What bloggers told us about the state of the legal blogosphere
The blog is not a slog. Even as more people express themselves online in fleeting notes and images, law bloggers enjoy their more reflective discipline.
To mark a decade of the Blawg 100, the ABA Journal polled bloggers in its online directory, which now lists more than 4,000 legal-practice websites. Long-form legal writers in the State of the Legal Blogosphere Survey still find rewards in enhanced reputation, professional development and personal enjoyment.
There were 391 respondents to the survey; nearly half have been blogging for more than five years, so signs of fatigue would be expected. “After 13 years of blogging, it is increasingly difficult to come up with fresh topics,” says an anonymous solo practitioner.
Law bloggers display the persistent urge to expand their own knowledge. In return, they appreciate their role filling a knowledge gap in a wide range of legal specialties.
“For many people, their first step in legal research is to go to Google, not Westlaw or Nexis,” says Nashville, Tennessee, trial lawyer Todd Presnell, who blogs at Presnell on Privileges. “If you’re beginning to research an issue, blogs can be very helpful to focus your research quicker. Likely, somebody has looked at this issue and written about it.”
THE LIST: Our 10th Annual Blawg 100
THE SURVEY: What bloggers told us about the state of the legal blogosphere
THE HALL OF FAME: 50 blogs that achieved our highest honor
TWITTER LIST: See what the top bloggers are saying on Twitter
Nearly three-quarters of respondents read law blogs at least several times a week. Typically, they post to their blogs several times a week, and 93 percent plan to maintain or pick up the pace.
Law bloggers are an expert group. Nine in 10 are practicing attorneys or work in legal services, with a smattering of academics, law students, marketers, librarians and consultants.
In August, Baltimore lawyer Jeff E. Messing posted his 2,000th consecutive daily blog entry. He estimates he put 3,000 hours of work into those 2,000 posts. “That’s more than an associate is required to bill at big law firms,” he says. Sixty-three percent of bloggers say the typical item takes up to two hours to produce. Messing says his posts draw an audience beyond his practice area—both individuals with potential claims and other malpractice lawyers.
Blogging exerts a special pull on small-firm practitioners. Nearly half are in law firms or legal departments with 20 or fewer employees. Having limited ways to interact with peers, they turn to blogging to extend their network.
In evaluating their peers, law bloggers look to practice area and tone more than frequency of posts or experience. Comments about qualities that make a blog credible to them note the “ability of the blogger to make complicated topics easy [for] a nonlegal person to understand” and the “passion and dedication of [the] blogger.”
Law bloggers are attracted to practice-area expertise, legal news and trends. “Quality” was most often volunteered in comments from bloggers as a sign of law blog credibility, along with related concepts—practical insight, critical thinking, accuracy, scholarship and brevity. “Good writing is key. I’m not interested in case briefs, which so many blogs are,” one respondent writes.
Keith R. Lee launched Associate’s Mind, a blog for young lawyers, in his final year at the Birmingham School of Law. He continues the blog, though he’s now a partner in a three-lawyer practice in that Alabama city. But he contends that law bloggers no longer represent a community of lawyers. “Almost all new legal blogs are marketing schlock,” he says. “Most of the people who would have started a blog 10 years ago are on social media now. The community has gone to Twitter, but it’s not the best source for discussion.
“Back when I started, blogs were a conversation with lawyers about the law,” Lee adds. “The blawgosphere came from all these people engaging with each other. It was a very unique slice of time.“
Commentary and analysis are the bloggers’ most-cited content preferences. “The content in blogs tends to be less static and more dynamic and time-sensitive,” one solo lawyer writes. “I haven’t decided if that is a good thing or not.”
Bloggers in the survey tend to avoid personal topics, politics and pop culture, but they do follow their passions. While the Houston law practice of Bill and Stephanie Stradley specializes in criminal defense, Stephanie Stradley’s posts on the law firm’s site explain legal issues in Deflategate and other sports controversies.
“My goal is to write good content that people find valuable as part of a larger community,” Stradley says. “If people learn I’m a lawyer in the Houston area who’s reasonable and client-oriented, it’s a more organic approach. I don’t want to market to people. I want to be known as a helpful person who connects people to ways to help them. It used to be that we lived in small towns and helped each other out. Blogs are a way to make the world a smaller town.”
Loneliness is an attribute of the long-form blogger. Among those with stand-alone blogs, fewer than one-fourth include posts from contributors; in law firms, only 15 percent have staff dedicated to blog production. One in five bloggers have an editor or an informal second set of eyes on their posts.
Thirty-five percent of bloggers use a custom platform; of the rest, more than half the bloggers run WordPress sites. Most find design contributes at least “a little” to credibility.
Peter Moeller, marketing director for Scarinci Hollenbeck in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, says his corporate law firm attracts general counsel and search engine optimization interest through blogs like Business Law News and the Government & Law Blog.
“We blog to show our lawyers have expertise in an area,” Moeller says. “It backs up their bio. Readers have a sense of who that lawyer is: someone who understands what the market is today. Clearly they do understand my issues.”
Moeller and his six-person marketing staff support the bloggers with video, graphics and SEO, but attorneys write the content. “They’re lawyers who have a history of writing who said, ‘I will be the editor of that blog,’ ” Moeller says.
He tries to limit writers to a jargon-free 300 to 800 words. “Most lawyers want to write a 2,000-word article with footnotes,” he says. “Why would I bore readers with legal jargon they could not understand?” He advises bloggers to stick to a single, concise message and to write a headline that leaves details unsaid.
Moeller tests for plagiarism and clarity using the Grammarly web software first developed to flag academic cheating. Scarinci Hollenbeck also has an in-house ethics committee.
Of the bloggers surveyed, 70 percent say they address ethical issues by consulting peers (bloggers or colleagues), ethics rules or published opinions. Still, 30 percent responded that it’s not something they worry about.
While 63 percent believe their blog brings in clients, 28 percent really don’t know. “How to commercialize it is a problem,” one blogger writes.
Those who mind the metrics and venture into search engine optimization find blogs effective. “My blog is my No. 1 source of new clients,” says Baltimore environmental lawyer Stuart Kaplow. “It has exceeded my wildest expectations.”
Whether for personal satisfaction, networking, prestige or lead generation, bloggers find a solid return on their investment. “It’s impossible to calculate ROI for blogging,” says internet lawyer Doug Isenberg of the GigaLaw firm in Atlanta, “but I do it primarily to keep myself abreast of important developments in my area of the law, plus for credibility and visibility. And it’s fun!”
CorrectionThe print version of “The 10th Annual Blawg 100,” December, should have stated that nearly half of law bloggers responding to our survey are in law firms or legal departments with 20 or fewer employees. Also, more than 80 percent indicated that they follow their blog’s metrics or social sharing activity. And Keith R. Lee should have been described as a partner in a three-lawyer firm.
The Journal regrets the errors.