With the help of my St. Louis blogging pals, Matt Homann, George Lenard and Evan Schaeffer, I recently put together a roundtable article on “blogging for lawyers” for the St. Louis Lawyer magazine. The article is now out in print, but I believe it’s only available in print to members of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis in its final form. I liked the way the article turned out so much, and the information in it is so good, that I couldn’t stand the idea that the article wasn’t widely available. So, I dug up our unedited draft of the article and post it below. As longtime law-related bloggers know, St. Louis has long been referred to as “Blawg City USA,” and this is the first time Matt, George, Evan and I have shared in one place our recollections, observations and practical pointers about blogging. Hope you enjoy reading the article as much as we enjoyed writing it. Let us know what you think about the article.
A Blogging Guide for St. Louis Lawyers
Having a website has been a requirement for lawyers and law firms for many years. As people continue to migrate to the Internet as the place to find information, the return on investment from advertising in traditional print outlets for legal marketing, especially in the yellow pages, has been called into question. There’s probably not a lawyer reading this article who hasn’t been told recently that he or she should have a blog. Does a blog really make sense for you or your firm?
St. Louis is the home of four of the earliest and best-known lawyer bloggers. We brought them together to get their insights and reflections on blogging for lawyers in 2009.
In this article, you’ll hear about blogging from Matt Homann (The NonBillable Hour), Dennis Kennedy (DennisKennedy.Blog), George Lenard (George’s Employment Blawg), and Evan Schaeffer (Trial Practice Tips and The Legal Underground), who have combined for more than 20 years of blogging experience.
1. When and why did you start blogging?
Dennis Kennedy (DK): I started my blog as a birthday present to myself in February 2003. My friend Jerry Lawson likes to point out that I wrote an article in 2001 where I recommended that lawyers consider blogging and then didn’t start my own blog for almost another two years. The funny thing was that at the time I started the blog I really felt like the whole blogging thing had already passed me by. My idea was that my blog would create a new audience for my writing and give me more visibility while I experimented with a new Internet technology.
Evan Schaeffer (ES): I started my blogs in January, 2004, after having tried and failed in 2001. My failed blogs were updates on class-action news for the lawyers I worked with at the time. The blog concept was new then, and the technological aspect was more difficult. I also had trouble getting my legal colleagues to remember to read. When I started again in 2004, I tried to reach for a broader audience outside my own circle of co-workers. I also lightened up my tone. By that time, blogging platforms were much more reliable and I found it easier to make my blogs look just right. I had two other reasons for trying again. One, I liked the idea that I could instantly publish my writings to a wide audience of readers. Two, I was hoping that if I was engaging enough, it might bring some new attention to my law firm. This is in fact what happened.
George Lenard (GL): I read about some of the early blogging lawyers in an article in the ABA Journal and began blogging a few months later, in May 2003. My original purpose was knowledge management. As I put it in my first post: “Most days I read recent cases and materials on labor and employment law. But too often, by the time I need to cite a case or whatever, I’ve forgotten what I read and can’t find it. So one purpose of this is to have my own personal archive. While I’m at it, why not share it with the world?” (OK, to be honest, I was not unaware of the possible marketing benefit — but I was skeptical enough about that to not make it a primary objective or expectation.)
Matt Homann (MH): Like Evan, I began my blog in January of 2004. For me, it was place to collect and share the things I found interesting with the handful of other lawyers who felt the same way I did about hourly billing, client service and law practice innovation. It also gained me entry into the then-small community of legal bloggers — many of whom I knew and admired.
2. What is a blog?
MH: It’s funny, but this is a question you don’t hear much any more now that blogs have gone mainstream in our profession and others. When all of us first began blogging, it was a far different story. People thought blogs were diaries then, and had a hard time understanding the value they could add to a professional’s practice. I used to tell people that my blog was simply a place online where I put things that people who thought like I did would find interesting or valuable, with the newest “stuff” featured on the top of the page.
ES: I began blogging when most people didn’t understand the word “blog,” so I often just described my weblog as a “website.” That’s a concept that everybody could understand, and it still works–a weblog is nothing more than website that is updated weekly, daily, sometimes even hourly. I still call my blog a “website.”
