December 07, 2015 Asked and Answered

How blogging can help you carve a niche for your practice (podcast with transcript)

By Stephanie Francis Ward

Can a commitment to blogging help develop a practice area and turn you into an expert? In this month’s Asked and Answered, the ABA Journal’s Stephanie Francis Ward speaks with Hilary Bricken, a Seattle lawyer and one of the authors of Canna Law Blog. Recently honored as one of the ABA Journal’s 9th Annual Blawg 100, the Canna Law Blog discusses cannabis laws and how they affect the emerging legal cannabis industry.

Ward speaks with Bricken to find out how her firm, Harris Moure, decided to launch a blog on this specific topic; how the blog has performed as a client-development tool; and how writing for Canna Law has helped Bricken expand her own knowledge and expertise.

In the five years since the firm launched Canna Law Blog, Bricken says the blog has come to generate about half of the regulated practice group’s clients. She shares her tips about what she thinks has made Canna Law Blog a successful one for the firm.

Listen to the Podcast

Podcast Transcript

Stephanie Francis Ward: Many lawyers have tried blogging, but few stick with it and get actual paying clients from their writing. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward, and on today’s Asked and Answered, our guest is Hilary Bricken, a Seattle attorney who’s used her firm’s site Canna Law Blog to develop and promote her marijuana business practice. She’ll be sharing with us what her approach has been to blogging, and what roles it’s played in the development and marketing of her work. Welcome to the show, Hilary.

Hilary Bricken: Thanks, Stephanie.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Can you tell us, how much of a role would you say that your blog has played in getting new clients and maybe getting more business from existing clients?

Hilary Bricken: I would say over the years, the blog—and it’s been in play for about five years now—I would say it’s risen to a level of about half of our clients coming into us, which may sound like a lot. And it is when we talk about blogging attracting actual paying work, but it’s done a really good job attracting more mature clients. And I say that really lovingly, because in my particular industry there’s a lot of emerging economies from state to state; lots of startup businesses; and we seek to work, really, with people who have a lot of business acumen, who understand that change is a part of the game.

And the blog has really helped get the message out there that we deal with sophisticated issues. We expect clients to have a handle on it. And it’s been a really good gating mechanism, as well as generator of work for better clients and better projects.

Stephanie Francis Ward: When you were putting the blog together, what were you specifically thinking about? Because of course, you want the clients who actually have money to pay you, and who have business sense and aren’t just, you know, thinking, “Oh, this would be cool. I’m going to do that.”

I mean, I can’t tell you how many blogs I’ve seen for marijuana lawyers that have the smiley signs and the marijuana leaves on the sign, obviously—and maybe those are kind of going away as the practice gets more common. But what were you thinking about to get that blog that made you look very serious and knowledgeable about the industry?

Hilary Bricken: That’s a fantastic question, and do want to give some attention to the other blogs that are out there: They served as a guideline really for what not to do if we wanted to attract business-type clientele.

And immediately what we recognized was that we need to keep it a business blog. And it’s interesting, and it obviously goes to the practice area itself, where things like criminal defense, prosecution for possession etc., those are still in play. But as the industry matures and becomes more business savvy and technical, we really wanted to get out ahead of that maturation, and kind of project what we thought would be important, so we really kept it to business basics.

And when I say that, I mean things like talking about investment; the risk they’re in; publically traded marijuana companies; commercial litigation issues; intellectual property and branding—none of the other marijuana-intensive blogs out there were talking about this really in any kind of intelligent way. Or worse, they really hadn’t had the experience that we had had and could kind of break it down into something digestible like a blog post.

The other thing that we decided to do very quickly, because of the way the industry is rounding out, is to pay solid and distinct attention to various states. And we wouldn’t blog about a state unless we actually knew really what was going on at their end.

And I think a lot of the canna law bloggers out there, the other ones, they make the mistake of just going to headlines in publications like Huffington Post, and they’ll write about the content of that article. But they’re not really talking to people with boots on the ground. They’re not talking to regulators. They don’t have clients in the space. And the blog post hurts as a result. So that’s a long way of saying, the other focus was we wanted to make sure that the content was accurate and realistic, and that we could show that we had knowledge in a given marketplace.

