Trends in Legal Media with Reuters’ Legal Reporter Sara Merken

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In this episode of On Record PR, Gina Rubel goes on record with Sara Merken, Legal Reporter with Reuters.

Sara primarily writes for a subscriber-audience of lawyers and other professionals, covering a variety of legal topics, including privacy and data security; the business of law; and legal innovation and technology. She joined the Reuters Legal team in April 2020. In addition to Reuters, Sara has been a reporter at Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg BNA.

Reuters is the news and media division of multinational media conglomerate Thomson Reuters. The Reuters Legal team is part of Reuters.

Sara is a versatile reporter who is open to speaking with any legal or legal-adjacent professional who has a story to tell about the industry, or on privacy and data security laws, regulations, litigation and trends. She says, “Sometimes the best stories come out of anecdotes or other high-level trend ideas that aren’t tied to a daily news story, so she is always open to a conversation.”

Reuters articles by Sara Merken can be found at https://www.reuters.com/journalists/sara-merken.

What’s it like to be on the other side of the interview?

It’s definitely a different feeling. I don’t do this very often.

Gina Rubel: We really appreciate it, and I know our listeners appreciate it because having access and a better understanding of the industry of law reporters is very helpful for our audience.

How did you become a legal reporter at Reuters?

I have been a legal reporter from the get-go. When I was in college, I was studying journalism as my major and for a summer internship I worked on the legal news division and Bloomberg BNA, and I joined Bloomberg BNA, Bloomberg Law after I graduated college. I was there for a few years and then I joined Reuters in April of 2020 covering the legal industry. I’ve been writing about privacy and data security for a few years and then expanded my beat, took on the business of law, law firms, everything under the legal beat for about a year now.

Do you like having a little bit more of a broad beat in reporting?

I do. It’s really allowed every day to be very different. That’s one of my favorite parts of my job. When I wake up each morning, sometimes I know what I’ll be writing about, sometimes I don’t, but it’s always very different kinds of stories. I appreciate that.

Gina Rubel: It’s interesting. I mentioned in the beginning that I was going to put a link to your articles, which is on the Reuters website, and I counted about 15 articles in the last eight business days.

Sara Merken: Sounds about right.

Gina Rubel: You’re doing about two full feature stories a day.

Sara Merken: Yeah, it can be that way. Sometimes three, sometimes one, it varies, but usually a few a day.

Gina Rubel: Wow. So, if we have any students listening, who want to go into journalism, it’s a lot of writing.

What does your typical day look like?

Every day is a little bit different. My Monday will be different from my Tuesday, but generally I wake up, I am looking around for both news on the privacy and data security side and on the legal business side. Those are very different kinds of stories, so I’m looking around pretty much everywhere. I’m checking court filings to look at what’s been going on in litigation in the past day. I’m seeing if there has been any news, any press releases from companies that I’m following or issues that I’m tracking. I’m really just trying to get the pulse of what’s going on across all of the beats. And like you noted, some days it’s two stories, some days it’s one, some days it’s more. I’m also usually trying to work on a longer-term piece at the same time. So, in addition to writing stories in the day, I’m also trying to set up interviews with people for some of those longer-term ideas. I really like having the balance of writing, interviewing, thinking about these ideas from a high level, it’s a good mix.

Do you also monitor social media?

I do. I’m on Twitter a lot. It’s usually in the background of what I’m doing because a lot of times I’ll see something on Twitter before a press release or before someone reaches out, not as much for court filings. Those I’m usually more proactive about finding, but Twitter is a big one for finding news or just knowing what people are saying about the news that I also might be writing about. People are talking about why this matters or what this means in the broader context.

Gina Rubel: That’s interesting. We try to get a lot of the older generation of lawyers to understand why Twitter is so important and how the media is engaging there. I think the statistic is 27% of the verified accounts on Twitter are members of the media.

Sara Merken: That sounds about right.

Gina Rubel: It’s fascinating to me and it validates that, so I thank you for that, because just that little piece of, “Yeah you really should be there ….  carefully.”