DK: I like to describe a blog as an online newspaper or magazine column without the newspaper or magazine. There are a lot of ways to define blogs. In general, I’d call a blog a form of website where content is delivered in the form of individual “posts” in reverse chronological order. You also use a blogging software tool that makes it easy to write for your blog without the need to know any HTML or other coding that you must know when updating a traditional web page.
GL: Dennis certainly has the conventional definition down. I would add that with current blogging software it is possible — and not too difficult — to create an entire, very attractive website, with the blog page as one component. One could call the blog page something else, such as “news briefs,” with the blog software making it much easier to ensure freshness of the “news.” On the other hand, with blogs all the rage now, it might be better to label it “blog.” So the blog home page, with the reverse chronological entries, can now be viewed as simply part of a website. Another equally valid vision of the blog is as a series of individual web pages that are likely to be quite attractive to search engines. That is because in addition to maintaining the blog entries in conventional journal style, the software creates a unique “permalink” web address for each “post,” and if done correctly, search engines will “crawl” and index each page as a separate item to match up with searches. Although I do have a decent audience of somewhat regular readers, the fact is that nearly 90% of my traffic is one-time visitors from search engines (mainly Google) who land not on the home page, but on a particular permalink page that correlates with their search.
3. Why should a lawyer have a blog today?
DK: I’m going to be a bit of a contrarian here. I don’t think that every lawyer should have a blog. In fact, for many lawyers, having a blog will be a bad idea. Blogging works best for lawyers who can write regularly for a general audience. However, if a blog is right for you, it gives you an easy way to update your web presence with regular new content, attract a returning audience, and improve your search engine rankings.
GL: I agree with Dennis that it’s not for everyone. In my experience, blogging tends to become compulsive, if not addictive, with a desire to update regularly and corresponding guilt at failure to do so, which could make it a big distraction and source of additional stress for many lawyers. I would add that a lawyer should have a blog only if they feel they will have something relatively unique to say. The flood of online content has become a tsunami. If you’re just going to contribute to the world’s information overload by rehashing news stories or what other bloggers say — please don’t.
ES: Probably everyone on this panel agrees with Dennis. Many lawyers shouldn’t have a weblog at all. You have to be committed to putting up new content, which takes some time week after week. You also have to be willing to share your knowledge and insights, which some lawyers prefer to keep to themselves, thinking that otherwise, their competitors might get a leg up on them. Neither of these points are problems for me. I’ve always had a writing habit. I also don’t have any illusions that I’m giving away legal knowledge so valuable that some opposing counsel will be able to use it against me. When I was a young lawyer working at a large defense firm, there were always a few friendly lawyers that I could go to for tips and advice. With my weblogs, I try to emulate that attitude and in this way, give back something to the legal profession.
4. What do you write and how do you decide what to write about?
GL: My writing has meandered quite far from the original employment law focus, though I still return to it regularly. Several years ago, I began monitoring my traffic (great tools are available to learn many details about one’s traffic). I learned from such monitoring that regardless of who I wanted my audience to be (employers and their lawyers), I had little control over that. Google was sending me an awful lot of people who — judging from what posts they found and what key words they searched — were employees, especially job seekers. Particularly given the current economy, I added a significant dimension of jobseeking advice, catering more to the growing audience I realized I had. As to my source of topics, this varies a good deal. I try to emphasize originality and quality over quantity and frequency. I should add that I could now write very many blog posts without any effort at thinking of topics, because I get one or more PR or press release emails daily suggesting topics, books to review, etc. (way more than I can handle).
MH: I focus on innovative, creative or just crazy ways lawyers can become better at what they do. Whether it’s an innovative billing model, unique marketing idea or an off-the-wall client service tip, I’ve always tried to share ideas from other businesses or industries that lawyers can adopt for their own practices. Recently, I’ve begun writing a series of “10 Rules of …” posts that have become quite popular.
ES: My blog Trial Practice Tips is self-explanatory. My other blog, The Legal Underground, has over the years been a repository for my more whimsical writings, such as “The Trial Lawyer’s Prayer” or “An Introduction to Lawyers for Those Who Have Not Yet Have the Pleasure of Being Introduced.” On Legal Underground, I don’t hesitate to write about anything at all: in addition to humor, there’s serious critiques of class-action or mass-tort law, travel writings from Prague, Mexico, and Argentina, round-ups of law-student weblogs, and more. I’ve designed The Legal Underground to be a vessel into which I can pour just about anything.
