Why Quality Legal Insights Take Precedence in Today’s Media Landscape with Zack Needles, Editor-in-Chief of Law.com
In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Zack Needles, Editor-in-Chief of Law.com, to discuss how legal journalism can prepare law firms for emerging trends that could have a major impact on the industry.
Zack, why don’t you introduce yourself and tell everyone about what you do at ALM?
I am the editor-in-chief of litigation and Law.com, so I oversee our overarching brand that encompasses all of our other legal brands. On top of that, I also oversee the litigation reporting team and the editorial team. All of our reporting that we do that has to do with core cases, judges, any type of litigation, I oversee that.
What got you into journalism in the first place?
Honestly, it was just something that I felt like I was good at, so I figured I might as well go with it. I knew I could write. I didn’t catch the journalism bug per se, in terms of investigative work and things like that, until I started working at The Legal Intelligencer, which is one of our brands, in 2008. That’s when I got into the actual journalism aspect of it.
Gina Rubel: So 2008, I’ve known you that long.
Zack Needles: Yeah, that long ago. You were the first person that my boss, Hank Grezlak, who now works with you, introduced me to. It’s pretty crazy that you were my first contact when I became a reporter.
Gina Rubel: That’s fantastic. I’ve been doing this a long time and one of the things I love for our listeners to hear is the journalism perspective, the reporter perspective, the editor perspective, as I’m sure you can guess, there are pressures on the in-house PR teams and the comms teams and for those of us who support those teams. I’m going to ask you some fun questions and some more gritty questions.
What do you enjoy most when it comes to having a story shared with you? What do you want to dig in on?
What I love is when someone identifies a new problem that they’re facing – something that we haven’t heard about before or a new angle to a new problem. Something that we can honestly try to help them solve by group-sourcing it and talking to other lawyers or legal professionals who do something similar to what that person does and try to figure out how they are approaching this issue. There have been a ton of different things that I’ve written about over the years. I gravitated toward the thought leadership aspect of what we do, and a lot of that is problem-solving. That’s what I like: when someone comes to us and says this is a new issue that we’re facing or maybe a new opportunity too. It doesn’t always have to be negative, just something new. It’s like, “Wow, I didn’t realize that was a thing. Now we know it is and we want to go out and explore it.”
Gina Rubel: On the litigation side – if you’re making a decision with your team and you’re trying to decide, “Okay, we’ve got these three pieces of litigation, but we only have room for one in terms of time today” because we’re not really talking about print anymore. Room is a little bit different. It’s more about bandwidth, right?
Zack Needles: Exactly. That’s a great question. That’s something that we talk about all the time. Back in the day, if it was a case with an interesting set of facts, maybe something kind of unique and interesting and funny, we say, “Okay, that people want to read about that.” That doesn’t really cut it for us anymore. What we want is something that’s going to be impactful to the entire ecosystem, or at least some segment of the ecosystem. What that means is if it’s a case being filed, we want it to be something that potentially portends some kind of a trend that could happen that people other than the people who are directly involved in that one case are going to care about for some reason, or should know about when you’re horizon scanning and you’re thinking, “Oh boy, here’s one or two of these cases. We’re going to see a ton more.”
The example that I always use with my team is the business interruption litigation that came out of COVID-19. If we had been fortunate enough to just see the very first one of those cases, that would have been an easy one for us to extrapolate and say, “Okay, you’re going to see tens of thousands of these cases because they’re highly replicable. They’re based on insurance policy language, which tends to be boilerplate in a lot of cases, so there are going to be a million companies that are dealing with the same exact issue.”
That’s a pretty extreme example, but we’re looking for things like that to have some kind of broader ripple effect. If you’ve got three cases and two of them are factually interesting but don’t have a whole lot of broader impact, and then you have a third one that does have some kind of broader impact, we’re going with that third one every time.
You just used a term of art that we’ve heard a lot here at Legalweek called horizon scanning. I don’t think all of our listeners are going to know what that means. Can you explain that a little bit?
