Making Law Better By Looking Outside of Law—Video Changed the Radio Star

By Bob Glaves | CBF Executive Director

Those of us of a certain age who grew up with our home entertainment options largely limited to radio and a handful of network and local TV stations will remember when MTV arrived on the scene in 1981 and wowed us with this new-aged video from the Buggles.

While that song still belongs on any good list of one hit wonders, the Buggles were just as wrong that music video would be the end of radio as the many pundits who said that television would do the same several decades earlier. But being able to watch videos on MTV fundamentally changed the music landscape, and it was one of the key markers on the path to the multi-channel entertainment world we now all take for granted and have come to rely on more than ever during the pandemic lockdown.

And that makes music, movies, and the media a fitting next stop in my 2020 Resolution for the Legal Profession series on how we can learn from our counterparts in other professions and industries to make law better. Because with just a few notable exceptions, our legal profession and larger justice system are still operating with a one-channel business model in today’s multi-channel world, and it’s no wonder that is not working very well for the average person with a legal problem.

The Music Evolution

From those pre-MTV days when radio, albums or cassettes, and the gone-and-missed-by-few 8 track player were the totality of the home music scene, we have so many options to get our music fix today that it is hard to keep track of them all. 

We can watch videos online with YouTube, binge on our favorite artist on Sirius XM (as I am with E Street Radio as I type this), make our own modern mixtapes through iTunes or Spotify, watch live shows on Facebook Live, or stream music through a number of outlets, to name just a few. There are free, ad-supported options and premium plans that take out the ads and offer on-demand access. It’s like having the best jukebox you ever saw in your whole life at your fingertips any time.

Radio didn’t go away in all of this, but it looks a lot different than when it was the only game in town. My longtime favorite WXRT is still going strong, in large part because it is also available online, has an active social media presence, and often hosts video performances on other platforms.

And even with all these other options, CDs are still out there as an option for buying and listening to music, and vinyl records have made a huge comeback in recent years as music aficionados appreciate the better sound they provide.

Movies in the Modern Age

Like radio and albums were for music, movie theaters once were the only game in town for seeing new movies. First through VHS and later through DVDs, movies became much more widely available for home viewing after their initial run, and it is not long ago that Blockbuster was one of the most iconic American brands. Now of course there is Netflix, on-demand cable, and many other streaming options where first run movies are often available at the same time as they are released in theaters, and sometimes even skip the theaters altogether.

To compete in this new environment, movie theaters have adapted to make it much more of an all-around experience to see a movie there. Gone are the days when it would take days after going to the theater to get rid of the strange sticky substance on the bottom of your shoes. When we’re all allowed to safely gather in groups, the movies are an experience that again will be high on many people’s lists.

The Changing News Media Landscape

Whole books have been written about the evolving news media landscape, and there is no doubt it has been a wrenching transition for most newspapers and other traditional news outlets. I only want to touch on the issue briefly here, and recommend becoming a member of the Columbia Journalism Review if you are interested in getting more involved with that critical issue.

As with music and the movies, what we’ve seen with news is that content is king. What we once could only find in a print newspaper or through TV and radio news now comes through podcasts, websites, blogs, and social media. People still want good, reliable information though, especially in a time like we are in now where being well-informed has become a life and death issue.

The traditional business model for print newspapers relied heavily on print advertising, and when print had a captive audience, that worked great. Today, the business model is necessarily evolving, with a much higher premium on subscriptions and other sources of revenue (including donations) for those who are surviving and thriving in the modern era.

Lessons for Law

Tracing the evolution of the legal profession and justice system since the Buggles MTV debut back in 1981, let’s just say it looks quite a bit different than what we’ve seen in music, movies, and the media.

The overall lesson from these industries is there is a much broader range of business models and a lot more innovation, choice, and accessibility for consumers than what we see in law. The common thread in each industry was that they all have adapted from the time to when they were only game in town to the modern multi-channel world. The quality of the content, the convenience, and the positive consumer experience are the enduring value the “original players” offer their customers. And those who are surviving and thriving today are continually finding new or better ways to deliver their content and services.

Just like video did not actually kill the radio star, new technologies and business models won’t kill the traditional practice of law or court process. But our traditional one-channel business model for both legal services (partnering with other lawyers to deliver services in person to one client at a time) and the courts (hearing all court matters in person with essentially the same process) won’t cut it on its own in this multi-channel world.

There is not a one-size-fits-all solution here. We need to find ways to deliver our services across multiple platforms (like radio and the news media) or be really good at one aspect of traditional law and double down on that niche (like the movie theaters), and we need to responsibly make room for the other players who in many instances can better deliver information or services (like the streaming services).

The CBA/CBF Task Force on the Sustainable Practice of Law & Innovation has been hard at work the past few months and will soon propose a series of reforms in our Rules of Professional Conduct to modernize the way we deliver services and do business in law to address these issues. And the innovative and forward-thinking Strategic Agenda for the Illinois Judicial Branch adopted by the Illinois Supreme Court last fall has become even more critical as the pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of our current system.

We can do this, but as the current crisis has laid bare, it will require new approaches and there is no time to waste.