Thoughts on the Closing of ‘Lawyers USA’

The legal newspaper Lawyers USA announced that the issue it published yesterday will be its last. It will continue to post news on its website and send email alerts through the end of this month, and then cease to exist. Two members of the editorial staff are being laid off, managing editor Reni Gertner and staff writer Sylvia Hsieh.

In 1994, I was the founding editor-in-chief of the paper, originally called Lawyers Weekly USA. Actually, I was one of two founding editors-in-chief, as the then owner, J. Edward Pawlick, had the bizarre notion that it made sense to have two top editors — one in charge of case reporting and one in charge of news and feature reporting. I was the latter.

USAcover-final-199x300When Pawlick asked me to help launch the paper, I had been editor-in-chief of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, the state legal newspaper, for several years. His concept made a lot of sense to me. He wanted to start a national newspaper that would focus on solo and small-firm lawyers. Although these lawyers made up the vast majority of practitioners, no national newspaper and virtually no national publication at the time was addressed to them. The primary national legal newspaper available then, The National Law Journal, was then more targeted at larger firms.

On top of that, Pawlick believed, more and more law was becoming national. Most legal newspapers restricted themselves to state or local coverage because most of what lawyers needed to know involved state laws, state rules and state practice. But 20 years ago, federal law was increasing dominant in areas such as employment, environment and business, and even where federal law was not controlling, uniform laws were taking hold.

And, of course, there were emerging trends in legal technology and practice management that transcended state borders.

Thus, it seemed that there was an enormous, under-served audience of solo and small-firm lawyers whose common interests were increasingly strong. Not only did a national newspaper that catered to them make sense, it was sure to be a success.

But the paper never really took off. I was there barely more than a year when it became clear that Pawlick and I had widely divergent ideas of what the paper should be. Most disturbingly, he wanted the paper to serve as a platform for his quirky political views that teetered somewhere between right-wing and libertarian. (He later founded a newspaper devoted to attacking gay marriage and the Massachusetts justices who voted in favor of it.) Just a year after joining Lawyers Weekly USA, I left.

Meanwhile, Pawlick sold the Lawyers Weekly company to his daughter Susan Hall, who later sold it to Dolan Media, the present-day owner.

Since the day it was launched, the paper always seemed to struggle. I never understood why. It had good writers and editors and plenty of good stories — often ones that no one else picked up on. But it did struggle. At some point, its frequency was reduced from biweekly to monthly. Reportedly, its paid circulation dropped to under 5,000. More emphasis was put on its website, but it never seemed to figure out a viable web strategy. It was stingy with its content and kept everything behind a paywall. It did counterintuitive things like start a blog, Benchmarks, that required you to be a paid subscriber to read full posts.

(To be fair, I always liked its other blog, DC Dicta, but that blog was overshadowed by other blogs that covered the Supreme Court and Washington in more depth.)

I still think the original concept of Lawyers USA made sense. However, having watched it struggle for two decades, I am not surprised that it is closing. To some extent, it is a victim of the times. It’s hard enough to sustain a print newspaper in any market, but it’s even harder to sell a pricey subscription to an audience of solo and small firm lawyers who themselves are facing tighter economic times. But that does not explain why it struggled so long.

Perhaps, also, no one really needed it anymore. Pawlick always used to say that to sell a newspaper to lawyers, you had to give them what they needed, not want they thought they wanted. By that he meant to focus on core, practical information that would give them the knowledge, skills and tools they needed to build their practices, avoid malpractice and achieve successful careers.

Twenty years ago, at the dawn of the Internet age, it was still difficult for many solo and small-firm lawyers to find that information — or at least to find it all wrapped up in a convenient package. Today, lawyers no longer need a paper such as Lawyers USA. The Internet made the print version of the paper an anachronism, and the paper never adapted to the world of the web and social media. I have to wonder whether, with the right pricing and a better mix of free and paid content, it could have survived, perhaps even thrived, as a web-only publication.

I feel bad for the staff members who lost their jobs. I’ve met them both and they are talented people who will land on their feet and find success. And, having helped launch the paper, I am sorry to see it die. I was privileged, during my time there, to work with a staff of superior reporters and editors. Unfortunately, I do not think, at this point, it is much of a loss to the legal community. In fact, I doubt few but a hardcore group of devoted readers will even notice it is gone.

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5 Responses to “Thoughts on the Closing of ‘Lawyers USA’”

  1. Very insightful post-mortem, Bob. Lawyers USA’s fate is not surprising, given sagging circulation & declining ad revenues plaguing entire print newspaper industry, not to mention retrenchment in the legal community that was its audience.

  2. Chris Myhrum says:

    Very thoughtful and caring commentary, Bob, reflecting your unique perspective. Thank you.

  3. Bob,

    I was not at the paper during your tenure, so I cannot speak on that. I can say that for the past seven years it has been an honor to work with a group of incredibly hard-working people of such immense talent. It was wonderful to be a part of a team of people who consistently gave everything they had – and sometimes more – for their readers. My heart breaks for my friends who lost their jobs, though I know they will thrive in their future endeavors. And I take heart from the kind words I’ve received from readers and sources acknowledging our good work, and letting us know that our paper will be missed.

    Thanks for the compliment on my blog. It was but a tiny part of my work at the paper, but I’m proud of it.

    Best,

    -Kim

  4. Rick Alembik says:

    As a long-time subscriber to Lawyers USA I was disappointed to find out they’d stopped publishing in July.

    They were the best non-glossy lawyer’s magazine I could find. I’d been subscribing to them almost since they started publishing 20 years ago. It was the only way I kept track of federal law.

    Honestly, I don’t see how a small firm / solo attorney could do without a publication like this that keeps track of federal and national legal developments.

    R.I.P. Lawyers Weekly

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