DK: I was writing regular columns and articles about legal technology long before I started my blog. In many ways, my blog is another outlet for writing on those topics. I look for topics to write about that interest me and that I think will interest my audience. In general, I try to stay “on topic,” but I’m probably known among lawyer bloggers as one who is willing to write about almost anything. That said, most bloggers get the ideas for their posts from news stories, other blog posts and current developments in their subject area. I always recommend that someone starting a new blog sketch out a plan for the first 20 – 30 posts for their blog.
5. Is it still a good time to start a blog?
ES: Some might think that the legal world is already too crowded with lawyers who have blogs–that it will be impossible to be heard over the din. But that’s not true, since you can easily insure that other bloggers notice you by commenting directly on what they are saying and providing a link back to their blogs. They may in turn link back to you, bringing you more readers. In addition, since the search engines pick up blogs so efficiently, you will also get readers by writing about a niche that you know well, then waiting for others to search for information on that topic. It will definitely happen, sooner than you’d think.
DK: There’s still plenty of space for new blogs and new lawyer blogs coming online everyday. The blogging tools are better than ever. There are still very few St. Louis legal blogs. It’s a great time to start a legal blog with a local focus.
GL: It is still a good time to start a blog. I think for most lawyers the best approach would be to target a very specific niche, in terms of locale and/or legal sub-specialty. I think “Missouri DUI Defense Blog” is still open, for example, and would probably allow an attorney to get on Google page one for “Missouri DUI Defense” with relatively little difficulty.
6. How would someone get started in blogging?
DK: First and foremost, take some time and read a lot of blogs, both law-related blogs and other blogs on other topics that interest you. You want to get a good sense of what’s out there and what you like and don’t like before you jump in. Most people today use a hosted blogging service that allows you to have your own domain name. TypePad (www.typepad.com) and WordPress.com (www.wordpress.com) are common choices. Kevin O’Keefe at LexBlog has created a business around developing and hosting blogs for lawyers and law firms. You definitely need to look into what he’s doing. My latest blog (www.lawyersguidetocollaboration.com) is a LexBlog blog. Some law firms will host their own blogs.
MH: I concur. Learning how to blog is less important than understanding why to blog — and the best way to get the “why” is to read lots of other blogs. The legal blogging community is still a very congenial one, so reach out to others blogging in your area of interest and ask them why they blog. You’ll not only get valuable advice, but you may find yourself a blogging mentor.
ES: A working knowledge of other law-related weblogs is very helpful in getting started yourself. If you don’t have any RSS reader like Google Reader already, set one up (it’s free), and populate it with feeds from law-related blogs. This is the easiest way to stay abreast of a large number of blogs in the least amount of time. Next, find a hosting service like Typepad or Squarespace and just dive in. The technological aspect is now very simple. Once you familiarize yourself with the blogging software, posting to a blog is no more difficult than sending an email.
GL: I highly recommend WordPress, as it is open source software for which a huge community of users are constantly writing cool tools (“plugins”) and templates (“themes”). It is highly advisable to buy your own domain name and use an independent hosting company, rather than Blogspot.com or WordPress.com. This is a bit more costly, but allows easier portability and a more professional-sounding domain name. Despite the relative ease of use compared to creating a website from scratch, some geekiness or a geeky friend or consultant is still advisable. Therefore the LexBlog option (or a competitor) for a premier service with all technical details professionally handled is definitely worth considering.
7. What are the best benefits of blogging?
ES: When I started my blogs in 2004, I hoped it would bring a little boost to my business, but that’s not the sole reason I blogged. I would have done it in either case. As it turned out, my blogs have led directly to business opportunities, justifying the time and expense I put into them. But this benefit is certainly not a guarantee. Even absent a direct business benefit, however, a well-written weblog will raise your profile as a lawyer. In the years before blogging, I used to write Op-Eds, and published quite a few in some big-name newspapers. These would seem to disappear without a trace. With blogs, my writing has a much longer–indeed, an indefinite–shelf life, and readers are continually drawn back to it by the magic of search engines. I have had press coverage of my legal views, for example, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the New York Times, and the Economist, among many other publications. My trial-practice blog also led directly to book deal with James Publishing–now I’m the author of a book about depositions.
