Illinois Bar Journal

The Magazine of Illinois Lawyers

May 2006Volume 94Number 5Page 236

May 2006 Illinois Bar Journal Cover Image

New Technology

Do We Blawg and How?

By
Helen W. Gunnarsson

Political activists, social commentators, lawyers, people who love cats - everyone has a blog these days, it seems. So what is blogging (or "blawgging," in the case of lawyers) ? Why do some lawyers do it? Should you join them?


" Blogging is a major new social, political, and economic phenomenon." So began University of Chicago professor and Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker and fellow University of Chicago law professor and Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in their introduction to their Weblog, The Becker-Posner Blog, in December 2004.

What is this thing called a "Weblog," or "blog," for short, and why should an attorney care about it?

A Weblog is basically a public journal, or log, that anyone with access to the Internet and the ability to type can create on the World Wide Web. You can pay a substantial sum to a professional to custom tailor a Weblog's appearance and capabilities, or, for a nominal cost, you can use one of several popular programs available on the Internet that make it easy for anyone to get a blog up and running immediately. (For more about how to blog, see the sidebar on page 240.) Whether created by a professional or an amateur, a blog will contain the most recent entries at the top of its web page. The ‘net surfer may read older entries by scrolling down the page and by browsing the blog's archives.

Like other forms of expression such as books or letters, blogs' styles and subjects are as varied as their creators, who are known as "bloggers." Weblogs may focus on the blogger's personal life or upon some particular subject that's near and dear to the blogger's heart, such as a pet's or family member's battle with cancer, gossip about the rich and the famous, a political cause, or, as in Judge Posner's and Professor Becker's case, "economics, law, and policy in a dialogic format."

The blogger's decision to allow readers to comment, as do Posner and Becker, may transform the blog from a diary into a conversation or intellectual forum in which anyone from anywhere in the world may join. Indeed, Posner and Becker consider lively exchanges with and among their reader-commenters to be an integral part of their blog and part of its success.

Lawyers have not been slow to investigate this new medium of communication and are increasingly starting and reading Weblogs for business as well as personal reasons. In fact, California appellate attorney Denise Howell, one of the earliest lawyers to begin blogging and a blogger to this day at Bag and Baggage, coined the term "blawg" to denote a blog about any aspect of law. The term caught on, and there are now hundreds, if not thousands, of blawgs available for free perusal on the ‘net. (Because not all bloggers interviewed for this article consider their blogs to fit the definition of "blawgs," the term "blog" will be used henceforth.)

Bloggers run the gamut of solo practitioners, members of law firms in rural areas and large cities alike, appellate practitioners, government attorneys, law students, law professors, and even judges. Several bloggers from Illinois and elsewhere shared their reasons for and experiences with blogging.

Why blog?

Why would a busy attorney start a blog? You might assume that bloggers' reasons are primarily mercenary, but according to most bloggers interviewed for this article, that assumption would be wrong. Rather, most bloggers say that they blog because they enjoy it, not because they expect their blogs to enhance their incomes, though they welcome any additional business blogging brings.

Blogging has been the catalyst for a career change for attorney Matt Homann, formerly of Highland near St. Louis and now a California resident. Until recently a partner in a twoman firm, Homann is now winding down his law and mediation practice to focus on consulting on legal technology and practice issues. He organizes seminars, conferences, and retreats built around these topics, the best known of which are LexThink! and BlawgThink!, both of which were held in Chicago. Says Homann, "I loved practicing law. But the moment I found blogging, that became even more interesting to me."

Homann has been blogging for three years at the [non]billable hour. He says the idea for the name derived from the amount of time he initially decided to devote to blogging: approximately one hour per day.

Other than his time commitment, though, Homann frankly acknowledges "I had absolutely no plan when I started blogging." An inveterate clipper of articles, bookmarker of interesting Web sites, and forwarder of such information to his friends and associates, Homann says he "started it to keep track of cool stuff on the Internet" and to note activities of his firm as an intellectual and creative exercise. A Weblog seemed like the ideal tool for doing so, with the added benefit of permitting his friends to visit his Web site for his latest thoughts and finds instead of continuing to send e-mails with links to their already crowded inboxes.

A review of the archives of the [non]billable hour reveals an eclectic mixture of Homann's interests, including links to purely amusing Web sites and the occasional photo of his family. But Homann has devoted the bulk of the blog to challenging lawyers to think about their practices and find ways to make them more satisfying, both personally and professionally.

He calls one type of post he considers particularly effective for this challenge Five By Five. Homann explains that he decided to find five experts on a particular subject and pose one question to them, posting both the question and the answers on his blog. For example, he posed the question "How can lawyers better serve their female clients?" to five professional women from five different backgrounds. He asked "What are five technologies that lawyers should embrace but probably won't?" of five legal technology mavens, and "How would you improve law school?" of five law student bloggers. (If you're interested in the answers, browse Homann's blog archives.)

Homann's friends did indeed visit his blog, as did many others, expanding his audience and, ultimately, his circle of friends. When you publish a blog, says Homann, "there are no boundaries to your readership and potential friends and business contacts - the entire globe may find you." Homann was pleased to find that his readers increasingly began to submit comments to his blog and to send him e-mails about posts he'd put up. Gradually, he began to realize that he had a substantial readership and was making many new friends.

