We spoke with Alex Aldridge, founder and editor of Legal Cheek, on his entrepreneurial journey and the future of law, legal tech and legal content.
You were probably one of the first – if not the first – startups in the legal space in the UK. Tell us a little bit about (when and) why you started Legal Cheek.
I think it’s fair to say that Legal Cheek was one of the first law-related startups to harness the energy and optimism of the early Shoreditch tech scene. Certainly the Occupy movement, which provided some of the spark for what is now the Silicon Roundabout, was an important theme in the early days of the site. But there were many newly formed companies in the legal space that came before us – for example, in legal publishing Legal Futures, The Justice Gap and All About Law all started several years before Legal Cheek. And the legal blogging scene, which I’d been a part of as a writer, commenter and reader, was going several years before them. I remember going to one of the first legal blogging conferences in 2007, and those bloggers then thought that I was really late to the party when I started Legal Cheek in 2011!
As for why I started it – I was working for the Guardian and Above the Law at the time, and the Guardian decided to wind down its law section and I couldn’t persuade Above the Law to expand into the UK, so I found myself at a real dead end. The only option I could see in order to do the sort of journalism that I wanted to do was to go on my own.
What was the hardest thing about getting off the ground? (Or was it smooth sailing all the way?!)
It’s been a tough experience at times, and lonely sometimes in the early days, but always rewarding and sometimes a lot of fun. The most difficult thing initially was finding stories. You need great stories to make a name for yourself – and they’re hard to find. As time has gone on, the challenge has been delegating and letting go of certain things as I’ve built up the business.
LC has a relatively informal approach. Has that helped or hindered your brand in a conservative sector like the law?
It’s helping us at the moment, because law has been embracing its informal side in recent years. It may hinder us in the future if the mood changes!
Is your target demographic lawyers and aspiring lawyers, or do you also write for people who aren’t already involved in the law, but want to know more about it?
Our target demographic is aspiring lawyers. As time has gone by, and our readership has grown, those aspiring lawyers have become actual lawyers, and they seem to still be enjoying the site. But our young team – the features editor is only 23 and our newest recruit is 22 – is always focused on attracting the next generation of law students to Legal Cheek.
What are the most interesting things you (and team) are writing about right now?
The chatter in the office this week has been all about the fall out from the Presidents Club dinner. It’s sensitive stuff and Tom Connelly (the news editor) and Katie King (the features editor) – both of whom do a great job running the editorial side of the site -- have been on the phone a lot to our lawyer getting pre-publication advice!
You must see a lot of trends in the law, legal tech and legal content. Do you see any macro-level trends or things that have changed since you’ve started LC?
Unfortunately the biggest macro trend I have seen since 2011 is the increase in inequality in society. One of the effects of this on the junior end of the legal profession is that training contracts at the leading corporate law firms, particularly those in London, have become increasingly valued – because they represent a route to joining the 1%. Earning £100k a year as a junior City lawyer is one of the few ways that young people without family money can get onto the London the housing ladder these days. That means law students are a lot more serious, and focused on getting that golden TC ticket. And when they get it they value it – which is actually quite nice, and makes a change from the years before 2008 when graduates just wandered into law because of lack of a better idea what to do.
It’s worth adding that the legal profession has been very active at trying to fight this rise in inequality. From City law firms pouring serious resources into opening up their recruitment to reach more people from lower socio-economic groups, to criminal lawyers protesting the legal aid cuts, to all the activity around innovation that will hopefully help to foster broader based economic growth, there’s a lot of good that comes out of the sector.
What are your crystal ball predictions – what do you think the industry will look like in 15 or 20 years?
I remember ten years ago the consensus view was that mid-tier law firms were finished as the magic circle was going to gobble them up, and with the help of legal process outsourcing abroad (which was very big at the time) they would create a legal profession Big Four (or Big Five). Also, a lot of people thought that the Bar was finished. As it happened, basically the opposite of all that came true. The magic circle has struggled, many mid-tier firms have done very well, and the Bar (particularly the commercial Bar) has thrived as an ultra-lean business model that puts most startups to shame.
The consensus view at the moment is that the days of big teams are over, which means the magic circle must shrink, while the future lies in mid-size firms and growing in-house teams. Based on how most consensus views play out, that’s probably wrong. But I’ve got no idea what will actually happen.
Does content need to change with the times, or can it simply reflect what is happening? (In other words, will Legal Cheek be an online artificially intelligent blockchain content solution in 2050 – or will it remain as we know it?)
Because of the internet and social media, journalism has already been forced to look at itself hard and become more efficient. When I started there were layers of subeditors and picture editors and actual editors and senior editors. That’s unthinkable now for most publications. The AI-written stories I have seen are not great. In fact, as it stands, they would probably increase inefficiency. Blockchain, on the other hand, looks perfect for journalism. In an industry that has struggled with trust, and is now mired in claims of fake news, being able to record who wrote what on an unimpeachable ledger has the potential to really take off.