovative products and in January of this year, there was a major relaunch of the platform. The glossy new platform unbundled ALM content from its historically jurisdictional focus and moved to a practice focus. They have also invited in content from a “Huffington Post” style stable of outside commentators. But we live in a big data world and in my view ALM content is just begging to be integrated into a larger universe of legal and business data.

The first issue of American Lawyer 

Don’t get me wrong I have a deep respect and even fondness for ALM. We both entered law firms at about the same time. In 1980 I was a brand new librarian. When an issue of the American Lawyer arrived I had the distinct  sense that it should have been kept behind the circulation desk and covered in a brown wrapper. By 1980 standards it was a tawdry business. It had the same “ewe” quotient as the early postings on the Above the Law blog. No one wanted to be seen reading it and yet everyone had to take a look at the latest issue. Partners soon realized  that it was better to respond to an inquiry from an ALM reporter  than to let American Lawyer control the message. Imagine a time when there was no such thing as a law firm Chief Marketing Officer.

As a consumer of legal information products I think that there would be more interesting  product development synergies if  ALM was acquired by one of the major legal information publishers and certainly some of these companies have content gaps that could have been filled nicely  by  ALM products. ALM would also benefit from the global network which each of the major vendors would bring to the deal. The business and practice of law is going global. ALM needs to develop a strategy and assets which enables them to  satisfy the growing demand for international law firm, dealflow and litigation news and analytics.

The New Legal Journalism – Caselaw wrapped in an envelope of personality.

For much of the last 30 years ALM had a virtual lock on being the “tattler” of the legal profession while providing a steady stream of substantive legal news. Over the  years ALM’s journalism has gained mainstream  legitimacy. They invented some of the basic yardsticks of law firm performance through their profitability and diversity rankings. In recent years they have ceded the “bad boy journalist” role  to the Above the Law blog, They have also faced head on competition from Law360 – an upstart digital newsletter that against all the odds claimed market share at the dawn of the great economic reset. Law360 created a legal news product line which  can best be described as a kind of journalistic “crack.” They have succeeded by delivering legal developments slathered in  personality. Lawyers names, firm names, client names and competitive rankings are dominant features of every issue of Law360. Lawyers find a lot to criticize in Law360 reporting and analysis and yet they can’t live without it. 

A little History 1979 – The Year the Veil Lifted

Until 1979 lawyers occupied private islands of professional secrecy. But 1979 marked the birth of 3 publications which drew back the veil which had historically  shrouded the legal profession from public scrutiny. The Legal Times of Washington, The National Journal and the American Lawyer each focused on a separate niche in the legal market. Today they are all part of the ALM media empire which also publishes over 2 dozen regional and topical  publications such as the New York Law Journal. The Legal Times focused on the federal government and DC law firms. National Law Journal produced  long feature articles on serious  legal issues of national  impact. .A contemporary article indicated that it saw itself as the Wall Street Journal of the law

The American Lawyer was the brashest of the three—it  turned the klieg lights on  the finances  and foibles of lawyers and their clients. The American Lawyer  was the brain child of co-founder Steven Brill a Yale Law grad who had written a law column for Esquire magazine.  American Lawyer was originally published in a tabloid  newspaper  format and featured large photographs and fancy graphics. …An unseemly intruder which didn’t fit well  on the beige, buckram lined library shelves.

Brill  transformed legal  reporting  from a snooze-fest  to a slug-fest. by exposing the salary disputes,  professional blunders, partner defections and client controversies that erupted at even the most prestigious of “white shoe” law firms. Columbia Law Review once  referred to  American Lawyer as “ pushy, shrill, long winded, self-righteous, smug and downright nasty.” And yet lawyers couldn’t turn their eyes away. Law firms kept subscribing. By the end of their first decade they had created a new kind of competition among large firms by developing the infamous Amlaw 100 list which reported revenue per lawyer and profits per partner. Over the years ALM ventured beyond print.

