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Between Lawyers Roundtable: The Future of Legal Blogging

 

FROM: July / August 2005 , PAGE 44

When it comes to the shifting intersection of law and technology, a premier online resource is Between Lawyers, a unique blog featuring analysis and commentary from long-time law bloggers Denise Howell (DH), Dennis Kennedy (DK), Tom Mighell (TM), Martin Schwimmer (MS) and Ernest Svenson (ES).

The Between Lawyers group recently held a special roundtable (on their blog, of course) regarding the future of legal blogging. Law Practice is delighted to share highlights of that conversation here. Go to www.corante.com/betweenlawyers to read more.

Q: What is the current landscape for legal blogging?

DK: There are probably fewer law-related blogs than most people would expect. The ones that do exist, however, have captured a lot of attention and are a well-recognized segment of the larger blog community. There is also a general feeling that legal blogs have improved the reputation of lawyers, at least to some extent, among Internet users.
Interestingly, individual lawyers, law librarians, law professors and law students have created almost all of the best-known legal blogs, while blogging experiments by law firms have yet to show long-term success.

DH: I’m guessing there must be well over 1,000 blogs maintained by legal professionals. If I’m right, this is more than a hundredfold increase since I started paying attention to such things in early 2002. I see no sign of this growth slowing, and no reason to think there can ever be “too many” blogs of any kind, legal or otherwise. Every author or group of authors has perspective, knowledge, expertise, talent and interests that are totally unique and of immeasurable value to those who want or need access to that precise informational blend.

In other words, it’s a great time to start a law-oriented blog. There’s a considerable frame of reference for what people are already doing, yet enormous room for innovation and perhaps an infinite number of interesting niches to fill.

TM: I have always believed that the “niche” law blogs—those tracking a particular area of law—are more likely to be followed regularly than are the more general blogs, law student blogs and the like. The average user will not be a voracious reader of blogs, but he or she will, I think, take the time to receive information useful to his or her practice, whether it be practice area-specific or related to the business of running a law practice.

Right now large firms are underrepresented in the “blawgosphere.” But I expect that will change as more firms recognize the numerous benefits of blogging.

MS: The land rush where a blogger could claim a whole sector of the law as his or her subject is almost over, but not quite. Oddly, we saw the first practitioner-authored blog in copyright law only recently. For the most part, however, we will see differentiation from here on in—by specialty, location and other means that will mirror the way lawyers brand themselves. We are also seeing aggregation—with our own group, Between Lawyers, and rethink(ip) (www.rethinkip.com) being two examples. And we are seeing “corporatization,” with the Law.com network (http://legalblogwatch.type pad.com/legal_blog_watch) being an early example there.

Q: What are the three biggest benefits of blogging for lawyers?

DK: The first is that you can create a good-looking, content-rich Web site without learning HTML or other coding. If you use a hosted service such as TypePad, you can simply choose a template and have a great blog for less than $15 a month. The second benefit is that a blog can give your practice a voice and a personal presence. Because blogs consist of regular “posts” or short essays, blog authors can express their personalities and share their experiences, insights and ideas while providing genuinely helpful information and tips. The third benefit is that bloggers are, for the most part, incredibly generous and accommodating. So as a blogger, you can gradually become part of the world’s greatest network.

DH: For me, the first benefit is easy, effective, fast, flexible, well-organized, persistent, participatory, distributed communication at marginal cost. Non-blog-oriented Web tools have a tough time competing on any of these levels. Second, there’s exposure to a flattened cross-section of others’ thoughts, musings, research and analyses to which you would otherwise be oblivious, some of which is—at any given moment—precisely relevant to whatever you need or want to be doing. Third, attention is the scarcest resource available to knowledge-based businesses. It gets trampled every day with overzealous push-content approaches. Blogging makes you part of the solution, not part of the problem.