DK: You’ll hear a lot of talk about ROI (return on investment), search engine optimization, attracting new clients and the like. A good blog is likely to produce those things, and requests to be quoted in articles as an expert in your field. In fact, Matt often talks about the “instant expertise” a blog can give you. However, I’m going to say that the best benefit of blog is gaining access to the community of bloggers and the blogging audience. It’s definitely the friendships and relationships, especially with other bloggers, that’s been the highlight for me. If not for blogging, I’d guess that the four of us would not even have met, let alone become good friends.
MH: The thing about blogging that’s most fascinating to me is that your readers won’t judge you based upon your years in practice, the schools you attended, or the firms on your resume. Instead, your measured by the quality of your writing and the value of your information to your audience. This is the “instant expertise” that Dennis mentions and doesn’t take years to earn. I also feel that, for me, blogging has given me the confidence to leave law practice and make legal innovation my business.
GL: I agree with Dennis and Matt. I have certainly experienced the phenomenon of instant expertise — leading to speaking opportunities, interviews with journalists, and even an opportunity to co-author a book. Directly obtaining legal business is certainly a possibility, but in my view it depends very much on the focus of your practice and your blog. Newer bloggers that begin with the benefit of years of accumulated search engine optimization and Internet marketing advice and carefully tailor their blogs as marketing tools will perhaps have more success generating legal business than the earlier bloggers like us who wrote in considerable part out of enjoyment of the freedom and opportunity to write whatever we pleased and have it magically appear on the Internet with a single mouse click. The community and connections aspect has definitely been great. When blogging is coupled with social networks, one has the opportunity to build a very valuable network and actively use it through a network such as LinkedIn. Most of my LinkedIn connections came about in some way as a result of my blog.
8. How do the ethical rules affect blogging?
ES: I’m no expert in this area, but I’ve always behaved as if everything I already knew about being an ethical lawyer applied to blogs. Be truthful, don’t reveal client confidences, etc.
GL: I think it will depend a lot on the nature of the blog’s content and the extent to which the content and overall impression created by the blog causes it to appear to be more like “advertising” or “legal advice” than like the educational information we might present in a public seminar or webinar.
MH: Evan’s right on here — and remember that what you say and do on your blog will live online forever.
DK: I’ve been quoted before saying the ethical rules on Internet marketing are “impossibly confusing.” One of the reasons I stopped writing about legal topics or my law practice on my blog several years ago was that I couldn’t get comfortable with the changes in Missouri’s advertising rules a few years ago. I’ve studied the ethical rules on lawyers using the Internet for many years. In general, I think that because blogs are simply a form of website, the same principles should apply, and probably do. However, when you try to apply the literal meaning of the rules to blogs, it becomes difficult to be certain that you in compliance with the rules. It helps a lot that the tradition of lawyer blogging since the beginning has been to focus on education and explaining legal concepts and developments. If you like clear, precise, black-and-white answers, you won’t find them in the rules on using the Internet for marketing.
9. Are there “best ethical practices” for lawyers who blog?
GL: Write a good disclaimer. Use cautious qualifying words like “generally,” “may,” “likely,” etc. to avoid appearing to make hard-and-fast statements when what you are really presenting is simplified statements for general public education concerning complex legal issues. Avoid excessive self-promotion. Let the blog content and a standard “About” page speak for themselves regarding your qualifications and abilities.
MH: Since my blog is about the business of law practice, I’ve never written anything that could remotely qualify as legal advice. That said, know that even if your clients don’t hire you because of your blog, many of them will ultimately find and read it.
DK: Use good judgment. Some bloggers have said that the best advice is “don’t be stupid.” I always recommend that lawyers have a good sense of the lines between education, advertising and solicitation, especially the last two. Although I’m not convinced that lawyers blogs are necessarily “advertising,” I do think it’s best to treat your blog as if it is and use all of the required disclaimers. You definitely want to make it clear who the author of your blog is and where you are licensed to practice. Take special care if you get near the line between advertising and solicitation. In Missouri, you definitely want to use the great resource of Sara Rittman, our Ethics Counsel, who will answer questions on an informal basis.