Beyond Print. In 1991 they launched Court TV  – a “reality TV” channel which brought live coverage of trials into American living rooms. It created a new class of lawyer-pundits who provided motion by motion commentary on high profile trials – think OJ Simpson. They also launched Counsel Connect an early social media platform which allowed lawyers and outside counsel to connect and post comments and share expertise. Counsel Connect was the brain child of David Johnson who had left the practice of law at Wilmer Cutler & Pickering to become a law and technology pioneer. They went online with the platform which was recently transformed and relaunched.They now offer apps to provide mobile access to their news products.

Other ALM product offerings include legal treatises and newsletters  under the Law Journal Press imprint, the ALM Legal Intelligence platform which provides business analytics and a growing line of  specialty studies on the business of law. They have recently expanded their competitive intelligence capabilities with Rival Edge which tracks lawyer headcount, firm marketing events and practice changes as well as, lateral partner moves and billing rates. They provide seminars and CLE. They host the national legal technology conference LegalTech. For a relatively small publisher they have staked out  a  strong brand and a presence across a wide swath of the legal practice and management landscape. The have put a toe into the growing workflow improvements space with the SmartLitigator.

The Contenders

LexisNexis  The acquisition of ALM by LexisNexis would have been a downright disaster for law firms. Lexis already owns Law360 which is the only serious competitor to ALM in reporting on both the legal profession and legal developments. LexisNexis also has an exclusive license to provide access to the ALM archives on the Lexis platform. Outright ownership of both Law360 and ALM would have given LexisNexis a near monopoly on “business of law” news publications. Anyone who has negotiated with Law360 knows that they are making shameless demands double digit for price increases. The market needs an alternative.

Thomson Reuters  Well… Thomson Reuters the owner of Westlaw is in  the news business. Thomson Reuters hired veteran ALM journalist Allison Frankel and as far as I can tell she is focused on writing for existing Westlaw subscribers. West owns the hyper-niche Andrews Litigation Reports newsletters now branded as Westlaw Journals, but these are focused on very narrow slices of the law and don’t cover the business of law or law firms. West clearly has access to breaking  caselaw, regulations, statutes, news and editorial talent.    It appears that they are just not interested in developing or competing in the Law360-ALM space.
Bloomberg Law  is also part of a media empire. Like TR, Bloomberg is reporting on law firm activities in news stories that are delivered on their platform but they are making no move to create an identifiable independent “business of law” product or to produce law firm rankings and competitive metrics. In 2011 they purchased the Bureau of National Affairs which  publishes sophisticated legal and regulatory newsletters which are sold independently from the BLaw platform.  The ALM local news  legal intelligence, ranking and the competitive intelligence assets, Rival Edge and Law Journal Press treatises could have filled some gaps in the BLaw offerings.

Wolters Kluwer which publishes a wide range of practice focused libraries  and newsletters is the publisher that I believe could have benefited most from the acquisition of ALM.WK released a suite of daily topical newsletters in 2013. Like their competitors at BNA – the WK writers are the “A students” who take a sober approach to the serious task of reporting on the law. What they both  lack is the relentless churn of personality which has pushed Law360 to the head of the pack. ALM is awash in law firm news and intelligence which could be used to deliver more “personality” into the legal news mix. WK also lacks a clearly defined product offering targeted at  litigators. Sure lots of their content such as the Federal Securities Law Reporter is useful to litigators but they have no product that I can think of which was targeted for the huge pool of litigators throughout the US. ALM has an existing and loyal base of litigators from around the country who rely on their local court coverage in their regional news offerings.  More recently ALM developed a product called Smart Litigator which combines research, forms, judges information, verdicts and drafting tools in one platform.

Information Wants to be Linked

ALM has a compelling mix of editorial content, primary source material and law firm analytics. Over the next decade business data and analytics will play an increasingly important role in the business and practice of law. I am frankly baffled that none of the major publishers stepped up and bought ALM this round…. But if history is any indicator ALM is likely to be on the block again within the next 5 years.