What we hear from outside counsel all the time is that they’re being called upon by their clients and certainly the in-house legal departments too by the companies that they work for – it’s not enough to just solve the problems that are in front of us. It’s also what problems are potentially coming down the pike.
You’re looking out at the horizon, and you’re trying to figure out what opportunities are out there that maybe not everyone knows about yet and what potential challenges are coming. You want to try to mitigate those risks as much as you can, or at least be prepared for the possibility, or maybe the inevitability that they’re going to happen.
Some negative thing that you may think is coming may never come to fruition but it’s better safe than sorry. We take that same approach in what we do for our readers.
We are trying to identify as much as we can, “Hey this is something you should know about.” We talked a lot about how a full-blown trend is not as interesting to us as a potential trend, something that is starting to bubble at the surface, because once it’s already become a full-blown trend, it’s a trend for a reason. Everybody knows about it. We want to be able to say, “Look, this could be happening. You may actually be able to head this off at the pass now if you can get in front of it. If you can’t, then at the very least you can be prepared for when the storm comes, and if the storm never comes, then great.”
Gina Rubel: I want to take that one step further. A big part of the conversation here at Legalweek has been about generative AI. I was one of the speakers at the workshop on the first day. A year ago we were having the same conversations, but it was like, “Holy Hannah, there’s this new thing out called Gen AI,” but it’s proliferated and it’s exploded.
One of the things that Patrick Fuller talked about this morning in the state of the industry was using generative AI for horizon scanning. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about what that means and how? Because clients are going to be expecting law firms to do this.
I definitely don’t profess to be an expert. We’ve been podcasting ourselves the entire time we’ve been here, and I think we’ve gotten through about 20 of the 23 podcasts that we have set up and every single person has wanted to talk about generative AI. It’s been interesting because last year people didn’t know what it was. They were excited about it as the year went on. Then they were afraid of it because there were these horror stories about hallucinations and case citations of cases that didn’t exist and all that stuff.
Now we’re in a spot where we’re talking about the actual application of it. People are getting down to brass tacks about how you can use it. Clients want law firms to use this. Things that make law firms more efficient are sometimes hard to sell to law firms, but now clients want them to use this for horizon scanning.
I have to confess I don’t know the ins and outs of how exactly that would work, but what I can tell you from everybody that I’ve been talking to is that the best application of generative AI is if you have a data set that you know is airtight. It’s not the open Internet, and there’s not all this possible noise coming in. If you have a data set that you know is airtight, you can save a lot of time and do a lot more analysis than a human being could do in any reasonable length of time with AI and modeling all of these different possible risk scenarios. You can go through all the cases. Let’s say that you’ve had over 20 years to figure out, how did those cases come out? How might those cases come out in the future? How did this court rule in X type of case? What did we argue in these cases and how many times was that successful?
I think that’s what AI can be used for. If you know that you have a clean data set and you’re not going to be getting a lot of hallucinations, then you can start modeling potential scenarios, walking through the paces, and seeing where you are likely to end up.
That’s what we’re talking about with horizon scanning in general – what might happen, how do we get there, or how do we go in a different direction? I can do that however many times you want at the speed of light compared to what associates could do.
Gina Rubel: It’s really no different than what I do at Furia Rubel when it comes to crisis communications and planning, incident response planning, and risk management. Risk management is a big part of litigation, but it’s a big part of looking at what could be happening down the road. It’s not just for law firms, but also corporations, but it is from a litigation perspective. Horizon scanning is scenario planning.
The language is changing, but I think why I bring it back there is because for those who are not comfortable with change, it’s not really change. We’re looking at the same maps. We’re just taking different directions. Perhaps we’re putting more refined gas in the car. But it’s not new and I think that’s really what I want our listeners to understand. These technologies, while they may be changing the way we practice law, are not changing the value of the services that we’re delivering.
Zack Needles: That’s been another huge takeaway from all these conversations I’ve been having here. It’s a tool. Several different companies have said to us, “Look, we called it an AI assistant for a reason, because it’s supposed to assist you in doing what you do best as a lawyer. It’s not supposed to replace you.” I think people are very sensitive to that idea, but it’s exactly what you said. We’re not looking to do anything new. We’re just looking at the tools that can help us do it more efficiently, faster with better accuracy.
Everybody is very mindful of that, that these are new tools to do something that lawyers have always wanted to do and hopefully to free them up to do even more of what they’re good at, which is analyzing the data and figuring out how best to apply it to each client and that client’s industry, rather than spending a lot of time doing research.
Gina Rubel: I love it, and this is one of my favorite conferences. I try to be here every year because there’s so much to learn and so many brilliant people. You’ve been in legal reporting and journalism for quite some time now, so I’m going to ask you more gritty questions.
What gets under your skin when it comes to being pitched stories?
I was talking earlier about how we’re looking not just for what happened, but what it means or what might happen – also why people other than the folks who are specifically involved in that matter or that situation would care about it. Pitches come to us without the proper context. I think the best way to pitch, especially because of our focus, is to say, “Look, this is what this means. This is why your reader should care. This is why you guys should care about it.” We need that because what we found in our own work is that if we don’t explain to our readers why they should care, they’re just going to keep scrolling by because there’s so much noise out there.
There’s so much competition. They’re getting so much information from so many different sources that if we don’t give them a reason to stop and say, “If I don’t read this, then I’m going to be at a competitive disadvantage,” then they’re not going to stop because they’ve got too much else going on. If you want to cut through the noise as a PR person interacting with the media, you have to provide some of that context too. Not that you have to write the whole story for us, but if you can say, “Okay, my client won this case. Great for my client.” We all understand that the client wants the news out there that they want, but we’re going to be much more interested if you can explain why that victory is important for the broader set of those types of cases or what other companies who are in a similar situation can learn from that process.
I get it. I know that people sometimes have to pitch things that they’re being pressured to pitch, and that’s fine. I don’t hold it against anybody, but I think that’s a great thing to keep in mind. It’s easier said than done sometimes depending on what the news is, but if you can explain to us why we should care and our readers should care, we’re going to take a second look at that for sure.
What one piece of advice would you give about what’s coming down the pike as it relates to communicating with the media?
It depends on the media outlet. For us, the context is so important. For others, not just in the legal space but in any space, there are organizations that just want every piece of news they can get their hands on. It’s a volume business, and whatever you pitched them, they’re going to put it up there. They’re going to find a way. For us, it is about the subscription model – if somebody’s paying for this, why should they continue to pay for this? What are they getting from this information that’s helping them do a better job, advance their career, make more money, or seal that deal?
Coming down the pike, I have to imagine more organizations are going to be looking at that because like I said, there are a million places where you can get the news as a lawyer. Even if you practice in those very niche practices, there are probably at least three or four alerts and newsletters that you can get that are going to tell you about the most recent cases. What you need is somebody to explain to you this case matters, this case doesn’t matter. This case is unique in some way, and that’s what we try to do. The more the person pitching that content can help us with that, that’s key. I have to imagine that other organizations are going to feel that way too.
When is your next flash mob in Grand Central Station?
I’m scheduled to leave today, so I might have to get one going before I hop on the train.
Zack Needles: Charles Garner is the producer, and he wrote that script.
Gina Rubel: They did a little piece of Zack being in the flash mob and it was just great entertainment and a lot of fun. I want to commend you for bringing the personality to all of it and having fun with things and lightening it because there are so many big conversations happening here, many of which are way above my head, particularly some of the real technical conversations happening. But it’s been a lot of fun.
Zack Needles: We have an absolutely amazing newsroom, and everybody is rowing in the same direction. Our vision is to make sure that it’s not just the news, but it’s the context on top of the news that helps you. “News you can use” is the cliché, but it’s about how you take that news and apply it to your career or your business.
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