Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Jan Miller

Jan Miller

Talking to New Law Journal editor Jan Miller, I learn that Fake News is proving to be Good News for some. A topic I’ve visited a number of times on this blog, Fake News is something that to date I’ve only understood as a threat and a negative. Indeed earlier this year Legal Cheek editor Alex Aldridge tutored us on its origins as a dubious propaganda activity at the time of the US election and the rise of Trump; explained to us the explosion in fake news "factories" - websites that specialise in disseminating deliberately false stories e.g. to sway low-IQ voters who don’t question what they read, or to serve as “click-bait” to boost reader numbers (and therefore advertisers on the back of this) in a way that properly researched, accurate stories simply can’t compete with. The famous Mark Twain maxim “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” never had more relevance! Depressing isn’t it, to see journalistic standards plummet with the rise of so many dubious web and social based news outlets - and the reading public supposedly ok with that as long as they are entertained. 

So I was encouraged to learn from Jan that she is seeing a positive impact of Fake News. What she talked to me about is in essence a flight to quality, with readers and contributors alike being attracted more than ever to reliable and trusted content.

“We have noticed the Fake News phenomenon having actually helped boost interest and demand for our news services in some areas, as lawyers are increasingly keen for news sources that are accurate and authoritative. The stock value in trusted news and comment has risen; what was once give-away (and taken for granted), is now seen as a valuable asset. In their concern to avoid ingesting unreliable information, our experience is that customers are becoming more discerning in regard to the news sources they choose and are demonstrating that they are prepared to invest in, and pay for, trusted and responsible sources."

“Contributors also want to be seen as authoritative commentators. They recognise that it’s easy for their comments to be misused, twisted, taken out of context etc, particularly on social media channels. Some firms are closing Twitter accounts that previously they were quite relaxed about, so concerned have they become about control of message in such an anarchic environment. Others are tightening up their monitoring and managing procedures on social channels, setting clear policies and standards for staff posting and making people accountable. The more social activity becomes mainstream for lawyers, as a way of reaching out to clients, referrers, influencers and peers, the more they realise the need for a professional, even ‘corporate’, approach.”

Jan and I also discussed at length how the rise of social as a mainstream channel is impacting the law firm marketing mix more generally. Now that firms, chambers and lawyers can so easily publicise their own news and opinions, on their website or elsewhere online, and now that they can communicate direct with their target audiences on eg LinkedIn or Twitter, do they still see a need for publicity through “traditional” media? How do they assess the value, influence and reach of the channels they pick for their marketing output? How do the different channels compare in terms of ability to control messages on the one hand, and on the other hand the influence they confer? And how far are lawyers engaging with newspapers’ and magazines’ own new formats, such as video content, webinars etc.? These are just a few of the questions we have been asking. We’d now like to invite you into the discussion...

Over the next few months New Law Journal and Kysen will be working jointly on a study looking in to the impacts of social media on the legal marketing mix. We are planning a series of one-to-one 'qualitative' interviews, some of which we will publish on this blog. Early  in the New Year NLJ will be conducting a 'quantitative' survey on certain aspects as well, amongst their readers. If you have strong views on this subject, or interesting stories to tell, or for any other reason would like to take part in this study, do please send me your contact details using the comment box below and we can start a conversation...

Image result for woman in lawI felt very privileged to be invited to attend the Women Leaders In Law conference on 8 November (thanks for the invite Catherine), not least because of the impressive line-up of speakers.  To name just two: Lord Neuberger provided the best example of a HeForShe moment that I have seen to date, tipping his hat to Supreme Court president Baroness Hale in explaining why there is no logical reason to think women are any less capable professionally than men; and Law Society president-elect Christina Blacklaws took the opportunity in her opening address to announce the launch of a new study aimed at achieving gender parity and equality in pay and partnership statistics in the legal profession (working with the Bar and Lexis Nexis too).  

The conference was hosted by Spark21, the charity that "celebrates, informs and inspires future generations of women" and that owns and manages the pioneering “First 100 Years of Women (2014-2019): Women in Law” campaign, marking 100 years since women have joined the profession.  