ES: Again, I think the “best ethical practices” are those that apply to lawyers generally. The others on this panel also make some extremely good points.
10. What is the future of blogging?
MH: I think we’ll see the continued adoption of blogs by legal professionals as much by choice as necessity. The next generation of law firm clients have lived their entire lives online, interact with Twitter and Facebook constantly, and read blogs everyday. They may have never used the Yellow Pages, and instead look to the web before making any major purchasing decision. They’ll expect a robust online presence from the professionals they hire, and a blog is one of the easiest and most effective ways to build that presence.
GL: Integration with the surviving remnants of mainstream media into enriched, customized streams of information in manageable chunks for busy readers, plus continuing contributions to the wealth of information available to web users through ever-more-sophisticated search technologies. I was recently told by a web-content distribution company that my posts now have the potential of appearing in a news stream on the Wall Street Journal’s law pages amidst conventional sources such as the ABA Journal, if they match the WSJ search criteria, with no distinction in appearance that would suggest that my content is in any way inferior or less professional than that written by professional journalists.
ES: I don’t have any predictions about the future of blogging. If you think of blogging as merely a means of publishing one’s writing, which it is, you don’t have to be too worried about the future. Get into the habit of writing, and if you like it, you can always migrate to the next technological platform, if and when there is one.
DK: Among bloggers, Twitter and microblogging is all the rage. That will continue to affect blogging, but blogging still has great potential, especially to cover niche topics. I remain bullish on blogging. As for predicting the future, I still like what Ernest “Ernie the Attorney” Svenson said in an article on the future of blogging from four years ago in Law Practice Magazine (http://www.abanet.org/lpm/magazine/articles/v31is5an4.html): “Perhaps the biggest question that remains is: How quickly will law firms move to develop blogs? It depends on a lot of internal and external factors. But the clock is certainly ticking. For some firms that sound is just loud and annoying, while for others it is stirring and prompting them to act. So when will your firm create a blog? Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick . . . .”
Dennis Kennedy is an inhouse counsel for MasterCard Worldwide in O’Fallon, Missouri, the author of the technology column for the ABA Journal, a co-host of The Kennedy-Mighell Report podcast on the Legal Talk Network (www.legaltalknetwork.com), and the co-author, with Tom Mighell, of the book “The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies: Smart Ways to Work Together.” His blog, DennisKennedy.Blog, is found at http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/.
George Lenard is managing partner of Harris Dowell Fisher & Harris, L.C., a management employment law firm in Chesterfield, Missouri. His legal interests include sexual harassment, employment of the disabled, the recruiting and staffing industries, noncompetition agreements, use of Internet information in employment decisions, and employment consequences of new technologies, including blogging and social networks. His blog, George’s Employment Blawg, is at www.employmentblawg.com, and is always seeking guest posts on a wide variety of employment and career topics from aspiring or established bloggers, subject-matter experts, business leaders, and others.
Evan Schaeffer is a class action and mass torts lawyer based in the St. Louis metropolitan area. His firm is Schaeffer & Lamere, P.C. Schaeffer’s weblogs are Trial Practice Tips at http://www.trialpracticetips.comabout and The Legal Underground at http://www.legalunderground.com. Schaeffer is the author of Deposition Checklists and Strategies (James Publishing).
Matthew Homann is the founder of LexThink LLC, a legal innovation consultancy (www.LexThink.com). He’s also the author of the [non]billable hour blog (www.nonbillablehour.comtheir ), where he shares innovative billing strategies, creative marketing techniques, proven customer-service principles, and cutting-edge ideas from other industries and professions with lawyers to help them tap into their own creative reserves and make dramatic improvements in their businesses and their lives. He lives in St. Louis with his daughter Grace.
[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog/)]
Follow my microblog on Twitter – @dkennedyblog. Follow me – @denniskennedy
Now Available! The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies: Smart Ways to Work Together, by Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell. Visit the companion website for the book at LawyersGuidetoCollaboration.com. Twitter: @collabtools
Technorati tags: legal technology blogging iphone st. louis primer