Building a Better Blog

Volume 38 Number 1

By

About the Author

Ernest Svenson is known for his “Ernie the Attorney” site (ernietheattorney.net), which was twice chosen by the ABA Journal as a top 100 law weblog. He believes that the practice of law is increasingly an “information processing business.” He frequently speaks to lawyers about how to use technology better, and has two weblogs focused on that message: pdfforlawyers.com and digitalworkflowcle.com.    

Blogs have been around for over 10 years, but lawyers didn’t really start using them heavily until about six years ago. I started my first two law blogs in 2002 and 2003 respectively. I’ve started a couple of other blogs since then, and watched constellations of law blogs forming in the blogosphere. If you are interested in starting a law-related blog (sometimes call a “blawg”), here are some thoughts based on my experience as a creator and observer of law blogs.

Blogging is really hard if you don’t like to write. If you like to write it’s still hard, but you won’t notice the difficulty as much. Relative to the other social media tools covered in this article, it is more work to create and run a blog, but the potential returns are greater.

If blogging is new to you or you are struggling to see how it might work for your practice, take a look at what others are doing. Be careful to look at them from a reader’s perspective. You should also take notes on things you want to try to emulate (like design, writing style, topic choices or hyperlinking methods). You can find good lists of active blogs on the ABA Journal Blawg Directory (abajournal.com/blawgs) and the Canadian Law Blogs List (lawblogs.ca).

Creating a blog

There are three basic questions you need to address when creating a blog: 1. Where will you host your blog? 2. What blogging software/platform will you use? and 3. Will you have your own d/omain? Let’s focus on the first two for the moment.

If you use a service like TypePad (typepad.com), which is where I  host my PDF for Lawyers blog (pdfforlawyers.com), you have the benefit of getting the blogging software/platform and the hosting all in one place. You can host your blog at WordPress.com, but most people who use WordPress choose to host it elsewhere.

These days, most people seem to use WordPress, probably because there are many customization options. WordPress will not paint you into a corner if you find you want to do more with your blog (e.g. ability to notify Twitter or Facebook of blog post updates). You can use Google’s free Blogger software (blogger.com), and many people do. But, you’ll probably regret that decision if your blog gets popular and you start wanting to do more with it.

If you have any kind of technology or Web experience, setting up a WordPress blog should be fairly easy for you. However, my recommendation is to find someone to set it up for you. Don’t spend your valuable time when you can spend a little money (probably no more than $200) to get the basic set up. If you want help figuring out how to make the design of the blog more sophisticated, then you’ll spend a few hundred dollars more. The cheapest way to get a decent looking WordPress blog is to use a site like oDesk.com to find a Web designer. On this site, people from all over the world compete for design work. The end result will be something far more professional than you could likely create.

Now, back to question #3: Do you want your blog to have its own domain name? Well, if you’re going to go through all the trouble involved with setting up a WordPress blog, then I’d say you’d want a domain name. You can get a domain name with a Web address for $30/year or less. I get my domains at Hover.com,  but I have used GoDaddy.com in the past. Hover is a little more expensive, but its site is easier to navigate and it has actual human beings answer their phones and help you with whatever problems you might have. On the other hand, GoDaddy will provide you with a domain name and hosting. So, in summary, I recommend:

  1. Get a domain name.
  2. Find a hosting site such as 1and1.com or GoDaddy.com.
  3. Hire a Web designer for no more than $500 to set up your blog. If you use oDesk, I’d try not to pay more than $300, which shouldn’t be a problem if you have the domain and the hosting site established.

Blogging for fun and profit

The blogosphere abounds with advice on how to blog, and I encourage you to seek out and exploit the diversity of opinions. That said, here are my quick suggestions:

Decide on a niche topic, if possible.

Plan to post regularly (e.g., once a week, once a day, three times a day, whatever makes sense for you).

Link to other bloggers, even if (or especially if) they write about areas similar to yours. I can’t say this emphatically enough. If you want people to link to your blog—and, trust me, you do—then you need to link to other sites. Google assigns page rank to your blog based on how many inbound links you have and the ranking of the sites that link to you.

How to gather ideas for your blog

Writing regular blog posts takes time, but after awhile you get quick at cranking out the posts. The trick is to keep coming up with new ideas for posts. Over the years I have developed certain tricks that make this part of the process ridiculously easy. I’d patent my technique, but I’ve noticed that almost every other prolific blogger has been using this technique since day one.

Have you heard of RSS, or RSS Readers? If not, search Google  for these terms to find out how these tools can make relevant information come to you. All prolific bloggers use RSS feeds.

