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It’s Not Your Father’s Web Site: Lawyers in the Blogosphere

 

FROM: July / August 2005 , PAGE 32 BY: Sarah Kellogg

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably heard of Weblogs—or blogs, for short—but you may be hard-pressed to define the term.

Like many of the advances associated with the Internet, blogs are at once new and old, strange yet familiar. It might seem hard to differentiate them from their well-known but more static cousins, traditional Web sites. Nonetheless, blogs are different—and in ways that hold powerhouse promise for legal professionals.

With an estimated 10 million Weblogs and counting, it’s almost impossible to run a Google search without tripping over one or more of them. And though blogs have a reputation for sometimes being controversial, they’re becoming the format of choice for delivering the very latest news and opinions online—an Internet equivalent of the town crier.

More importantly, some suggest, these Web journals are turning into respected marketing, research and collaboration tools for businesses and individuals looking to make a name for themselves on and off the Internet.

Enter the lawyers.

The Exhilaration of Breaking Free

The legal technorati weren’t there at the dawn of the blogosphere, but by 2000 a handful of U.S. legal professionals had joined die-hard cybergeeks in discovering the sheer simplicity and power of Weblogs.

Denise Howell, who coined the term “blawg” as shorthand for “law blog,” is considered one of blogging’s pioneers. She says the nascent days of legal-oriented blogs were marked by a frontier spirit that was equal parts anticipation and exhilaration.
“You could tell early on that Weblogs would be very appealing to lawyers because we’re uniquely suited to doing this,” says Howell, a lawyer with Reed Smith’s appellate and intellectual property practices in Los Angeles and the publisher of the popular Bag and Baggage ( www.bagandbaggage.com). “Lawyers are trained to write … and research. The writing they generate tends to have some credibility behind it. That is the crux of blogging right there.”

Today, thousands of lawyers, judges, law professors, law librarians and law students have discovered the promise of blogs, both as visitors and as hosts, filling cyberspace with such aptly named vehicles as CrimLaw ( http://crimlaw.blogspot.com), Fourth Amendment ( www.fourthamendment.com) and May It Please the Court ( www.mayitpleasethecourt.net).

For legal professionals of every kind, not just technolawyers, blogs provide an opportunity to break free of the traditions and limits of the profession, enhancing the practice of law in new ways.

A Blog by Any Other Name

Although starting a blog does require some technology, time and thought, if you’ve got an opinion, then you’ve got the heart of it. And having multiple opinions makes for a more interesting blog.

In the most basic technical sense, a blog is a simple Web page that anyone—even someone without programming skills—can publish using a number of inexpensive software programs. (See David Opderbeck’s article on page 40 for the tools and steps involved in setting up a blog.)

Born in the mid-1990s as digital diaries, blogs started out as a sort of soapbox on the Web, a place to air criticisms and complaints or find like-minded individuals. That they were begun by a ragtag bunch of techno-nonconformists is not surprising. After all, the Web was in its fledgling years, and the idea of posting what amounted to a stream-of-consciousness rant or rave was pretty revolutionary.

As the technology took hold, popular blogs soon earned a reputation as provocative or funny journals about pop culture, politics and technology. It was clear to early constituents that the medium had the power to create cyberspace communities as distinct as physical towns, cities and states.

Compared to a traditional Web site, a blog remains a cheaper and more fluid vehicle for communicating online. By forgoing the bells and whistles of its Web site kin (such as flash, frames and databases that allow for extensive searching), the blog can be a quicker and easier content management tool. Plus, because it can be updated with relative simplicity and frequency—say, a dozen times a day if necessary—the flow of fresh information can seem ceaseless.

Even the hippest Web sites are considered stodgy by bloggers, who say traditional sites lack the freewheeling enterprise of blogs, which can spark a worldwide debate in a flash.

Don’t confuse blogs with e-mail distributions, though. Unlike e-mail missives, blogs archive the disparate thoughts and ideas of their authors and fans. Every posting can be chronicled for posterity, allowing for a depth of discussion difficult to maintain with the more ephemeral e-mail.

And thanks to a technology called RSS—Really Simple Syndication, or Rich Site Summary—blogging has become even more attractive, as home computers are transformed into information hubs with dispatches alerting computer users that favorite blogs have been updated.

These RSS feeds are interpreted by news readers, which are software programs that track updates to blogs, Web sites and news channels. First introduced by Netscape as a way to personalize home pages with favorite sites, the news reader has become an essential element in the energy of blogging.