So that’s what I think sets us apart, and how we made it different, and what we kept an eye on from the beginning.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Are you saying that you did some original research, and maybe even a little bit of reporting if you could call it that, or talking to people, as opposed to finding interesting links that you think clients or potential clients might want? Because I think that finding those interesting links, some people think that’s a secret, but we can all find interesting links.

Hilary Bricken: Right. Well, and I do mean that in that context, where for example if I would go to a CLE, or I would be asked to speak on the topic by a government body, you know, I’m not just putting my own rhetoric on loop. I’m listening to what these people are saying, and their perspectives: the fears, the hopes, the goals. And I think it creates a really diverse atmosphere in a blog where you are kind of quasi reporting, but you’re getting the legal perspective from the other side, who potentially is going to be an ally or an enemy.

And I think that that kind of insider take on those opinions and those strategies is invaluable. And I think that that’s what takes it out of reporting, because it really turns into strategizing. And we put that out there on the blog for mass consumption, because we know on multiple levels lots of these entrepreneurs are affected by those conversations inevitably.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I would imagine, too, the insider take is wonderful; but you have to be cautious, because your insider take sometimes might be privileged, and you can’t unring the bell.

Hilary Bricken: Correct.

Stephanie Francis Ward: How has that figured in, in deciding what you will write about?

Hilary Bricken: Well, it depends on the topic. And sometimes we do have those conversations, we’ll ask for permission to be able to divulge at least some minute detail, to give our readers a heads up about what’s coming. Or a really popular topic is when we talk about rule-making or changing in statutes, and sometimes we get shot down, and that content obviously is not going to go on the blog. But we typically ask for permission, and in the event that we don’t have to ask for permission and it’s really a judgment call, we don’t divulge names or really specific detail about who said what. We give an overarching kind of general opinion.

Let’s say for example: In a government body, I may not name the legislature who said it, but I will say “a certain legislator who has been involved in the topic, haling from a certain district, had this to say about potential changes to the law in the future.” And of course the easiest way are things like public talks, where it goes into the public record and I don’t have to sweat that stuff. But some of that really invaluable insider information, yeah, we have to be really careful about it.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Have you had any complaints about blog posts?

Hilary Bricken: Oh, my gosh, yes. And it’s interesting, and I think that that’s a good thing. And the complaints are not necessarily “this is bad content” or “we think what you’re saying is garbage.” It typically is part of robust debate about the content of the posts, namely “I agree or disagree.”

And sometimes we’ll get some type of decent, let’s say because we are more corporate, from the smaller operators saying, “You’re not giving us enough credit. When you talk about the marijuana economy you seem to really pay attention to big development, big money coming in, what about artisanal cannabis?”

And we get those kinds of microcosm complaints that we’re not necessarily paying enough attention to a certain issue. Or people just disagree with what we have to say, just generally, which is fine. We completely encourage that.

Stephanie Francis Ward: How do you moderate comments on your blog? Do you moderate the comments, I’m assuming you do?

Hilary Bricken: I do sometimes. There’s another partner in my firm that also moderates them. And really what we look out for—we’re not going, I think, to allow within the blogosphere of our little blogging world, any kind of hate speech or anything that really is targeted personally at us; and believe me, there is some of the rhetoric floating around.

But we’re definitely going to publish those comments that are going to spark debate between people, and we’re happy to answer those people and engage with them about our positions. And that kind of comment is really, I think, demonstrative of the fact that the blog is effective, if people are talking about it and arguing about it.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Let’s go back to the inside-information access that you have. Have you had concerns that “what if someone won’t give me good information because he or she is afraid I might write about it?” And getting them past it, I’m imagining that there’s some sort of an art to putting that information, insider information that the insider would probably want to be shared, but determining what that would be, because you want to have their trust as well. And I think sometimes lawyers or lawmakers are kind of skittish around people who write.