Sara Merken: I think that sometimes I’ll see people post links to stories and sometimes their commentary in a tweet is, it makes me think a little more about what’s going on. It’s not something that is written in the story. It’s either someone on the outside commenting why they think it matters or what they think about it, or someone that wrote the story adding in tidbits that they couldn’t make it in. It’s good for everyone to be on.

Gina Rubel: It really is. It gives you that more broad view of different issues where you might not get that from just one source.

What makes news worth covering?

That’s a good question. It differs for every kind of topic area, but for me, a lot of the time something means more to me when I can see why it matters. My understanding of the context of the news is the same thing that my readers also want. If I can see that something is part of a trend or part of a bigger story, that generally grabs my attention more than something where I can’t see where it fits in the broader space. When I’m talking with a law firm or a company about whatever type of news it is, it’s more helpful if they highlight, this is part of a trend for us, or this is the latest in a similar type of move, because that shows me the bigger picture. When I’m looking at court filings and the privacy and data security space, usually something is worth covering if it’s a decision in a court case or it’s a company or an issue that people care about or want to see what’s going on there.

Do you have any stories that you’ve written about that have become favorites?

I’ve been writing a lot recently about legal innovation and I have really started to add more kinds of stories that I write about there. It’s just an interesting topic. I find the people I talk with in that space are usually passionate about what they do, but the people that are driving change in the industry are very forward-looking and the interviews are always interesting because it’s usually ideas that I either haven’t heard about yet, or they’re being flushed out more. I’ve been writing a lot of interesting stories there.

What does legal innovation mean to you?

Well, that is a hard question because it means so many things to so many different people. On one hand, I think that means technology, that means legal technology companies or within a law firm, that’s how are we making our processes more efficient, both internally and for clients. There is a lot of work being done by different firms, by different alternative service providers that are really trying to drive change, to make things more efficient or better in whatever way.

Gina Rubel: It is a big conversation and trend and I’ll share with you. I’m sure you’re familiar with it, but if you’re ever looking for sources, the College of Law Practice Management has a list on their website and that’s one of the biggest things those of us who are fellows talk about on a regular basis. How do we make the industry better, more efficient, more client facing, more transparent? So, I throw that out there and it wasn’t a trick question. It was more for the audience to understand if you’re not involved in legal innovation, why you should be.

Sara Merken: Since there are so many components to it, I think that’s part of what makes it so interesting for me to cover because when people reach out about different companies or different law firms doing very different things, I’m always interested in hearing about it. It’s not the same story over and over. I’m hearing from different people about really, really cool things.

Have you seen any innovation because of the coronavirus pandemic that was particularly interesting or made a real difference in the industry?

I think it’s a little hard for me to say, because I only started covering this portion of the industry last summer. I came into it during the pandemic, so I don’t know what existed before, but I wasn’t writing about it as extensively. But most of what I’ve been writing about recently have been things that maybe were already in the works before the pandemic. But now people say that the pandemic has fueled demand for these efficiencies or these products because most people were working from home so there were a lot of online tools and online ways of working that maybe lawyers and others didn’t need to do before, but they realized that now that they are, it’s making their lives better. There’s a lot of things where they might’ve existed before, but at least from what I’m hearing there may be more important now.

Gina Rubel: It’s fascinating to me as a third-generation attorney in my family and in the industry personally for almost 30 years, how quickly the pandemic changed the speed with which law firms adopted new technology in comparison to pre-March 2020. It’s mind blowing. I can’t say that they’ve come up to speed with the rest of the corporate world, close to it in many respects. And the legal industry in general is so much closer to being on par with the corporations and entities that they represent and understand how to use those technologies. I think that was a huge benefit because of the pandemic.

Sara Merken: Exactly. I mean, at least from what I’m hearing too, that’s kind of what everyone says. They say there’s been 10 years’ worth of innovation and change brought in the past year. It’s definitely forced people to rethink the way that they’re working.

What are some of the things that catch your attention in your email? If somebody wanted to send you a possible story, what would allow it to stand out from the many, many emails you get every day?

That’s a good question and something I actually think about when I choose to open an email or choose to respond to an email. I’ve kind of thought about what that person did that made me respond. It’s usually when something is more personal. I can tell that the person reaching out to me has either read my coverage before, understands a story that I would be interested in, and maybe makes more of an effort rather than just sending the same block email that I can tell has been copied and pasted to 100 other journalists. Because you can tell in an email when something is personal or not. So generally, if it’s not personal, I probably won’t respond. Or, if I do it’s because I can tell that everyone else getting it is interested in covering it for the same reasons I am, but it really makes a difference to me when I can tell someone’s reaching out to me or me and my colleagues because they know what we do, and they know what we would be interested in.

Why should somebody give an exclusive to Reuters over any of the other publications?

Reuters is a very trustworthy news source and I’m sure, of course, you can say that about a lot of news organizations, because there are a lot of many very trustworthy organizations, but the Reuters legal team has really built up over the past year, added a bunch of really great reporters and we all have really deep expertise in the areas that we’re covering. I think there’s also the benefit of the broader Reuters brand. We’re part of a very big global news organization, but then within that, the Reuters legal team is, I think everything that we cover is, we’re doing it for a reason. We’re not just pumping out stories just to have stories. We really have a focus on providing that context that I was talking about before, about why someone should be interested in reading this. And I know that’s something that’s been drilled into me. I don’t want to write something if the people on the other side aren’t going to be interested and what it is or if it’s not going to help them do their job better. I think that we just have a focus on bigger picture, trying to bring in why this matters to our audience.

At Reuters, are you looking at readership data and what people are reading, if they’re sharing it and is that informing some of the types of things you cover?

I don’t know readership, and I don’t know if the management knows that or how that all works behind the scenes. I look at what people talk about on Twitter. I see who’s sharing the Reuters articles. It doesn’t necessarily inform what I’m covering, but I do like to see if people are talking about the stories that we’re writing and who’s talking about it. It’s really cool to see when people at big law firms or people in government or people from wherever think that something that we’re writing is important. It’s something I do look at, but I wouldn’t say it informs what I cover.

I asked you what works in an email, what doesn’t work? What is that thing, “Just don’t do this with me?”

I understand it is the job of a PR professional or others to get journalist’s attention when that makes sense, but it doesn’t work for me when someone sends 15 follow-up emails when I haven’t answered one of them. That generally isn’t going to make me respond again. So that’s something that, I wouldn’t say it bothers me, but sometimes I’ll get five follow up emails about the same thing that for whatever reason, I am not interested in.

Do you ever tell people that you’re not interested or that you just don’t have space for that?

I do. The emails that I don’t ever respond to are the ones that are not about something I’m writing about whatsoever. It’s something that was pulled off a press list that probably went to thousands of people, and it doesn’t even make sense for it to be coming to me. But for the ones where it does make sense to be coming to me, and I either just don’t have the bandwidth that day, because there are a lot of other things going on or for whatever reason, I’m just not interested, sometimes I’ll forward those to my colleagues on my team because I’m not the only person covering the business of law. I’ll forward to other people to see if they’re interested or if it’s just not something I can handle, I will respond and say I’d love to keep in touch in the future, but this isn’t something I’m doing today.

How do you feel about, we’ve seen a little bit of a trend in PR where people send two reporters an email and say, “I know you both cover this, I wanted to send it to you both in case one of you is interested.”? How do you feel about that approach?

I’m good with that approach. Sometimes one person might be really tied up with a lot going on that day, but the other person might not, so I have nothing against getting an email with several of my colleagues on it, because chances are one person might be interested.

Gina Rubel: Years ago, that was a no-no. You would never do that. It’s interesting because everybody wanted the story first. But I think as the internet has taken over and we’re in a 24/7/365 news cycle, that people are more appreciative of, “Well, that might be a story, but there’s just no way I’m getting to it today.” It’s something we’ve been doing more of, but we never know if it’s preferred. I do know if it’s somebody who’s been a journalist for more than 20 years that I’m not going to do that.

Sara Merken: Maybe other people have a problem with that, but I don’t mind at all.

Gina Rubel: I think it’s very generational and that’s why I asked you, because I really want the listeners to get a sense of what works when reaching out to you so that you have new sources.

Is diversity of sources important to you?

It definitely is. That’s something I pay attention to and it’s something I just thought of when you were talking. I would add that, I always appreciate someone reaching out, even when there isn’t a story that day. To get in touch with sources for the future, that often works for me. If someone from wherever, a law firm, a company, they say, “Hey, I saw you covered XYZ. We also do that.” Or “I have someone that could talk about that in the future and let me know if you’re ever working on a story.” And I usually keep that person in mind because it just introduces a new source to me, even if I’m not looking for them to comment in the next hour on whatever kind of story. I appreciate those, and I keep those in mind when I’m thinking of sources for other stories.

Gina Rubel: That’s great to know. You know you’re going to get bombarded after this.

Sara Merken: I like it because I have the sources I have because of other stories I’ve written or pre-pandemic conferences I went to, or all of those other ways of getting sources, but there are so many people out there that, of course I’ve never talked to, so I’m always interested in even just setting up in an email introduction. There doesn’t have to be a call from the get-go, but just being introduced someone via email really helps me too.

What are some of the legal trends on your radar?

There’s a lot going on right now. Something that I’ve been watching is some of the state regulatory reforms in Arizona and Utah that have been opening up different reforms for non-lawyer ownership of law firms and other experimentation with legal services, delivery models. That’s something I’m watching, not only because it’s already happening in two states, but because I’ve heard and know that it’s being considered in other states as well. That’s something that I’ve kept my eye on. California has been considering this and a few others. I’m not sure what stages they’re at, just because it’s kind of hard to keep up with some of the smaller committee changes or things going on in different states, but that’s a big one. There’s been a lot of talk about that in the industry in the past few months.

A lot of our listeners want to see the nomenclature change from non-lawyer to legal professional because we don’t call people non-doctors or non-dentists, non-anything. Have you heard that as well?

Yes. I am glad you brought that up too. The reason I said non-lawyers is because that’s what the states call it in their orders and such, but the term non-lawyer, and not using that term is actually something I’ve heard a lot about just in the past month. I know it’s been talked about that for a while, but maybe I wasn’t hearing about it until recently. That’s something I’ve talked with people at professional service firms and law firms and others about, because I can totally understand why someone would not want to be called a non-lawyer because they’re just as important to the business or the firm or wherever they’re at. So, that is a big topic of in hearing about recently.

Gina Rubel: It’s fascinating and I can tell you where it comes from. It comes from lawyers who wrote ethics rules and in the ethics rules it says non-lawyer. The ABA uses it in their model rules and all the states use them. It’s a problem in the industry because it is the nomenclature that was given in the Rules of Ethics. I teeter on that because I am a lawyer and I practice in communications. I don’t practice law. I’m a communications professional and yet I served on an ethics committee for years. I understand where the nomenclature comes from, but I also, more now than ever, understand the importance of us trying to get the ethics committees and the lawyers to stop using it, because it doesn’t reflect the value that professionals bring to law firms, especially if we’re going to have professional ownership of people who don’t have a JD. I just find it a fascinating conversation, even from that perspective.

Sara Merken: I agree with you. And I found it fascinating the first time. I think the first, or one of the first times recently, I remember hearing about it is a post on LinkedIn. Someone I wasn’t connected with posted a story that had non-lawyer in the headline and said, “We should really get away from this.” And it had hundreds of comments on the post. I think it was one night I was bored so I read through all of them, of course, and everyone agreed saying, “Yeah, we should really get away from this term.” I thought, “Huh, I probably have used the word non-lawyer in a headline,” mostly because as you mentioned, I’m talking about these ethics rules that have that in the text. So, it would make sense.