No-Limit Territory for Lawyers?

Energy is a key characteristic of the blogging world, and at this point it appears nearly boundless. Perseus Development Corporation, a Massachusetts company tracking blogosphere trends, estimated that there were 10 million blogs on the Internet by the end of 2004. If the past is any guide, part of the growth in 2005 and onward will come from the legal profession. Over the last year alone, observers believe the number of lawyer blogs has doubled, if not tripled—and the future holds even more promise.

Experts say the blogosphere holds real potential for lawyers in four key areas:

  1. Marketing lawyers’ expertise
  2. Conducting legal research
  3. Supporting current clients
  4. Attracting new clients

“It’s really over the last two years that we’ve started to see the big increase in the number of blogs,” says Dennis Kennedy, a St. Louis lawyer whose blog ( www.denniskennedy.com/blog) is considered a prime Web resource for lawyers. “The early legal blogs had a lot more personality and were very individual. Now it’s become very clear that if you want to do a legal blog that markets your practice, the way to do it is to create a niche that is very narrow.”

Lawyers looking to expand their expertise in a particular practice now give life to blogs that are more formal, sometimes with a creative twist, and with some novel functions. Yet owing to the nature of the medium, individuality is still very much a factor, regardless of what benefits you’re looking to achieve. Blogs are a reflection of their authors, says Kennedy.

Since blogs are what their authors make them, Kennedy believes that there is no limit to the number of topics one might address. The only limit is one’s imagination.

Blogs and Lawyer Expertise

The greatest contribution blogs may make to the legal profession is their ability to reveal talent and expertise often hidden in courtrooms and boardrooms. Blogs excel at getting the word out, and observers say lawyers who embrace them are bound to be rewarded with fans and fame.

Instead of waiting for months, even years, to be published in a legal journal or magazine, lawyers can pen a short article or commentary expressing their views on any range of subjects, dramatically cutting the time it takes to reach colleagues and the public.

The blogosphere is teeming with topic-specific blogs that have won kudos from legal experts for their ability to supply timely information that is unique and hard to find. Pennsylvania attorney Howard Bashman’s How Appealing ( http:// legalaffairs.org/howappealing) is considered a go-to source for appellate litigation, and New Yorker Martin Schwimmer’s The Trademark Blog ( http://trademark.blog.us/blog) has a reputation for providing the most up-to-date analysis of trademark law.

Goldstein & Howe’s SCOTUSblog ( www.scotusblog.com) has won fame for its soup-to-nuts approach to U.S. Supreme Court coverage. SCOTUSblog publishes summaries of cases scheduled for oral arguments, including links to more detailed information such as amicus briefs. When the justices issue opinions, the blog publishes its own summary with particularly relevant or newsworthy elements of a ruling.

“We market ourselves as a firm devoted exclusively to the Supreme Court,” says partner Amy Howe. “Once we became aware of the blogging world … we thought it would be both fun and a good business development tool to have SCOTUSblog, a blog that covered the Supreme Court exclusively as well.”

As we’ve seen with other technologies, it may be the solo and small firm practitioners who are best situated to take advantage of blogs as reputation-building tools. “People have figured out that this is a really good way, and an easy way, of marketing yourself and demonstrating you have expertise,” says Ernest Svenson, a Louisiana lawyer whose Ernie the Attorney blog ( www.ernietheattorney.net) is considered a must-read. “It’s still too early to know whether it’s beneficial or not for everyone, but it doesn’t hurt to try.”

Blogs and Legal Research

Some observers believe that blogs may hold even more promise in the field of legal research, where they can be used to monitor evolving legal issues, uncover answers to arcane legal questions, or find far-flung experts across the continent. An increasing number of law schools, law professors, individual practitioners and others are putting up blogs for both wide and narrow research purposes.

As a few quick examples, law school faculty can find legal research updates from around the world at BarclayBlog ( http://bllsulaw.blogspot.com); judges and attorneys in Dane County, Wisconsin, can obtain local legal news and information at Dane Co. Legal Resource Center Blawg ( http://dclrcblawg.blogspot.com); and construction practitioners can get updates on case law at Statutory Construction Zone (see the sidebar at left).

But it’s caveat emptor when it comes to blogs, too. What makes them dynamic, their immediacy and flavor, is also the quality that could cast doubt on their accuracy. Blogs aren’t peer-reviewed publications in which ideas must be qualified. Although this factor is part and parcel of the Web itself: It can be hard to tell a credible source in cyberspace.

However, to the credit of the blogosphere, when blogs go wrong (as some do), the “corrective response” from readers can be swift. Ask any blogger, who will point out that blogs are parsed in a thousand different ways by their readers. Because those readers also get to be active participants, unlike with many other types of resources, they will jump in to ensure that corrections for even the slightest mistake are given marquee treatment.

Blogs and Client Communications

Forget about the telephone, the couriers, the e-mails—the best way to communicate with clients today and in the future may be the blog, observers say. It is a cheap, effective and efficient way to disseminate information.

Denise Howell says lawyers and law firms should consider the information shared with the client in a blog to be part of an ongoing conversation that informs the relationship and improves communication. Although the blog isn’t suited to every client—the idea may repel some technophobes—it does offer a distinctive way to keep clients up-to-date on their cases.

“Clients have a closer appreciation of who their lawyers are and how their brains work,” says Howell. “If anyone’s worried about my keeping current in IP law issues, hopefully those concerns can be laid to rest.”

Perhaps the best examples of this unconventional conversation are the blogs found at some of the nation’s larger law firms, where they have mastered the use of technology in keeping the lines of communication open with their clients.

Environmental Law Net ( http://lawvianet.com), sponsored by the Massachusetts firm Murtha Cullina LLP, is a prime example of how the technology can be used to keep clients abreast of changes in a case or allow them access to the site to research particular issues.

Importantly, firms can also use blogs to keep partners and associates informed about recent developments in a particular case, client matter or practice niche. E-mail has its limits in communicating quantities of information, and many experts foresee a time when intraoffice blogs will become the mode of communication for managing discussion forums in all but the smallest offices.

Blogs and Client Recruitment

Almost everyone agrees that if blogging is a potential gold mine when it comes to recruiting clients, then the vein of gold has yet to be tapped. Although many bloggers hold out hope that the Internet will generate new clients who feel comfortable shopping for a lawyer on the Web, most have not yet seen it reflected in their lists of new clients.

“Blogs are a way to get the word out about your practice and who you are to known and new clients,” says Thomas Mighell, a Texas lawyer who has created his own legal research blog, Inter Alia ( www.inter-alia.net). But, he advises, “How successful you are may depend on the quality of your blog or on how good you are at keeping it current. A blog with old posts doesn’t do much to attract new clients.”

At this early stage, it’s hard to tell how this particular use is going to play out. Of course, there’s uncertainty about any new technology in its formative days. In fact, many people at first thought Web sites were more show than substance. Today that impression has dramatically changed.

Some blogging experts say the potential for recruiting new clients can be found in one of the true advantages that blogs have—rankings in the major Internet search engines. Ernest Svenson says Google tends to rank well-connected blogs with many links to other sites higher than it does conventional Web sites.

“My blog ranks higher than a lot of expensive Web sites,” says Svenson. “I think you’re more likely to find your blog up near the top of a Google search, and that is what is going to draw new clients who are looking for assistance.”

By delivering content that is focused on a law firm’s expertise and its business objectives, blogs allow lawyers to showcase their past work as well as their potential. Moreover, observers say bloggers who let their personalities shine through with sassy, wise or authoritative writing are bound to attract clients before their more soporific counterparts do.

Blogs and Culture

Not every law-oriented blog explores esoteric legal questions or pontificates about what Congress will do next in writing a bill. Some have adopted the fun and frivolity of their nonlegal counterparts, and they are breaking new ground by mixing an interesting recipe of law and pop culture.

An often-cited example is Underneath Their Robes ( http://underneaththeirrobes.blogs.com), a trove of juicy gossip about the federal judiciary, including the Supreme Court. Written by Article III Groupie, this blog is both dishy and surprisingly insightful about the federal bench. By keeping her name a secret (she admits to being female), speculation about Article III Groupie’s identity is akin to the conjecture preceding journalist Joe Klein’s announcement that he had penned the faux Clinton campaign tell-all Primary Colors.

“In some ways, and perhaps unlike many lawyers, I’m more interested in people and personalities than in ideas or abstract concepts,” says Article III Groupie, who was willing to be interviewed by e-mail only. “This blog is for people like me—people who can shuttle between an article about statutory interpretation in the Harvard Law Review and an article about Brad and Jennifer’s split in Us Weekly!”