Hilary Bricken: Sure. And some of the people with whom I speak, they have no idea that we have a blog. And I’m really careful about it and I tell them, you know, “I’m contemplating writing a piece. I’ve studied this topic for a while. I’d really like your take, do you mind if I go to the blog with it?” And again, sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no. And if they say no, I respect the decision because I don’t want to burn that bridge. And I won’t burn that bridge, because that type of anonymity and trust is going to benefit my clients moving forward.

And I’m not a lobbyist by any stretch of the means, it’s not going to benefit me politically. But it will benefit me going back to my clients and saying, “This is the structure you need to look at, these are the changes that are likely coming, this is how you should prepare.”

And I do worry that I may get bad information, and certainly I’m not going to go to the blog and publish without a second thought. I talk about it with other bloggers—and we are a multi-author platform—to determine whether we think the information is valid, based on what others have said, what we’ve seen, how our clients react and whether or not it would be worth it to take the risk to put that kind of information out there.

And this kind of spikes, for example, when there are changes in law, like for example the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act in California that passed about two weeks ago. And there’s so much speculation about what will happen, you have to be extremely careful what you put out there as, you know, quote, unquote “this is the state of the industry.”

And I think it’s unwise to take those positions so early, but I do think it’s wise to get a ton of different opinions in formulating my own, which will go into the blog.

Stephanie Francis Ward: Hilary, how can lawyers with more traditional practice use some of your blogging tips to make their practices standout?

Hilary Bricken: Well, I think the first position for some in a more traditional practice area is to find your voice and your angle. If you can’t make it a niche practice, which in and of itself is unique, attractive, it’s got cutting-edge issues, and lots of kind of, you know, un-mined content. I think you’ve got to find a voice and make it unique within the area itself.

And whether that’s for example, in the context of med-mal, representing doctors or representing injured, you’ve got to find a way to connect with those people in a voice that is uniquely your own and at the same time appealing to them.

And a lot of that goes to the content and the way you write. If you’re going to write a med-mal blog like it’s a brief in court, you’re going to have serious problems. And if you make it way too friendly, you’re going to get all kind of folks interested in your services that you may not actually want to represent.

So in addition to finding your voice, you’ve got to strike a balance in the way you generate content and how you write. Certainly something that’s too word-intensive is going to be ignored. And anything that’s too simple is going to bring in all kinds of levels of people, again, that you may not want to deal with.

The other thing I think is the same is what I do with Canna Law Blog, which is getting out there and talking to people about changes in the law. Whether that’s tort reform in caps, or new standards of negligence, or any type of strict liability, getting out there talking about the new issues that are coming that are going to change fundamentally the way the practice area works.

And I know personally there’s all kinds of new techniques in litigation regarding discovery. How you handle witnesses, how you handle the client, that could definitely serve as good content for blogging, even in an area as saturated as med-mal.

Stephanie Francis Ward: What’s the editing process for your posts?

Hilary Bricken: Oh, it’s painful. It is admittedly painful. And it’s one of the benefits of having a multi-author practice, that everyone’s got an opinion, which I think is fine.

And certainly the way we do it is in the team atmosphere, where we have folks routinely who act as editors. And they may have a certain level of knowledge about a few set of topics on the blog, and they’ll be the ultimate editor for the final content.

And typically when I write, I give it over to at least two partners to check, one for grammar and format, and then the second one to check for accuracy of substance. So we work in a team atmosphere for that type of editing.

Stephanie Francis Ward: How many posts do you write a week?

Hilary Bricken: That’s a good question, it depends on the week. I would say max, I’ll do three to four, and at minimum, I will at least do one to two a week. I think it’s a very effective way of marketing. It’s an even more effective of way of becoming an authority, so I do it with gusto and with frequency.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And how do you go—what’s worked best for you in terms of marketing your posts?

Hilary Bricken: That’s a good question, and I think really: social media. It’s that age. It’s not going away. It can be tremendously effective to reach certain types of audiences. And really what I do is, it’s twofold: I’ll take the Twitter, I’ll take the Facebook, the blog itself has a Facebook page that has over 84,000 followers, so that’s pretty solid if I just want to get some looks and additional shares. Twitter is more business friendly, where for example, if I really want to hit the tech community with a post about the harmonization of cannabis and tech companies, I’ll ping people on Twitter with their handles for a good 15 minutes. And I will also ping reporters who have used me in the past for their columns and their articles because they all have twitter handles.

