To Blog or Not: That Is the Question

Vol. 40 No. 1

By

G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and freelance writer in Chicago.

Blogging has proved to be a boon to lawyers when it comes to establishing their professional brand and expertise. Can it do the same for you?

Lawyers who have jumped into the blogging waters say it has helped them build name recognition and solidify their reputations as experts in their fields. For many, the result is a commensurate growth in their client base. Do student bloggers get similar benefits? Or is the risk of making mistakes and looking unprofessional—and therefore jeopardizing employment opportunities—too high? The consensus is that while blogging might help a person get name recognition or accepted as an expert on a particular subject, students considering blogging must exercise caution.

Lawyers Heart Their Blogs

Lawyers who blog rave about the benefits. Robert Voelker, head of the Munsch Hardt Kopf hospitality and mixed-use development group in Dallas, had no clients when he reentered the law in 2005 after developing affordable housing. “I had been out of the law for 11 years,” he says. “I had no client base—zero. One thing a new lawyer should do is make contacts with and be relevant to people in an industry you want to be part of.”

Three blogs—DFWREimagined, Texas Multifamily News, and Fair Housing for Developers—helped Voelker do that. “A lot of lawyers don’t like marketing because it is very foreign to us,” he says. “But we do like sharing our expertise. Blogging is one way to market and share your expertise in a friendly way. I send posts from Fair Housing for Developers to 4,500 people across the country, and I have gotten several large fair housing cases out of that.”

Blogging also helped Daryl Binkley, who operates a solo practice in Palm Desert, California, build his practice. Binkley began blogging at Desert Estate Planning Law Blog about the time he split off from a partner in fall 2008. “My blog has allowed me to develop my voice, get published in the local newspaper, and get more clients,” he explains. “Initially, my blogs were all about legal topics. But as I got more comfortable with my own voice, I became more comfortable writing about entrepreneurship and charities I am involved in. Ironically, the less I talk about the law, the more my blog attracts people. People love photos. But if I do a legal article, it’s like cricket, cricket, cricket.”

John Yates, an Atlanta-based partner and chair of the technology group at Morris, Manning & Martin, LLP, entered the fray two years ago by guest blogging about his business travel to India. Yates now heads a team of the firm’s lawyers blogging about technology law issues. The blog, MMM Tech Law & Business Report, has 1,600 followers, which associates can contribute to. “We encourage that participation,” he says. “They can suggest content, and we have a review committee to determine whether it would be appropriate to place on the site and what information needs to be included. Then associates can write posts that would be subject to review by a partner before being posted.”

Suzanne Boy did not wait for her firm to launch a blog. The associate at Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt PA in Fort Myers, Florida, asked for the opportunity and now oversees the firm’s two blogs, with a third about to launch. Today, Boy has “100 percent control” of her firm’s blog, Southwest Florida HR Law & Solutions.

“I post from two or more times a week to two times a month,” says Boy. “Nobody supervises what I put on there or looks at anything before I post it. From the design to the selection of the name to photos, they really let me take the reins and run with it. That forces me to keep up with the latest employment law developments, and I have also brought in several new clients that began as blog contacts, including a company with more than 1,600 employees.”

What Some Students are Doing

A second-year student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, Simon Borys draws on his five years of policing both as an officer and communications professional to pen his blog, Simon Says: The Blog of Simon Borys. It logged more than 40,000 hits in the first year, and several posts were reprinted in publications in the United States and Canada.

Joining Borys as a student blogger is Clint Dunaway. He launched a blog while attending the University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio, and was featured on Above the Law when he ranked the 10 most Mormon-friendly law schools in the country. “I didn’t think anybody would read it,” says Dunaway, who notes his blog was getting 1,000 hits an hour at one point. “But newspapers and websites picked it up.”

Interestingly, Dunaway broke several sacrosanct rules to follow when searching for a job.

Discussing religion? Check. Dunaway’s blog, Mormon Lawyers, covered issues relevant to the Mormon church.

Offering opinions on controversial topics? Check. Dunaway weighed in on the Mormon church’s involvement in ’s emotionally charged Prop 8, which when passed in November 2008 made same-sex marriage illegal in the state.

Yet not a single employer asked Dunaway about his blog during job interviews, who is now employed as an associate at the Pew Law Center in Phoenix. “I decided I was going to keep it on the down low, and if potential employers brought it up, I would talk about it,” says Dunaway. “If they didn’t, I wouldn’t.”

Should You Blog? Maybe.

Vickie Williams, associate dean for academic affairs at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Washington, says students like Dunaway and Borys are rare in their willingness to talk about their blogging. “I can’t think of any students blogging on a regular basis, although I am sure there are many,” she says. “They just don’t tell me about it!”