Gina Rubel: Maybe we can get the industry to put it in quotes.

Sara Merken: That could be helpful. It really made me think about my own writing because I said, “Yeah, I’ve used that term, but now I’m thinking about it a little differently just based on that first LinkedIn post I saw, but then from others, you and others who have brought it up. It’s something I’ve been paying attention to.

Gina Rubel: I can tell you, it’s a major part of our conversation, the Legal Marketing Association and all the law practice management professionals, because we want to change the value proposition. It’s an interesting point and I couldn’t help but ask about it.

Sara Merken: I appreciate it because it every time someone says it, it reminds me and it makes me think about it too. It’s good to talk about.

Are there any other tips or thoughts that you’d like to share with the audience about working with you or the legal media in general?

Back to the point of being introduced to someone, even if I’m not writing about it that day. Sometimes it’s difficult if I want someone to comment for a story and my deadline is two hours from now. I understand that it’s hard to get someone on the phone, people have busy schedules, but I do appreciate, and in those situations too, if I’m reaching out to a law firm or a company and they don’t have someone available at that moment to then set up a call for another time to then get the connection going later on, even if today doesn’t work, because those connections are really helpful for the next time I am under a tight deadline and I can think of the right person to call for that. I understand that sometimes people aren’t available when I need them. That happens every single day. That’s why I reach out to a lot of people if I need comment under a short deadline. But setting up those relationships and connections is what’s really helpful to me and being able to think about these issues.

Let’s talk about deadlines for a second. Do you have actual times of day where you must submit stories or things go on at a certain time on certain days?

I personally don’t. I know that at some news organizations there are deadlines that are set once you’re thinking about a story and they say “have this in by this time.” I don’t have that in my workday, but I am still trying to write things quickly. So even if someone is not telling me, “you need to have this in the next hour,” I’m still trying to get it done in the next hour or two. I’m not working toward a specific time, but I am working under a fast-paced deadline.

If you have connected with a source and you’ve given that source the deadline, can you just tell all the sources out there, how important it is to respond within deadline?

Responding by the deadline is very helpful because I can’t have a story that’s sitting, waiting for comment for seven hours of the day. Even though someone isn’t saying, “This needs to be published by this time,” I’m still expected to have the story done so I can either move on to the next thing or do whatever else is on my plate. The deadline thing is important. I would say that we’re talking about daily stories here. For longer term things and deadlines are more flexible, it still does help to try to get those calls done quickly even though I’m not operating under a tight deadline, a one-hour deadline, I don’t want to call two weeks from now for something I’m working on this week.

Gina Rubel: What’s interesting, and I think we tend to forget that you might be working on something for two weeks from now, but another trend might occur or something might happen where that story is relevant today and it’s going to get more coverage today where having that information is going to be valuable. That’s one of the things we, as lawyers tend to forget. You never know how this is going to play into a daily news cycle.

Sara Merken: That’s very true. I’d also like to say that even if someone can’t get back to me by the deadline, maybe it won’t make it into the story, but I generally am still interested in hearing what they have to say about the topic, because it probably won’t be the last time that I’m writing about it. Deadlines are important and I would like to hear back from someone by the deadline, but even if I can’t talk to them by that time, I still want to hear their thoughts because it might inform my next story.

Do you ever update stories based on new information that would fill in the gaps?

On a case-by-case basis. If I’m writing about litigation or something that really truly deserves comment from both sides. I mean, all stories deserve comment from all sides, but something, if you’re writing a lawsuit against a company and we publish a story before they had the chance to comment. If they do come back with that comment, we’ll update the story, because that’s just what’s right. But if it’s something more analysis based or just hearing someone’s thoughts, we don’t generally, or I guess I wouldn’t generally update the story, but it’s just more thoughts from someone, but maybe that’ll turn into a second day analysis piece. That’s something that I try to do a lot too. Maybe something happens one day. I write one story about it without all the context that everyone’s going to have to say, but then the next day or a few days later, I’ll write something again on that news with more comments. So that’s always a possibility, too.

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