By Kevin O'Keefe

Martindale-Hubbell the next General Motors?

I’ve been asked that question twice in the last few days. Once on Twitter and then again in a call with a large law firm based in the Midwest.

I’d hate to see a legacy legal directory like Martindale-Hubbell become a relic, but you have to wonder if the company’s business model of heavy charges for lawyer directory listings can last in the days of Web 2.0 and entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship generating upstarts like LinkedIn, AVVO, and LexBlog. And lawyers and law firms becoming entrepreneurs in growing their businesses via cost effective client development tools.

I’ll never forget the young lawyer I met in Wisconsin this fall who, while telling a group what he had done to get business clients, sheepishly apologized for not having even heard of Martindale-Hubbell until after having been out practicing law. He got his first business clients via a combination of Craigslist, AVVO, and a blog. He followed it up with getting five business clients in six weeks via Twitter.

I can hear Martindale’s response. That’s for low level lawyers, not for the likes of large law firms buying Martindale listings for tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. And those aren’t trusted environments where good lawyers can afford to be.

Well, some of those business clients he got associates and junior partners at large downtown Milwaukee law firms would love to have gotten. And for trusted environments? As that young lawyer told me, growing businesses are participating in online environments like Twitter and LinkedIn and are reading blogs. Business owners of those companies are looking for innovative ‘go getting’ lawyers who act like them and go where they go.

Martindale is going to reach a tipping point with the launch of Martindale-Hubbell Connected. Billed as a social networking community, it’s intended to connect corporate counsel with law firms. The price for participation is continuing to pay for your firm’s Martindale subscription.

I hope for Martindale’s sake Martindale-Hubbell Connected works. But I don’t see it shooting out of the blocks with a lot of momentum.

  • It’s a gated community closed to businesses selected by Martindale and law firms who pay. The net today is all about being open. The more users one gets to participate, the more relevant and valuable you are to users. Martindale’s view that it protects lawyers and corporate counsel from solicitation, perhaps partially true, has not prevented LinkedIn from attracting hundreds of thousands of practicing lawyers and corporate counsel. Every major law firm in the country has a LinkedIn profile providing detailed demographic information. Plus scaring law firms from Internet solutions that law firms are flocking to in droves is not a lasting marketing strategy.
  • MH Connected has been used by selected test law firms and touted by Martindale since last summer. LinkedIn has added about sixteen valuable features in that time. If Martindale does not get this thing launched soon, LinkedIn will have lapped it again.
  • In the days of open discussion and testing of new products on the net, Martindale will not permit new users to test Connected. Though I have been offered the opportunity for a demo, and will get one in another week, I filled out the form to get a test drive as the site offered a few months ago. Though a form response said I’d be hearing back right away, I heard nothing. Sure, I am a competitor (very, very small), but I am vocal commentator on Internet marketing solutions. Innovative companies, as is the way with Web 2.0, seek and welcome my commentary. Generating discussion with heavy Internet users results in product improvements. Feedback from law firms relying heavily on Martindale for client development seems the height of folly.
  • Charging law firms tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars to participate in MH Connected seems like a business model of olden days. I told a large law firm I was talking with today that MH Connected may prove to be pretty good for law firms. Their response? ‘But Martindale-Hubbell costs so much and we’re not sure it’s worth it anymore, Martindale feels like a dinosaur.’
  • Martindale has not had an active presence in Web 2.0. None of their Execs nor product heads participate in Internet discussion via blogs or other social networking in any meaningful way. It’s an open question whether company leadership understands innovative Internet based client development.

It’s not that long ago that GM was churning out SUV’s and big sedans 24 hours a day at plants in Midwestern states. But outmoded products, heavy costs, and an economy in crisis caught up with them.

Now Martindale is facing many law firms cutting bonuses, laying off staff, and trimming expenditures. And Martindale is doing so with services that cost a lot, with products and solutions law firms are questioning the value of, and with a business model that is contra to that being deployed by companies who get Web 2.0 and social networking.

Can Martindale make it in the long run? I hope so for the sake of the wonderful people who work there. But it’s going to take some quick innovative thinking. I don’t think survival based on a bailout from large law firms in the form of huge subscription rates is in the cards.

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