And in addition, you know, I’ve been picked up as an author, for example, on Above the Law. And I will regenerate content and create new content for them that’s going to get shared hundreds and hundreds of times. So that’s generally when I have a post, I make it work for me over and over and over again via social media and those other platform that have an even bigger reach.

Stephanie Francis Ward: For listeners who may not be quite so tech savvy, can you explain for them what pinging on Twitter means?

Hilary Bricken: Yes. And I am not—I mean, I am not a zealous Twitter tweeter; it’s actually something—something that was quite foreign to me a couple of years ago.

But essentially, unlike Facebook, you’re limited to 120 characters, which is really kind of a nice edge way of getting your message out there succinctly to a ton of followers. And when you ping people on Twitter, what I really mean is you enter their handle, which is the little @ sign with their specific unique name in the post. And it will not only show up in your feed, it will show up in their feed and hit their followers, too.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I think there’s a very fine line between promoting yourself successfully and sharing information, versus promoting yourself and it being noise. What’s your advice on that?

Hilary Bricken: Oh, indeed I would say ping sparingly, and not everything is worth everyone’s attention. But if you feel in your gut that you’ve just landed on some fantastic content—for example, people really love top 10 and top five lists. That is something that’s probably worthy of several pings.

But indeed, do it sparingly and make sure you’re associating that content with the right audience. If you’re writing about product liability in the cannabis industry, you’re probably not going to want to ping let’s say, absolutely the Washington State Liquor Control board, because they’re not going to pay attention and that’s a waste.

And they may look at you and say, “Why are you filling up our social media airwaves with this junk and clutter that’s irrelevant to us?” You know, “Please stop.” So I would say ping sparingly and make sure it is geared towards the audience that’s going to respond.

Stephanie Francis Ward: I think when it comes to marketing your practice the best way to do it is to find information that’s truly useful. Have you learned what’s truly useful as you’ve been doing this? And what’s your advice on getting that information that’s truly useful? Because if it’s something that’s truly useful, I think the readers won’t realize you’re marketing yourself, or if they do, they won’t care.

Hilary Bricken: Right.

Stephanie Francis Ward: But that seems a hard lesson for some lawyers.

Hilary Bricken: I think it is. And it goes back to that earlier conversation about really extracting yourself from just reporting or regurgitating a headline, or the cacophony of an article that’s got some of type of sensationalistic fervor. Leave all that at the door. That means nothing.

I would say applied skills, applied experience, what’s happened to other people, what you’ve seen other clients go through, and throwing in options for strategy, or the risks and the pitfalls. That is useful, practical information that’s going to make a client scratch their head and go, “You know, I never thought about that. I have the same situation and I wasn’t even aware that this was an option or that this was a risk.”

So check the reporting at the door. The AP and Reuters will always be better than lawyers when it comes to reporting. But strategy, client experience, the invaluable side of representation that comes from experience—that’s what needs to be going into the blog. That becomes this kind of subtle marketing that people don’t mind because they’re picking up tips from you without a charge.

Stephanie Francis Ward: And that’s everything I have to ask you for our podcast today. Would you like to add anything else?

Hilary Bricken: Just, I would say for any fledgling bloggers or people who have tried it and abandoned it, do not give up. Lawyering is changing, and especially lawyer marketing. I still am very confident that it is one of the best ways to directly reach an audience that eventually can become paying clients, so don’t give up. Try new things and rely on the fact that eventually if you stay at it long enough, you change course, you listen to what your readers want, you could actually turn it into a really good revenue source.

Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Thank you so much for your time. And thank you for joining us on the ABA Journal’s Asked and Answered.

End of transcript

Update on Dec. 10 to add transcript.

In This Podcast:

Stephanie Francis Ward
Mary V. Bricken is a partner with Harris Moure in Seattle. She chairs the law firm’s regulated practice group and writes for Canna Law Blog, which focuses on marijuana policy and regulation. Canna Law Blog was just honored as one of the ABA Journal’s 2015 Blawg 100.