Another thing that most prolific bloggers use is Twitter. They use it in two ways:

  1. To gather ideas quickly.
  2. To announce when they have posted something on their blog. Twitter is by far my best source of news and blog post ideas. Why? Well, because the ideas are neatly compacted into 140 characters, and the good ones are easy to spot. You should follow as many people as you can on Twitter, and build up a following of people who are interested in your niche topic.

What about using LinkedIn? I don’t use LinkedIn for my blogs. I do use it for my law firm’s website, where I have a link to my “online resume.” This is a link to my profile page on LinkedIn. It’s more than an online resume because it also has recommendations of my legal work and my speaking engagements from people who have hired me or who have worked with me. Some lawyers do find it is useful to feed some or all of their blog posts to LinkedIn.

Another place you can spread your blog posts to, that will seem reflexively undesirable to many lawyers, is Facebook. I was disdainful of Facebook initially, but a social media coach that I hired convinced me to use Facebook for my various blogs. What you want to do is set up a page that has the same name (if it’s available on Facebook) as your blog, or at least close.

Air traffic control for social media

I’ll bet you’re probably wondering how I manage to stream content to three different blogs, three different Twitter accounts, and four different Facebook pages? Frankly, it wasn’t until my social media coach showed me some tools that let you blast out content from one place and have it appear wherever you want, whenever you choose.

Before I explain how to do this, let’s focus on why I want to have lots of content flowing through several parallel sites. Basically, the more places your content appears, the more people will view it. I might not like Facebook, but lots of people—approximately 800 million as of now— do. Same with Twitter or LinkedIn. So if I can blast my content once and have it appear in several places, that’s a huge benefit.

Another benefit is to be able to sprinkle a bevy of short Twitter posts into a queue that releases them, say, once an hour during peak viewing times. The tool I use to accomplish this is called SocialOomph.com, and it allows me to manage my blogs (most of them), Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. SocialOomph doesn’t work with LinkedIn. If you want to manage a LinkedIn account then you should check out HootSuite.com, but as of now it doesn’t work with blogs.

The easiest thing is to only have one blog, and set it up to auto notify Twitter and Facebook. You can use a tool like TweetDeck to auto-update Twitter on a scheduled basis.

Google+

Google has been trying to get a piece of the social media pie for quite a while. Google+ is the latest attempt, and I was skeptical at first. But now it appears that it’s at least worth paying attention to. But for now, I don’t think it is one of the top three things to worry about if you’re starting a blog.

Dangers of blogging

There is an old saying, “It’s better to keep one’s mouth closed and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.” That proverb applies to blogging. If you tend to say foolish things, or you don’t think carefully before you speak, then you’ve probably gotten into trouble before. Whatever trouble you got into before will pale in comparison to the kind of trouble you can get into with a blog.

Plus, trouble comes at you much faster when you’re speaking through a microphone that’s connected to the Internet. What about ethical issues for lawyers who blog?

The world is changing quickly and it’s hard to predict how ethics rules might change or evolve, but my rules of thumb for avoiding trouble ARE:

  1. I don’t use my blog to advertise a law practice.
  2. I don’t talk about any aspect of any of my cases at all. Some lawyers use their blogs as an advertising tool, and that’s fine, as long as they comply with whatever rules their state may have regarding lawyer advertising.

I don’t believe that advertising, or shameless promoting, works very well on the Internet. It doesn’t work as well as steadily acquiring readers by writing about interesting topics in an interesting way. I’ve gotten a lot of business as a result of my blog, even though I don’t use it to advertise or overtly promote my law practice.

Sometimes a lawyer in another state who reads my blog will have a case in New Orleans, and usually I get called because the lawyer tends to feel like they know a bit about me from my blog. Or sometimes it’s a potential client who has a legal problem and searches for a lawyer using Google and one of my blog posts shows up. They do some research and find my law firm’s blog, and then they call me or email me.

People use the Internet to search for things. They don’t sit and stare at their computer screen to see if it changes into something interesting like they do when they watch TV. Hence, people are more savvy (at least while they’re searching) about evaluating claims. Hokey lawyer advertising only works when people’s minds are functioning at a low level. A blog will attract people who can reason well and who know what they want. Those kinds of clients have been my favorite kind to work for, so I plan to never advertise and continue blogging about general topics.

My best tip

If you want to stand out on the Internet,  you have to do something that few people are doing. Here’s my recommendation: Be radically honest and down-to-earth about who you are and what you hope to see happen in the world. Don’t preach, and don’t be dogmatic. Just let your curiosity guide you, and then report on what you find in your explorations. That’s a formula that’s easy to apply. It’s also easy to copy, but—trust me—for some weird reason, not many people will. Jump in and have some fun. 

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