Perhaps that is because Williams is lukewarm about blogging. “If students asked me whether they should start a blog, I would ask about their purpose,” she says. “Is it for personal reasons, or are we talking about a law-related blog? If it was related to the law, I would still probe. If you’re trying to record your thoughts for personal reference or work through issues you are experiencing, I don’t know why you would want to broadcast that. If it is to communicate with others with similar interests or attract attention, I would caution them that when you put something in cyberspace, it never leaves. People develop over time, especially professionally, and the thoughts you put out today might not be relevant later.”

There is also the risk of getting something wrong. “If an employer doing due diligence on potential employee comes across the blog and something is wrong on the law, it might prevent that student from being hired,” cautions Williams. “Also, anything students say about professors or fellow students could hurt them in the future because those people ultimately might be referral sources. Yet if you sanitize your blog so that it’s so bland that nobody would be interested in reading it, I am not sure of the point.”

Tim Swensen, assistant dean and director of the career services office at the University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio, is also wary. “I would caution students about the risks versus the rewards,” he explains. “It could work reasonably well for students if they were very careful not to overstate their case in any post, be very measured, and demonstrate their interest rather than implying, ‘I have all the answers.’ You don’t have time to do that and are highly likely to come off naïve or incorrect or both.”

Worth the Risk

Dunaway and Borys say the benefits outweigh the dangers. Borys says blogging has helped him build his criminal law credentials and set him apart in a world where “law students are plentiful and largely anonymous to potential employers.”

Blogging also helps Borys showcase his writing and unique skill set to potential employers and clients. “I rely on my experience as a former police officer to dispel police myths and demystify the law,” he explains. “It shows potential employers I have good knowledge of the law and understand it well enough to communicate it to clients—a skill I think employers appreciate.” Blogging has also helped Borys land a part-time job doing research and case prep, and he has already been approached about potential jobs after graduation.

Dunaway also gained name recognition, but he is also proud of spreading the word about his church. “Blogging made a lot of people aware of my name,” says Dunaway. “It has also made legal issues the Mormon church is involved in available to people who would not otherwise learn about them in easy-to-understand language. And just spending time each night working on the blog was a way for me to escape the stresses of law school and do something fun.”

Smart Blogging for Law Students

If you blog, says Tim Swensen, assistant dean and director of the career services office at the University of Dayton School of Law in Ohio, make sure potential employers recognize your initiative, smarts, and writing skills. “The goal is not to write an airtight memo every time out,” he says, “but to demonstrate a keen interest in the topic and some writing ability.” Here are more pointers:

Focus on your strengths. “Think about what you have to offer that is unique,” advises Simon Borys, a second-year student at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. “All law students come to the table with their unique experiences and knowledge. It is the combination of those experiences and your legal education that gives every potential blogger something unique to talk about. Doing that can give you a platform to differentiate yourself from everybody else.”

Learn from the pros. “Find a good voice to follow,” says Suzanne Boy, an associate at Henderson, Franklin, Starnes & Holt PA in Fort Myers, Florida. “Find blogs in your field and look at what is posted and the tone so you can get a feel for what is appropriate. Put out a product you would be willing to print out and put before potential employers in an interview.”

Do not be a know-it-all. “One risk I saw was the potential of coming off too strong and too in your face to people already established in the profession,” says Borys. “Don’t tread on people’s toes and push your opinions too strongly because they may not think you have the right to do that yet.”

Take the time to do it right. “Blogging will take a lot of your time because building readership takes consistency,” says Clint Dunaway, an associate at the Pew Law Center in Phoenix. “If you post once a month, you are not going to build a big readership.”

Do not plagiarize. “Give proper attribution as you would with a law journal article,” advises Swensen. “It is not just quotations you want to be careful about. It is entire ideas you are building off of. Potential employers will recognize text from decisions they are familiar with. If you have not attributed them properly, you will raise eyebrows.”

Get a second opinion. “If you think your blog is good, vet it with someone like me or a professor you respect,” says Swensen. “If the consensus is that it is well done and might increase your chances with certain employment targets, make sure the entry on your résumé is in the right place and worded properly. Place under a bullet under your law school experience.”

Most importantly, do not let fear or insecurity control whether you blog. “I have talked to a number of people trying to find ways to build brand awareness and get an edge,” says Borys. “When I have suggested blogging, they felt they didn’t have anything to offer. That is erroneous. Do not be scared of blogging. Everybody has something to offer, and the profession appreciates those unique perspectives. It certainly does with mine.”

 

 

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