TM: A top benefit is the marketing potential. By publishing regularly updated content in your area of practice, you can become known as a “go-to” person in that field. Clients and would-be clients will send you work because of the valuable information you provide to them, and other lawyers who read your blog will refer work to you because you are a trusted authority in that area of law. Second, blogging forces lawyers to drop the stuffy legal-speak that infests so many briefs and motions and, thus, become a better writer through the process.

Third, I’d say collaboration, being a part of something bigger than yourself. The law bloggers I know are people who “get it”—and people I never would have met were it not for my blog. If it weren’t for blogs, would Steve Nipper (Invent Blog), Matt Buchanan (Promote the Progress) and Doug Sorocco (PHOSITA) have gotten together and started rethink(ip), which discusses how to change the way we think about intellectual property law? I doubt that the five of us at Between Lawyers would have ended up talking here every day about issues that interest us if not for blogging.

Q: Should every lawyer and law firm have a blog?

MS: Yes, but not the same blog.

TM: That answer shows why we like blogging with Marty. But the question here should really be, “Is it a good idea for every lawyer and law firm to consider having a blog?” The answer to that, I think, is yes. However, the answer to the question stated is no. Blogging is not for everyone. If you are going to start a law-related blog, be prepared to invest the time and energy necessary to make it a credible Web presence. Lawyers who either don’t have the time to write posts, or who post very infrequently, should not undertake the effort. A poorly maintained blog will have the opposite effect of a well-written, frequently updated blog. The blogger will lose credibility with her or his audience. In other words, don’t just have a blog so you can say you have a blog.

DH: Any way I slice this question the answer is no, but I get there sort of circuitously. Not every lawyer should have a blog, because not everyone is predisposed to processing and sharing information in the way that blogs facilitate.

ES: My law firm has experimented with blogging, and at some point, we’ll develop a full-fledged blog strategy. For now, the fact that I blog is good enough for our firm. But eventually, we’ll feel more pressure to have a firm-sponsored blog. The pressure will come when other Louisiana firms start blogs.

DK: Legal Internet guru Jerry Lawson has said that blogs will be great vehicles for a small percentage of lawyers, moderately good vehicles for perhaps 10 to 15 percent of lawyers who try them, and disasters for the great majority of lawyers who try them. I agree with that. Blogs make the most sense for writers, especially those who can write on a regular basis and are generally comfortable with writing for a general audience. I don’t know a lot of lawyers who fit that description.

DH: Law firms are a different story. Before a firm decides to publish one or more blogs, it and its prospective bloggers-in-residence (and I do hope they are “in residence,” rather than commissioned for the purpose of generating blog posts) had better take a long look at the essential nature of blogging. Like all businesses, law firms aren’t a who, they’re a what, and blogging is a who-oriented pursuit. All the firms I’ve seen successfully embrace blogging to date are small or solo shops. I’m not saying a large firm can’t do it, I just think there are more hurdles to overcome in that setting.

Until blogs are mainstream enough that people just know what works well and what doesn’t (and the kind of “personality” issues involved), businesses—including law firms—should think hard about whether they’ve got what it takes to do a good “official” blog.

ES: The corporate-type blogs have been growing in number and they’ll keep growing. And just like the individual blogs, some of them will be well done and interesting while some will fall flat on their faceless faces. But even the corporations that like to operate behind a committee-created mask will learn that when the clock strikes midnight and the costume party ends, the masks have to come off.

Q: Do you think blogging is overhyped?

DK: We are certainly in a period of negative reaction to some of the inflated claims made about blogging. I can tell you the impact of my blog on both traffic to my Web site and my search engine rankings has been amazing, and I’ve certainly gotten other benefits from blogging, too. Yet despite that, I think the emphasis on blogs as a marketing technique is generally misplaced.

Blogs, like Web sites, may be an important part of an overall marketing portfolio for some lawyers and firms, but if you put all your marketing efforts into blogging, I’m not sure that you’ll be able to pay your bills. For law firms, I would argue that a strategy based on RSS feeds makes much more sense than a strategy based on blogs. The trail of legal blogging is littered with the dead blogs of law firms.