Despite her playfulness, the author aims to make a serious contribution to legal discussions of the day as well, especially when it comes to examining the role and impact of the federal judiciary.

“We often think of federal judges as these disembodied legal minds, impersonal machines spitting out decisions and dispensing justice,” she writes. “I’m trying to remind the legal profession that federal judges are people, too.”

An Endless Horizon: Will You Accept the Invitation?

If you feel that blogs might be perfect for you, don’t be worried by the thought that the revolution has already passed you by. There may be 10 million blogs out there, but only a small percentage of them represent the work of talented lawyers, law professors, law students and law librarians.

Observers say the horizon for law blogs isn’t even in sight yet, leaving an enormous amount of space for new lawyer-bloggers to cover, from marketing to networking, from knowledge management to research and beyond. And, of course, the personal blog, the kind that can give lawyers a chance to ruminate about private concerns, isn’t expected to vanish in the ether as more business-oriented blogs are developed to recruit clients.

That veteran bloggers are inviting potential competitors to the blogosphere comes as no surprise to anyone who believes that the Internet remains a place where ideas, initiative and independence flourish.

Blogging may not be for everyone, but it’s possible to imagine a world where most lawyers and law firms do publish blogs, if only to better communicate with their clients and colleagues and, ultimately, to enlarge the reach of their practices. There’s a lot of promise looming here.

SideBar

A Cyber-Coffee Shop for Lawyer Bloggers

The Lawyer: Carolyn Elefant
Washington, D.C., lawyer Carolyn Elefant hadn’t planned on breaking new ground on the Internet—but she has, becoming one of the nation’s foremost legal bloggers. Elefant describes the blogosphere as “collegial,” a place where lawyer-bloggers can share their thinking about a wide variety of topics in a relaxed atmosphere. One might think of it as a cyber-coffee shop across the street from the county courthouse.

“When you’re in the blog world, it’s very insular,” says Elefant, who began publishing her blog My Shingle, at www.myshingle.com, in December 2002. My Shingle caters to solo and small firm practitioners seeking advice or looking to share it. “Being inside [the blogosphere], you think it’s the greatest thing that ever happened, and it’s going to change the face of law. People don’t feel quite the same way on the outside, but once you’re in, you do.”

Elefant says My Shingle was designed to provide the kind of assistance that the Internet is great at delivering—concise and timely. And it delivers it in subject categories of importance to her target audience, including topics such as client relations, practice management, ethics issues, marketing advice and solo practice trends. Lawyers can find discussions about the merits of going solo in Hawaii or a listing of how state bars assist solo and small firm practitioners.

And through a recently added feature, My Shingle includes a free listing for other solo and small firm bloggers, too. Getting listed is essentially a “public service” available free to any solo and small firm lawyer. But it’s also a means of “virtual meet-and-greet” for whoever is added to the list—another nicety in the cyber-coffee shop, as it were. (You can find more tips for solos from Carolyn Elefant in this issue’s Ask Bill, on page 14.) —Sarah Kellogg

A Full-On Research Tool to Illuminate a Practice Area

The Lawyer: Gary O’Connor
Look no farther than Gary O’Connor’s Statutory Construction Zone at www.statconblog.blogspot.com for the kind of expert blog that can jump-start a legal research project. Statutory Construction Zone provides a concise analysis of federal statutory construction case law, including how statutes and regulations are being construed and which rules or arguments judges are accepting.

“My hope is that someone who wants to keep up with current federal statutory construction case law would be able to do so by checking this Web site for five to ten minutes every week or two,” says O’Connor, an attorney with a federal agency. The primary goals he describes for his blog are: “To provide current, succinct, statutory-construction case summaries that will be helpful to practitioners and others; to show that there is a lot more to statutory construction than ‘plain meaning’ versus ‘intent’; and to disseminate trivia about the pre-1789 English common law.”

That latter goal is just the kind of thing that makes a blog a window into its author’s personality and enthusiasms. As is the opening sentence of O’Connor’s blog: “Why I Like Statutory Construction (And Why You Should, Too).”

O’Connor attributes the inspiration for his diving into the blogosphere to a 2002 article he read about Howard Bashman’s How Appealing blog. It’s another example of how the blogosphere is a self-perpetuating environment, where the information that’s spread fuels yet more information going out. Needless to say, Statutory Construction Zone provides a nice heap of links to other blogs, too. —Sarah Kellogg

 


Sarah Kellogg ( skell18602@aol.com) is a freelance writer who lives in Washington, D.C.