At the conference I was shocked to learn that the legal reason women were not allowed to enter the legal profession prior to 1919 was, according to case law, that they were not considered "persons" within the meaning of the Solicitors Act 1843 (Mr Justice Joyce's judgment in Bebb v The Law Society in 1913).  It was not until the Sex Disqualification Act was passed in 1919 that women were allowed to practise law.

We've come such a long way since then, we might think.  But have we really?  Looking at the persistent gender pay gap in the profession today and the high rates of attrition for female lawyers - women have made up over 50% of law graduate intakes since 1993, yet they account for only 27% of law firm partners - clearly Ms Blacklaws' study comes not a moment too soon.

Image result for christmas decorations in officeIt's that time of year again where every topic we are working on seems to have a Christmas theme.  "Legal reforms that every lawyer wants for Christmas.."  "The health & safety risks of staff plugging in their own non-Pat-tested Christmas decorations at works..". Even that old chestnut (roasting on an open fire) "The dangers of the office Christmas party".

Especially for the lawyers who read this blog, we have scoured this year's selection of Christmas-themed legal issues to bring you our personal favourite.  The prize for the best Bah Humbug! story so far has to go to the neighbour who took steps to force the family next door to turn off the 350,000-bulb Christmas decorations covering their house, despite the fact the display is used every year to raise money for a children's hospital.  The spectacular over-the-top display (see the pictures here) draws tens of thousands of visitors.  It is this in part that prompted the Scrooges next door to start a petition asking law enforcement agencies to do something about the "significant public safety and nuisance concerns" this raises.

No legal angle to this next story, but we just had to share this cute news snippet about the West Country publican who's turned his hostelry into a gingerbread house.  Click on the link to enjoy the pictures!

Monday, 2 October 2017

Murray Campbell

I can’t wait for the BFI London Film Festival to open on the South Bank this week (4-15 October). I’m hoping for hot tickets to a premiere or two and the chance to rub shoulders with stars on the red carpet, and to enjoy a little close-up glimpse of the glitz and the glamour of those celebrated people who inhabit the silver screen.  Ahhh.  Quite a contrast to the dry, serious world of law, I hear you say.  

But are you aware of the role that legal London often plays in some of our favourite films and TV shows?   Visiting clients in Lincoln’s Inn over the years I’ve often seen the big white and silver vans for film casts and crews parked up on the roads around Lincoln’s Inn Fields and wondered what they were about.  Being a film and TV fanatic, of course I made it my business to find out.  My friends at the Bar told me the Inns are often used as film locations because they are so perfect as period London backdrops.  In fact, I learned recently over a coffee with Murray Campbell, Member Services Director at Lincoln’s Inn and the man responsible for managing any filming around the Inn, (alongside a long list of other duties), that it’s the mix of old and new that makes the Inn such an efficient filming location.  Gothic, Palladian, Queen Anne, Tudor, Georgian and 20th century styles co-existing cheek by jowl, which makes it popular with the likes of Disney, Warner Brothers and Paramount and the like, as they can keep coming back to one familiar location for multiple sets.  

As we chat, Murray gives me the roll-call of film and TV productions that have filmed key scenes at the Inn.  The list is impressive: Judge John Deed and Silks you might have guessed would be on the list.  But did you know scenes from Guy Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes were filmed there? Also from Downton Abbey, Agatha Christie’s Poirot, About Time and Finding Neverland. … not to mention TheMuppets…Again movie!  And this year’s Wonder Woman, also The Children Act which was released only this month. 

“It does provide a small income stream for the Inn, which is helpful, but we have to balance that with the impact on members” Murray tells me.  “We only allow filming at weekends... and even then we keep it to a minimum and avoid weekends back to back, because we don’t want members’ lives to be disrupted by it.  But it is tremendous fun for anyone who gets involved.”  He then regales me with some choice anecdotes about Benedict Cumberbatch having to repeat a scene so many times over (jinxed with extras sneezing at the wrong moment, props being dropped by various cast members), that by the time it was a wrap Murray knew the lines of all the actors by heart; about Hercule Poirot staying in character between takes and wearing a special fat suit that meant he couldn’t sit down without the aid of a special contraption devised for the purpose; and about Robert Downey practising Tai Chi by the fountain in New Square first thing in the morning before cameras started rolling (I can’t think of anything else whenever I walk past now!)

I was fascinated to know more about Murray’s role. Is it all as glamorous as this?  “The filming is just a minor, albeit fun, aspect of my role.  The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn is like five businesses in one: it’s a mini university; it houses the best law library in the country; it runs several five-star kitchens; it is also a 0.5 billion pound estates business spread over some 11 acres, with a mix of residential as well as commercial tenants; all this needs to be maintained and staff and members need to be kept safe and secure.”  It’s a big job.  So much goes on behind the scenes.  Something to think about next time you are strolling through any of the inns.

You can see the full list of productions filmed at the Inn on the Lincoln’s Inn website here. Next time you’re at the cinema, watch out for backdrops you might recognise.

The fallout continues from PR giant Bell Pottinger's gob-smacking campaign to stir up racial tensions in South Africa as a deliberate strategy for a client. The agency is in administration after clients left in droves, including a number of law firms, and the talk now is all about the need for "better due diligence" when hiring PR firms. So expect an explosion in tick-box exercises....which unfortunately ignores the simple fact in the Bell Pottinger story that no amount of due diligence would have uncovered what this one team in the agency's South African operation were doing anyway. Regulatory lawyers tell me this is a classic: knee-jerk regulation in reaction to a scandal .... that wouldn't actually have prevented the scandal that inspired it!  Exactly what happened with the mammothly onerous Sarbanes-Oxley legislation brought in as a reaction to the Enron scandal, they say.

To my mind the more pertinent issue, as I told Times journalist Jonathan Ames, is that whilst big PR firms are often seen as a "safer" bet than small and niche, (no one gets fired for hiring IBM after all), and are celebrated as all-singing and all-dancing in terms of the range of services and geographies they can offer, as the Bell Pottinger disaster has shown they can be "all-contaminating" too. The problem is their sheer size, which means that perfectly good, ethical and able PR teams in one corner of the business can be sullied by association with rogue elements in another, in an entirely different part of the world and in a separate sector - even if they have had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with these troublesome campaigns or individuals.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing isn't it? If only we could learn the right lessons by it.

So it's SJ RIP. This was a sad piece of news that stopped us in our tracks: astonishing that such an excellent and respected magazine as Solicitors Journal, that has been a mainstay of the legal publishing world for over 150 years, should have to fold because of the challenges publishers face monetising good content in the digital age.

And in terms of good content, the quality doesn't get much better than SJ. That's why, as shocked and sad as we are to see our respected journalist friends there lose jobs, we know they will quickly be moving on to new, exciting roles elsewhere. They are a very talented bunch and we look forward to working with them in their new homes soon.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Alex Aldridge

Alex Aldridge Alex Aldridge has been working hard to harness the powerful force that Legal Cheek has become. Since he founded the site nearly six years ago from his flat in a Hackney tower block, it has developed from an irreverent and at times rather wild and chaotic legal news blog to become an online community of law students, trainees and junior lawyers with a massive social media following, four full-time employees and an office in London’s trendy Dalston. It’s not always easy to classify. News is still the central part of what Legal Cheek does, but it’s also now well known for careers advice, training contract and pupillage rankings and student events.

As it has grown, the tone has changed ... not least because Alex doesn’t write it any more, having moved over to focus full-time on the commercial side. These days the editorial part of the site is run by news editor Tom Connelly, 29, and features editor Katie King, just 23, with support from junior reporter Natalie Kaminski, also 23. “It’s legal journalism for millennials written and edited by millennials,” says Alex, now a veteran at 39.

For its readers, 60% of whom are law students, many of them undergraduates, Legal Cheek is often the only legal news source they know, with many having discovered it through friends sharing its news stories and memes on their Facebook feeds. This means it has become relied upon to be a trusted source of news and information about the legal profession. The response of the Legal Cheek team has been to focus on establishing the blog as a credible, officially verified reliable source of news, whilst at the same time making sure the “colour” of its news is just as vivid.  Alex, who has 12 years of experience as a journalist, writing for titles including The Times, The Guardian and Legal Week before he launched Legal Cheek, has worked hard to pass on the old media professionalism he learnt to his new editors. And to underline his establishment credentials, he has made sure to secure external verification of these high journalistic standards that he works to.  Legal Cheek is one of the few legal news outlets whose Twitter feed carries the "blue verified" badge.  This is a big deal and hard to achieve, signifying that the account is of public interest.  The blog itself is also listed as a verified Google news publisher and is regularly cited in the national press ... most recently with two name-checks in two weeks in The Spectator.  And of course the hiring of Joshua Rozenberg as a regular columnist was a big step in underscoring the blog’s establishment credentials.  “Yes we still go out on a limb on many stories.  This is what Legal Cheek is all about”, Alex tells me, “But the point is we are very very sure of our facts when we do, so people can trust what we publish”.  Clever man. 

“A good example”, he tells me, “was the story we ran at the time KWM was going into administration.  We knew that a number of City firms were clubbing together to make sure existing KWM trainees would all be looked after.  The editors were extremely confident of their source and checked all their facts carefully, so we ran the story when nobody else did.  Then on publication, we experienced a backlash; trainees were nervous and in some cases sceptical that they would be saved.  But we stood our ground and we didn’t buckle, because we knew our source was watertight.  Within two weeks all trainees had been reassigned thanks to this rescue package from the City firms and our story was vindicated. Then the traditional publications followed with their versions of the story.” 

Given Legal Cheek is more geared to social media than any other legal news outlet, (Facebook being its main distribution channel, alongside Google), and given Alex is so OCD about faithful reporting, I thought he would be the perfect person to ask about the new phenomenon of "FakeNews".  Here’s what he had to say:

“The term Fake News is used to apply to many different scenarios, and it suits some protagonists to confuse them”, he told me.  “The original meaning stems from dubious propaganda activity at the time of the US election and the rise of Trump: the dissemination of deliberately inaccurate information from dedicated fake news sites, largely in Eastern Europe, designed to mislead low-IQ audiences (eg some voters) who don’t have the wherewithal to question what’s being fed to them.

“However, since then, the term Fake News has also been commandeered and misused by all sorts of people to cast aspersions on perfectly dependable news sources.  Indeed the term first broke into the mainstream (rather than being a discussion point for media insiders) when Trump himself turned the tables at his first press conference as President-elect, and used the term to vilify Jim Acosta from CNN because he didn’t like his line of questioning.  We’ve also seen the YouTube video: "You are fake news!" he proclaims, while ignoring the journalist’s question.

“But the term has also been used by the mainstream media establishment to undermine public trust in newer, more social news sources, such as Buzzfeed and so forth.  It suits some traditional news organisations to push out a message of “come to our trusted brand”, suggesting that their long-established “pedigree” means their news coverage is by definition more reliable.  But this belies the fact that many of the new internet news outlets are staffed to the hilt with classically trained journalists, with long career pedigrees from exactly those publications that like to look down their noses at the hip new contenders. These journalists continue to work to the same high standards of faithful reporting and journalist ethics at their trendy new homes.”  

We have direct experience of what Alex is talking about here: our friends at Buzzfeed are a classic example: numerous ex-broadsheet journalists, (a previous assistant editor at the Sunday Times to name just one), now pushing out stories on social platforms, but still working to the same strict journalist codes they always have. 

And as for Legal Cheek, however it develops in the future, it’s reassuring to learn that although its stories are often challenging, and may even occasionally offend, we never have to worry that they’re fake. 

Image result for amazon droneSo how long before my Amazon delivery is brought to me by drone? The alarm caused by the drone near Gatwick airport at the weekend, which forced a runway to close and delayed flights, just serves to highlight the need for regulation to catch up with how mainstream this new technology has become. You can buy drones on the high street now (and on Amazon too of course), for as cheap as 20 or 30 pounds.

So are we afraid of the future we are headed towards, where our lives are taken over by robots? If you want some reassurance, you might find some comfort in this piece earlier this year on the World Economic Forum website by Rutger Bregman, journalist and author of Utopia for Realists.  Entitled "A growing number of people think their job is useless. Time to rethink the meaning of work", the article expounds Bregman's view that robots taking over our jobs is a good thing ... if we only adjust how we look at work and life.  As he puts it: "jobs are for robots and life is for people".  It's thought provoking stuff...

The sad news of the passing of the creator of Paddington Bear was actually most uplifting. News reports of Michael Bond's death at the ripe old age of 91 reminded us that the central message of this much-loved tale is one of kindness, decency and tolerance ... and of opening arms to welcome a refugee.  Relevant today more than ever. 

For all the chaos Paddington creates around him, he remains faultlessly polite and kind. As fellow author Michael Morpurgo said in the Guardian, Paddington "reflects the best of us: we all get into scrapes, and through his innocence and kindness he relates to everyone."

It's wonderful when you think of it, that the appeal of this story about a WW2 refugee has endured so long and spread so wide: 30 million copies sold worldwide in 30 different languages.  A tale of kindness to refugees we would all do well to remember. And definitely one of the better narratives in children's literature to come out of the 1950s.

I for one will be giving the bronze statue of this loveable bear at Paddington station a daily wave as I walk past on my commute.  Goodbye Mr Bond.  And Thank You.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Peter Ashford

It’s always such a pleasure catching up with old friends, especially when they're as interesting company as Peter AshfordPeter and I worked together years ago when he was head of commercial dispute resolution at Cripps (then Cripps Harries Hall).  He is now Head of International Arbitration at Fox Williams. He specialises in international trade, joint venture and commercial contract disputes and has a leading reputation in alternative dispute resolution, particularly arbitration, being the author of not one but two three of the leading texts on the subject: Juris Publishing’s Handbook on International Commercial Arbitration and Cambridge University Press’s IBA Rules on Taking Evidence in International Arbitration and IBA Guidelines on Party Representation in International Arbitration. He sits regularly as an arbitrator.

Peter is one of the people in my career who has taught me the most about the philosophy, principles and practical mechanics of alternative dispute resolution.  You’ll see from the extracts of our conversation below how effortlessly he brings complex topics to colourful life, making them easy to understand; if he hadn’t become a market-leading commercial practitioner he could have had a highly successful career as a teacher I’m sure.

We reconnected recently after a gap of a few years, on the occasion of his latest book launch, for the Party Representation book.   I was keen to know why he had chosen to gravitate more and more towards a specialisation in arbitration as his career progressed, so we agreed to meet over lunch soon after to chat.  His answer surprised me:  “Arbitration gives you so much more scope to be creative.”  Really?  What did he mean by this?  “You are far less constricted by rigid procedural rules compared to court litigation, which means you have the space and the licence to be imaginative about how you resolve a dispute.  You are freer to think about what’s really at the heart of the issue between the parties; how best to get to the bottom of the problem; what you really need to decide the issues; how to bring the parties to a more similar perspective on the process for the issue at hand.  Also once you reach resolution, the decision of the arbitrator is generally final – there is no appeal – so the parties can put the dispute behind them and move on.  In commercial real life that can be important, especially when the parties fighting have (and want) an ongoing commercial relationship.”

“Perhaps a helpful way to think about this is to consider a dispute involving perishable goods.  Let’s say a cargo of oranges, shipped from South Africa to the UK.  The buyer claims they were sour by the time they arrived at the dock.  The seller denies this.  Take this issue through the traditional courts and by the time you’ve gone through all the procedural steps of a very long-winded process to get to the first judicial pronouncement, the oranges themselves have long since perished.  The argument quickly becomes academic.  In contrast, take the dispute to arbitration and the arbitrators have the freedom to say to the parties ‘Why don’t we all just go down to the docks this afternoon, crack open a crate of those oranges, taste them for ourselves and discuss together, with the goods in front of us, how sour they are, whether all of them have been affected or only some, and make a decision on the spot on quality and what the or level of compensation would be'.”  

There is a place for the rigour
s of traditional court litigation he tells me: “Arbitration and mediation are not panaceas for all disputes.  Sometimes that rigid procedure the Courts bring is just what’s needed, for example if a party wants to set a precedent for a queue of similar disputes they know are waiting in the wings or there are complex fraud allegations where the full machinery of the Courts to aid investigation is useful. Also, the immutable consistency of the English court system is one of the biggest pulls for the many super-wealthy foreign litigants we now regularly see in the London commercial courts, along with the transparency of the system (which make it easy for a foreigner to navigate) and our judiciary’s reputation for being one of the least corrupt in the world.  And sometimes it’s important to play hardball rather than take a conciliatory approach, so a tough fight in court does the job best.  It’s horses for courses – and a judgement call at the end of the day as to which approach is best although the choice of litigation or arbitration is generally taken a long time before in the underlying contract when the nature of the dispute that might emerge is unknown”

See what I mean?  He explains it all so simply.  Isn’t that so often the way with those who are right at the very top of their chosen profession?

It was a most interesting discussion over lunch. What's more, for someone whose entire livelihood is about conflict, he is one of the most affable, engaging and amusing people you will ever come across in the profession - and I've known him for years, in a work as well as a lunch context. Ironic? Maybe not. Perhaps it's the whole reason he's so excellent at conflict resolution!
Don’t get me started on the Trump Administration’s “Alternative Facts” PR regime. It’s been interesting talking to our lawyer friends about this one, paid as they are to present only one side of an argument on behalf of clients. Are “alternative facts” just a part of life as a grown up?  Are they just an unpleasant norm in business and politics?  Their answer?  Unilaterally, a resounding “No!”. @JA_Button from @SA_Law put it best when she tweeted this simple reply: “often two (or more) sides to a story but facts are facts.”

The similarity between the Trump administration’s Alternative Facts” and George Orwell’s idea of the mutability of the past expounded so well in his iconic dystopian novel 1984, is chilling. Even more so when you learn this book, and its concepts of Double Think and Big Brother were all "inspired" by Hitler’s WWII propaganda machine. Perhaps it’s not so surprising then, that sales of 1984 spiked after Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s first used the phrase “Alternative Facts”.  That week 1984 rocketed to No 6 on Amazon’s best-selling list.

And it’s not just Alternative facts, but "Fake News" that we have to contend with these days: the worrying new trend for websites that select, and sometimes entirely make up, stories purely for their value as “click bait” and the advertising this attracts. As I write this, yet another story is breaking about the problem of big brands such as Mercedes and Waitrose inadvertently funding fake news, their adverts appearing right next to highly dubious, even offensive, content.  The problem is the way current algorithms for placing online adverts work, targeting platforms with the highest click-rates and, as The Times Alexi Mostrous puts it, “the internet’s inability to prioritise fact over fiction”. (You can read his full article here if you have a subscription to The Times)

There is good news though: Parliament (The Culture, Media & Sport Committee) is launching an inquiry to address the growing problem of fake news. Amongst other things the inquiry will explore what counts as 'fake news'; where the boundary is between biased but legitimate commentary, versus propaganda and lies; the impact fake news has on the public’s understanding of the world; the extent to which the way advertising is sold has encouraged the growth of fake news, eg through the pull of fake news to attract more hits to websites; the practicalities and ethics of using computer-generated algorithms to root out fake news from genuine reporting and whether/how this amounts to censorship.  If you’re interested, you have until 3 March to make your views known