TM: Yes, there has been so much blog-mania lately that many people roll their eyes when I start to talk about blogs. I do hope (in the legal space, anyway) that the negative reaction will ultimately be replaced by a realization of the benefits. I mostly agree with Dennis about RSS and believe that RSS feeds are the future, while blogs are just the fancy window dressing for the technology. Still, it’s the blogs that will draw the readers in right now. If you tell the average potential client that the Smith & Jones firm has three RSS feeds on different legal issues, his or her eyes will glaze over with confusion. Show them a blog, however, and you can hook them with the RSS later.

DH: The issue is more that blogging is inaccurately hyped. Mainstream media likes to cover blogging for a variety of reasons, including the fact that the volume is beginning to be such that it would be irresponsible to ignore it. Blogging also is “new” enough that there’s some sensationalism to be milked from the coverage. (“Your employees are blogging your company secrets! Film at 11 o’clock.”) Media outlets still have an unfortunate tendency to treat blogs like something in the sky over Roswell, New Mexico—exciting but hokey. The best writing and more straightforward assessments about blogging come from those who have done their homework or have firsthand experience—some examples being BusinessWeek, Dan Gillmor’s eJournal and Online Journalism Review.

Q: What makes a legal blog successful or unsuccessful?

ES: The successful ones require a certain kind of commitment, which is why the blog craze was incubated by passionate individuals rather than corporations or partnerships. Corporations and other legal entities don’t possess passion, although they may employ people who do. The best corporations harness that passion.

DK: Most of the tried-and-true ingredients for successful law firm Web sites also apply to blogs. You must have well-written, quality, compelling content that gives visitors a reason to return. Successful blogs also have a strong sense of generosity and helpfulness. Blogs that have “official” or “institutional” voices have not been successful to date. Our own experience with group blogs leads me to question whether a law firm blog will be successful without a significant amount of planning and a willingness to allow contributing lawyers freedom in what they write.

TM: Dennis is dead-on, but I’ll add that success means providing great content on a regular basis, with frequent updates, to ensure your audience will keep coming back for more. Plus, you have to publicize your blog. Even if you regularly post terrific content in a light, conversational style, it won’t matter if no one knows you exist. The best and most obvious way is to announce the blog to a select group of law bloggers. This will usually guarantee instant exposure, because everyone likes to announce a cool new blog. Also, make sure the major directories—Blawg.org and Blawg Republic—know you’re out there.

MS: The five elements of success are: (1) regularly produced (2) well-written (3) relevant information (4) that other bloggers will link to, (5) thus giving you a good search engine ranking.

DH: It’s not about number of readers, or dollars in the door. If it’s useful to the writer and interesting or helpful to even a tiny universe of readers, it’s a success. If you think that’s too forgiving a definition, consider (1) the trivial or nonexistent cost of getting a blog out there, and (2) the ease and speed with which you can reach a literally global audience. Small investment plus disproportionate return equals success. Of course, the more time, thought and effort you put into creating something compelling, the greater will be the return.

Q: Let’s expand on some earlier thoughts about what will be more important in the future. Will it be RSS, blogs or collaborations among bloggers?

DK: I really like blogging, but I’ve always said blogs are the sideshow and RSS feeds are the main attraction. Lately, though, I’ve started to talk about “Blogging 2.0,” which refers to the current period, in which bloggers are starting to collaborate on a variety of projects.

When people look back on this period, I think the focus will be on the projects that grew out of these collaborations rather than on blogging itself. For example, if we ever see something everyone would agree is a “virtual law firm,” I have little doubt that it will have grown out of the efforts of legal bloggers.

DH: It’s a hard question, since they’re all important. I’ll rank them, though, as follows.

First: Blogs. Ordinary, mostly nontechnical people like lawyers need an easy way to participate in online discourse, and it’s important psychologically somehow—and useful from a practical standpoint—to have a “place” that’s all your own.

Second: RSS. It’s hard to separate this from number one, because the idea of blogging without feeds, especially given the capabilities of the blogging tools available today, is just silly. Feeds of not just text but also of audio and video make whatever it is you have to say extremely user-friendly. This is good for all concerned.

