June 06, 2011

Blog Technology 101

Joshua Poje

Search the Internet for advice on marketing your legal practice or developing your professional reputation and sooner or later ( you’ll hear the phrase: “get a blog!”  According to proponents of legal blogs (or “blawgs,” as they’re sometimes called), a blog can attract clients, drive traffic to a firm’s Web site, facilitate networking with other legal professionals and establish a lawyer’s reputation as an expert in a particular field.

Indeed, the legal profession has enthusiastically embraced blogging. Vast directories of legal-centric blogs have been compiled, including Blawg.com and the ABA Journal Blawg Directory, which list blogs on topics ranging from administrative law to workers compensation and most everything in between. The ranks of lawyer bloggers now include prominent judges, numerous law professors, nationally-recognized appellate lawyers and entire practice groups.

While blogs have become enormously popular within the legal profession, the frequent advice for lawyers to “get a blog!” tends to lack one key bit of information: how. With that in mind, the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center has assembled a general overview of the technology options should you decide it’s time to get blogging.

Zero to blogging in five minutes

Establishing a blog can seem like a major commitment. Lawyers who’ve yet to go through the process may imagine enormous initial expenditures for software and licenses, numerous hours of consultant time to get the blog set up and running, and countless hours learning a complicated software interface. However, the reality is that even a lawyer with minimal computer expertise can have a simple blog up and running at little or no cost in less than five minutes using one of several major blog providers.

The key to quick-and-easy blogging is using one of several free blogging services available over the Web. With the most popular of these services – Blogger and Wordpress – signing up is as simple as entering an e-mail address and coming up with a name for your blog. The blog is made available on the Web at a shared domain (e.g. mylawblog.wordpress.com), and the user can begin blogging immediately.

Both services allow the user to customize their blog in a number of ways: changing the design by picking between pre-made templates, adding links to other blogs or Web sites, adding an “About” page with biographical information and more. Premium features including custom domain names (e.g. www.mylawblog.com rather than mylawblog.blogspot.com) and more storage space, which are available at modest monthly or yearly costs.

Once a blog is customized, the posts are written and uploaded using a simple web-based graphical interface reminiscent of Microsoft Word or any other text editor. Posts can be categorized (or “tagged”) for organizational purposes, and once they are posted they are automatically added to the blog’s archive. Users of Microsoft Word 2007 can even post to their blog directly from Word simply by using the “New Blog Post” option available under the new document menu. (The user will have to enter his or her blog information for the post to reach the blog properly.)

While blogs hosted using services like Blogger and Wordpress have the advantage of speed and price, they do have certain disadvantages. Most notably, blogs hosted on shared domains may appear less professional than those hosted on a custom domain or integrated into a firm Web site. Users may also feel “locked in” to an online service, as it can be difficult to transition from one provider to another without losing readership and archived content.

Nonetheless, a free blog through a hosted service can be an excellent solution for a lawyer who’s looking to test the blogging waters or simply wants a more casual blogging experience.

Turning it up a notch: full-power blogging

While shared blogging services are a great option for new bloggers or those with relatively simple needs, power bloggers and those who are looking to incorporate a blog into a pre-existing Web site may want a more robust alternative. A good solution for those users is a hosted blog. Hosted blogs are differentiated from shared blogs in that the blog’s files are typically stored on the user’s own server space rather than in the vast data cloud of a company like Blogger or Wordpress. The blogs also allow the user significantly more freedom in customizing the appearance and features of the blog without incurring any monthly fees.

Such full-powered blogging solutions are not without their drawbacks: they can take longer to set up, the technical complexity of installing and configuring the blog may require the hiring of a consultant or outside technology company, and the burden of maintenance and troubleshooting for the software shifts largely to the user. Nevertheless, users who are willing and able to address these drawbacks may find that a hosted blog truly provides them with the tools they need to become a power blogger.

Here are the steps you can take to getting your own hosted blog:

  1. Before you can have a hosted blog, you must have a web host. Most lawyers with existing Web sites already have some form of hosting arrangement in place. For others, finding a web hosting solution is relatively straightforward.  See “Step Three: Find Hosting” from the LTRC’s Guide to Starting a Web Site. In either case, you should verify with your existing or potential host that their service supports blogging software. In some cases, web hosts will even offer "one-click" installation tools for the market leading blog software.
  2. Choose and install the blog software.  A wide variety of blog software is available for use on hosted blogs. Among the more popular options are Wordpress,MovableType, and b2evolution. The features vary between products, as do prices - some software is free while others scale in price based on the complexity and number of users. Each product's Web site provides detailed installation and configuration options, though less technically minded lawyers should definitely consider hiring an expert to handle the technical end of the blog setup. See the LTRC's guide to Hiring a Freelancer or Consultant.
  3. One of the major advantages of hosting your own blog is the wide range of customization options that are available without adding additional monthly or yearly fees. Though users may still choose from a number of pre-made design templates, they’re also free to fully customize the appearance of their blog or hire a professional designer to do so for them. This may be particularly useful for lawyers with pre-existing Web sites who would like to integrate their blog with the rest of their site. Most of the major installable blogging platforms also offer the ability to add new features via plug-ins, such as creating polls, building image galleries,or giving blog visitors the ability to rate your posts.
  4. Once your blog is running and customized to your tastes, you’ll need to take certain steps to protect your investment (of both money and hard work). In particular, bloggers with hosted blogs must be diligent about updating their software when new bug fixes and security updates are released by the developer. These fixes help protect your blogs from abuse by spammers and scammers alike. Also, as with any other electronically stored information, users should backup their data regularly. Most blog software allows the user to export the contents of the blog (posts and comments) to a simple text file that can be redundantly backed up. Should the blog somehow crash, or if the user simply decides to move to a new host or new blogging platform, the exported file can then be imported back into the software to restore the user’s posts.

Who has time to blog!?

Lawyers are busy people, and some may not feel that they have the time to adequately dedicate themselves to blogging. That doesn’t necessarily mean that blogging is beyond their reach. Here are a few tips for testing the blogging waters even if you don’t have a significant amount of free time:

  • Try Twitter. Twitter, sometimes referred to as a “micro-blogging” tool, is designed to encourage users to post short (140 character or less), frequent updates. Lawyers who aren’t ready for a full blog can use Twitter to update colleagues and clients on the latest firm news, interesting news articles and case decisions, or even interesting snapshots of the lawyer’s personal life. For more information, check out the LTRC’s Twitter feed,or read “Lawyers and Twitter.“
  • Consider a collaborative blog. Rather than placing the full burden of a blog on your shoulders, reach out to colleagues and build a collaborative blog. Such blogs – often built around a practice area, firm, or political viewpoint – can provide fresh content on a regular basis without requiring one lawyer to dedicate time every day (or even every week) to posting. 
  • For some lawyers, the time spent handling the technical side of the blog may be far more off-putting than the time actually spent writing for the blog. If you fall into that category, a good option may be to work with a company dedicated to developing blogs for lawyers and the legal community. Such companies, including LexBlog, Justia, and G2WebMedia, can help handle all of the technical details for you. All you have to do is write.

This article first appeared in YourABA e-newsletter, a monthly publication distributed via email to all ABA members.  Learn more about the benefits of belonging to the American Bar Association.

Joshua Poje