Industry Expert View: John Hyde

John Hyde is deputy news editor of The Law Society Gazette. Here, he talks about how journalism has changed, why legal reporting is more important than ever, and the do’s and don’ts for law firms when it comes to pitching a story.

In some ways journalism is exactly the same as it was when I entered the profession 20 years ago. People want interesting stories that are relevant to them, they want accuracy, and they want to be entertained. In that respect the job has not changed. People still rightly demand that what they read is not simply regurgitating a press release. 

What has changed completely is the way news is consumed and the demands from readers. When I started at the Gazette in 2011 there was barely a website and reporters would tend to file three or four stories a week. Now I would file that number every day, and sometimes more. Readers consume news at all times of the day and night, and we have to be responsive to that, and to ensure they are fully informed. I remember 10 years ago, if someone said something newsworthy at a legal conference, for example, you could sit on that story for a day or even longer. Now you would have it online within an hour. Legal journalism is not immune to these pressures – indeed the competition to be ‘first’ to a story is as intense in legal journalism as anywhere. 

The national media’s lukewarm approach to legal reporting is baffling to me. With issues such as Brexit, immigration and scandals such as the Post Office and Grenfell, knowledge of the law and the ability to analyse it is more important than ever. Yet titles such as the Guardian and Telegraph have cut their specialist reporters and appear to rely on journalists who appear not to understand the law and legal sector. That is a great shame. At the recent Lord Chief Justice’s annual press conference there were more press officers than reporters, and it appears that news editors have decided this is an area they no longer need to invest in. 

There are some brilliant specialist legal titles, but perhaps none that have the general scope or remit to cover the industry overall. We are very fortunate at the Gazette that we are given a relatively free rein to cover all aspects of the law. We see the online figures and there is no question of a substantial and growing interest in reading about the legal sector. 

The biggest issue facing law firms is the same as it has ever been: they are nothing without their people. They rely on their lawyers to stay loyal, maintain their reputation and bring in work. If they lose staff to a rival, suffer a reputational crisis or miss out on a major piece of work, they flounder.  

The challenges are different depending on the size of firm and the sector they work in. Big City firms must see off the challenge of American rivals and perhaps also the Big Four accountancy firms who can easily out-muscle them. Mid-sized firms are being squeezed by rising costs and an increasingly wary lending sector. The high street firms must cope with rapid fluctuations in insurance costs and business rates. Firms specialising in personal injury, conveyancing and commercial property may all struggle with legislative and economic change, and the evidence of the 2008 recession was that a handful of decent-sized firms will collapse – albeit perhaps not for a few years after. 

Some issues are unprecedented. I’m still not sure firms have worked out the best way to integrate staff back into the office and there will be several finance directors walking around relatively empty buildings wondering why they are paying so much in building costs. 

For all the issues, the market is incredibly resilient. Previous predictions of a massively contracted legal market have been way off the mark, and firm numbers have stayed fairly consistent, while the number of solicitors has continued to surge. There will be consolidation of the market and some firms will falter, but the legal sector – to paraphrase Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park – finds a way. The industry will be more automated and process-driven, but there will always be a place for a personal, reliable service.  Clients will be ever more savvy and probably more wary of paying such high costs in future, but I suspect the profession itself will still look and operate in a similar way to now. 

I get my stories through a mixture of good contacts, word of mouth, conferences, social media, and press releases (we have a rule at the Gazette that no press release can ever be reported on without us sending at least one follow-up question). When I started, we picked up stories through people leaving notices or notes in public places such as a church or leisure centre, and I would drive round once a week and pick them up. Twitter and LinkedIn are just more efficient versions of that. The best stories will come from tip-offs, but they tend to only come through cultivating contacts and meeting people to get their trust. It’s a long process but rewarding.  

There is also a place for sheer doggedness and hard work. I put in lots of freedom of information requests and pore over minutes of meetings or judgments – that is time-consuming, but you sometimes find nuggets of information. Very few other journalists are as painstaking and willing to look through documents which might seem unworthy of their time.  

The best way to pitch is to research your audience and not waste their time. I get endless press releases – no doubt prepared at great cost to firms – about lateral hires or successful deals, none of which I write about. Be responsive to what is happening in the news and try to work out what we’re writing about on any given day and work on that basis.  

There really is no excuse for not having a nominated person to liaise with the press. When negative stories are breaking, it is not enough to have a generic press@xxx email address – websites of all sizes should make clear that if you need a comment from a firm, there is a nominated person who will field that query. Ignoring the media or making it impossible for us to contact you will not make the story go away.


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