Third: Collaborations. It’s also hard to separate this from number one, because it’s hard to blog in a vacuum. However, active collaboration adds another layer that perhaps not everyone needs. If all your schedule permits is posting your insights from time to time to a (syndicated) blog, that’s great. You’re already collaborating and communicating across organizations and disciplines in a way you couldn’t have done without blogging.

TM: I largely agree with both Dennis and Denise on this. But I think blogs will become even more mainstream for the casual reader soon, and I don’t think that reader will be ready for Blogging 2.0 by that time. Also, I agree that the idea of blogging without feeds is silly, but feeds without blogging?

The power of the RSS feed is where we are headed. Just see what the folks at FeedBurner ( www.feedburner.com) are doing.

Still, it’s not all about blogs or RSS, and it doesn’t have to be. Blogs (legal and not) began as solo activities—individuals wanting to find their own particular voice on the Internet. Now the medium has evolved, however, to allow for and encourage collaboration. As Dennis intimates with his mention of “virtual law firms,” this has tremendous implications for the future.

Q: Will you be blogging in five years?

DK: I’d be surprised if my blog did not still exist in five years, but I’m not sure what it will look like—or if it might be more audio or video than text. Again, I don’t think people appreciate how hard it is to write content for a blog on a regular, often daily, basis. It’s difficult and it has to become part of who you are in the same way that regular exercise or a hobby must be for you to stick with it. Of course, the more blogging can turn into something that generates income, the easier it will be to keep blogging.

DH: As a former colleague and mentor of mine likes to say, “God be willin’ and the creek don’t rise.”

TM: Ditto to what Denise said! I’ll be interested to see how many of today’s law blogs are still around in five years.

I’ve been keeping track of new ones through my “Blawg of the Day” since 2002. During that time, I’ve tracked more than 500 law blogs, and I also keep track of some 150-plus others through the blawg directories. I expected to find a pretty high turnover rate among lawyer-bloggers, but that has not been the case. Of the blawgs I have been tracking, almost 85 percent are still going strong. Of the blawgs that aren’t active anymore, I found that their average life was just over six months. So I’ve been using that period of time as a benchmark—separating the dabblers from the legal blogs that will likely be around for some time.

Q: How, if at all, will blogging change the practice of law?

DK: Unlike the evolution of legal Web sites, I expect blogs to continue to focus on subject matter expertise and resources rather than on the services and what not of individual law firms. I also expect to see blogs used to enhance communications with clients and non-clients. Blogs will almost inevitably lead to new approaches to the online delivery of legal services and the creation of products for sale, new lines of business and other innovations.

DH: Those are good points. Blogging will make more relevant, quality legal information more readily available, which will put its own pressures on the practice. It will serve to make clients and members of the profession increasingly better informed about resources and options.

TM: Let’s go back to the idea of “virtual law firms.” Is it too early to think about the virtual practice of law? In bringing together lawyers from across the country, blogs have made it possible for lawyers to communicate and collaborate with each other across physical boundaries. It will only be a matter of time before these folks begin to truly test the limits of “multijurisdictional practice.”

DK: Blogging (or, perhaps more accurately, bloggers) actually seems to force the pace of change and increase the pressure on institutions to make changes. I think the biggest force of blogging will be on the state-based regulation of legal practice. Also, it could lead both clients and lawyers to question the role of firms. What, for example, happens when a client comes to you for a problem that you’re sure can better be handled by a blogger you know than by your partner down the hall?

Q: Ernie, Do You Want to Wrap Up This Discussion for Us?

ES: I agree with everything my cohorts have said about the value of blogs in general, and of law blogs in particular. Perhaps the biggest question that remains is: How quickly will law firms move to develop blogs? It depends on a lot of internal and external factors. But the clock is certainly ticking. For some firms that sound is just loud and annoying, while for others it is stirring and prompting them to act. So when will your firm create a blog?

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick ….