Take a moment to envision the dominant appellate website or blog in your jurisdiction. If you just said, “It’s mine,” congratulations. If you took a moment just now to run a quick check and didn’t find anything, keep reading.
There are several reasons to publish a website or blog that focuses on appeals. [Note: While there’s a fuzzy boundary between websites and blogs, this essay will use the term blog to describe both.] Let’s start with the altruistic: It’s a public service. A discussion of appellate matters will help both trial lawyers and the general public. The lawyers will draw upon the blogger’s expertise on matters such as preservation of issues for appellate review. They’ll also appreciate some hints on how to handle an appeal on their own; but see below for a slightly different perspective.
Nonlawyers will also benefit from reading an expert’s take on appellate issues. Some of those will be your basic John Q. and Jane Q. Public, citizens who might face an appeal and wonder what they’re in for. They may also be curious when a high-profile case proceeds from the trial court to an appellate court. But some of those nonlawyers will be reporters for newspapers, magazines, or other websites. Those folks probably don’t have access to an appellate lawyer on staff to translate things from Appellate-ese into English.
Blogging about our practice niche is also good marketing. Trial lawyers – the ultimate customers of an appellate practice – will, as noted above, appreciate the insight. But from a slightly more mercenary angle, they’re also more likely to hire an appellate lawyer who has demonstrated mastery of the subject matter on an established blog.
The same is true of those reporters whom you’ve helped. Those folks often publish a quote from your blog, or may call you for help in understanding a recent holding. When they do quote you, trial lawyers will inevitably see some of the quotes – trial lawyers read newspapers, too – increasing your profile and the likelihood that those lawyers will hire you. You’ll be seen as the expert on appeals in your jurisdiction.
Depending on your approach to blogging, the process can help to make you a better lawyer. My website, for example, analyzes each published opinion from my state’s supreme court; I publish these analyses on the day the opinion comes down. That means that not only have I read each hot-off-the-presses opinion from the highest tribunal in my state; I’ve analyzed it to the point that I can “teach” the holdings to others. That gives me a better understanding, not only of each decision, but of where each fits in the appellate tapestry of my jurisdiction.
Finally, you’ll probably come to regard a blog as a creative writing outlet. Yes, this matters. Lawyer does not live by legal brief alone. If the only things that you write are briefs and other pleadings, your writing can become stale. It’s good for you to write something that isn’t bound by strict rules of court. It helps if you can make the content interesting, and write in an engaging voice. That’ll spill over to your legal writing, too, again making you a better lawyer.
Decide on a format
There’s no required formula for an appellate blog. The simplest is one where you write when the spirit moves you to discuss appellate practice, or trends in the appellate courts of your jurisdiction. The disadvantage of this approach is that it’s so unregimented, you can find yourself laying your blog aside for a time. I’ll explain below why you don’t want to do that.
The most regimented blogs are those that, like mine, analyze new appellate rulings when they come down. SCOTUSblog is probably the best-known in this genre. Its professional staff covers every decision announced by the highest court in the nation; it also publishes feature stories, statistics, and more. I regard it as nonpareil among blogs that cover the high Court.
A very few blogs are clearinghouses for a massive amount of information. CAL member Howard Bashman of Philadelphia has published How Appealing since late 2003; the amount of data on it is breathtaking. That’s a good bit of work, though Howard has streamlined the process over the years to make it manageable for him.
Hire a consultant
Unless you’re a tech guru in addition to being an appellate expert, you’ll need someone to set up a blog for you. He or she needs to set it up so you can edit it from your desk or laptop, without engaging someone else to do that entry for you. You’ll also want someone to help you to publicize your blog. A public-relations consultant can take the pain out of getting your name around. After all, if your blog reaches eleven readers, you won’t be achieving much.
Budget the time
No matter how beautifully you envision your project, no matter how masterfully your consultant sets up your blog, if you don’t set aside the time to create new content, you will inevitably slip into the publishing doldrums.
You don’t have to publish something every day, but it has to be fairly regular. You’ll eventually develop a rhythm so your readers will know when to check your blog for a new essay. (Consider using either an RSS feed or an opt-in service to notify your mailing list by e-mail when you do post new content.) If you let the blog go for a time, your readers will assume that you’ve gone dormant, and they’ll drift away.
For my blog, I try to have some new material each week. My state’s supreme court issues opinions on Thursday mornings, so I do what I can to keep that time slot free. If a week goes by with no new opinions, I’ll prepare something that I might title, “News from the Appellate Landscape” to report on events other than published opinions. This can be changes in court personnel, courthouse closures, rule changes, notes on recent trends – really, anything topical to the field.
If you’re hesitating on this commitment, please regard your hours spent publishing as marketing time. You’re generating new customers and clients. You’re building goodwill for your firm. You’re raising the visibility of your brand. Know that this is worth the time and effort that you’ll put into it. In my 16 ½ years of publishing, I’ve never doubted that, and neither should you.
Content – make it helpful and readable
No matter how smart you are, a reader has to have a reason to return to your blog. Most law firms maintain static websites, where the material never changes (or if it does change, it’s so incremental that no one notices). These sites tell the world, “Here’s who we are and what we do; let us know if we can help you.”
These days, static websites are just the modern version of the lawyers section in the old Yellow Pages. They’re a place you go when you want to find a phone number for Snidely Whiplash, Esq. I urge you to commit to maintaining a dynamic blog instead. The goal is to convince the casual visitor that you offer content that’s helpful to the practice of law, or to an understanding of your jurisdiction’s appellate system.
You may be concerned that by publishing essays on handling appeals, you’re educating your competitors. That might be true if you include tips and tricks of the appellate game. Relax. You’re setting yourself up as the big appellate fish in your jurisdiction; you shouldn’t worry that a few guppies might get a small morsel.
It helps if you write in an engaging voice. While no one will confuse me with Robin Williams, I usually strive to insert some wit into my essays, so the reader will enjoy the experience of reading my blog. (Caveat: I employ the M*A*S*H rule of never employing wit when describing an appeal that involves a tragedy. The producers of that hit television series used a laugh track, but their inflexible rule was never to use it in a scene that they shot in the operating room. There’s nothing funny about a sexual assault or a murder. But hapless burglars and clumsy con men are fair game.)
What if you aren’t first?
Perhaps you practice in a jurisdiction that already has an established appellate blog. Don’t succumb to despair; heed instead Jim Rohn’s advice: “If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.”
Good news: The government doesn’t regulate appellate websites or assure each I-got-there-first publisher that he’ll enjoy a monopoly. You can find a niche for your blog.
For example, in my state, I cover each published decision from the supreme court. I don’t have time to cover the intermediate court of appeals. Earlier this year, an appellate pal who’s now one of my competitors decided to fill that gap by launching a blog devoted to that intermediate court.
Does the dominant blog in your state provide reports only of that firm’s successes? You can publish one that covers other appeals. Perhaps your state’s dominant site covers civil cases only; there’s room for a criminal-appeals blog. If you focus on a particular practice area – domestic relations; torts; eminent domain and real estate; you get the idea – consider a blog that focuses on that field. By publishing a blog with a narrow focus, you convey the message, These guys are the experts.
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Blogging about appeals and appellate practice can be enjoyable as well as profitable. It can make you better at your craft and help educate the public about our specialty. The only thing preventing you from jumping into the pool is inertia. You can do this.