Still, though he hadn't started his blog with any business plan in place, he had thought it would be nice to end up with a few new clients from his blogging endeavors - but that hadn't happened. That's when he conceived the idea for LexThink! and other conferences. While Homann continues to be generous with his time and advice, he now charges a fee to conference attendees and those wishing to hire him as a consultant.

St. Louis attorney, writer, and blogger Dennis Kennedy partners with Homann in presenting LexThink! and BlawgThink!. A technology buff even in law school, Kennedy has always felt that "the Internet is a development of historic dimension," comparable, in his view, to the printing press. As was the ancient library of Alexandria, Kennedy comments that the Internet is "a huge repository of knowledge. Like the printing press, it enables everyone to have a voice. You can express yourself creatively and get your message out to a wide audience."

Kennedy himself blogs eponymously, at denniskennedy.com. "Blogging was a natural extension of my Web site. In fact, it made my Web site much easier to maintain. I've done a lot of writing and find myself increasingly frustrated with the unavoidable delay between writing a piece, when it seems fresh and original, and seeing it in print, by which time it may feel dated. Blogging is a way to publish your ideas immediately."

Indeed, though much of his writing focuses on law and technology, Kennedy characterizes his own blog as more of an experiment in writing than a blog. Because the blog format does allow him unlimited freedom to experiment, he says "I tremendously enjoy it. Through blogging, you can develop a network of amazing people and collaborate with them. People read your posts and they send you comments. Because your personality comes out in your writing, you get to know people through the blog and through e-mail exchanges before you ever meet them in person."

Already an established attorney and writer before starting to blog, Kennedy says his blog has sent him in some different directions that, without it, he wouldn't have explored. For example, he says, he's developed a degree of expertise in electronic discovery even though he's not a litigator. "I can write about it and explain the underlying concepts because I understand technology and how lawyers think."

 

Illinois blawggers

One of the best known and most linked-to blogs in the country is the eclectic Evan Schaeffer's Legal Underground, formerly known as Notes From The (Legal) Underground. Legal Underground covers a wide range of topics, ranging from good books to just about any topic imaginable related to law.

But it's only one of three blogs that Schaeffer, a Metro/East trial attorney, maintains. His other two are The Illinois Trial Practice Weblog and The Illinois Personal Injury Weblog. The former is a compendium of notes and essays on trial practice issues commonly faced by litigators, with an Illinois slant. The latter's subject is, as its name denotes, personal injury law in Illinois, which is the focus of Schaeffer's firm, Schaeffer and Lamere.

Schaeffer's original goal in starting his blogs was clear: "I had a Web site for my law firm, but I was having trouble getting Google to index it. I thought that if I started a blog and linked to my firm site, it might be effective."

Indeed, Schaeffer says, starting a blog worked like a charm. Why? Turns out, say Schaeffer and other bloggers, that search engines like Web sites with content that's updated regularly. If a blogger sticks to a system of frequent, though not necessarily daily, posts, search engines should start indexing the blog according to the key words used in its posts within a relatively short period - around two weeks, in Schaeffer's case.

Schaeffer, who employs no search engine optimization services, confirms his blogs' visibility on the various search engines by performing searches for keywords that he uses in his posts that he thinks potential clients would be likely to use when doing their own searches. He's also been able to confirm from clients that some have retained his firm because they first read one of his blogs.

His original goal achieved, Schaeffer then discovered that he enjoys blogging. A daily writer since the age of 17, Schaeffer says he enjoys the instant feedback in the form of comments and e-mails that he receives when he posts to his blogs. Like Kennedy and others, he says he also enjoys publishing himself without having to go through the time-consuming but necessary editing and approval process with print publishers and editors. And not only has Schaeffer gotten new clients for his firm through his blogs, he's also heightened his visibility with newspaper reporters and print publishers, securing a contract to publish a book on trial practice as well as more than one speaking invitation.

Several other Illinois bloggers note that blogging forces them to stay up on their respective fields. Chicago attorney Cassandra Crotty, who represents mainly plaintiffs in actions based on breach of fiduciary duty and legal and accounting malpractice, finds her blog, Illinois Legal Malpractice Weblog, "very helpful in keeping abreast of developments in the law around the country as well as in Illinois."

Other bloggers, including Crotty's fellow firm member Steven Jakubowski and Chicago attorneys Peter Olson and Joel Schoenmeyer, say the same. Comments Olson, who blogs at Closing Real Estate in Chicago and Peter Olson's Solo In Chicago, "I cull ideas on law office management from a number of legal publications and try to apply them to my own firm." Then, he says, he writes about his experience, citing the articles that inspired his actions. Schoen-mayer, who blogs at Death And Taxes - The Blog, says "Blogging inspires me to keep current and be disciplined about it. Writing about aspects of my area of practice, probate law, reinforces my own learning process."

Crotty reports that some of the attorneys in her firm, though generally supportive, initially expressed reservations about her and Jakubowski's starting blogs last year: Would they continue to pull their own weight in business? Would they be taking away valuable time necessary for handling their case-loads to blog? How, if at all, would blogs benefit the firm?

Those doubts have been assuaged, she believes, because both blogs have become valuable resources akin to electronic libraries for their firm. Though blogging is time-consuming for her and Jakubowski, she says that their other firm members save time by following their blogs. Crotty and Jakubowski, whose blog is The Bankruptcy Litigation Blog at bankruptcylitigationblog.com, read and summarize material from their respective areas of practice, making it unnecessary for their partners to devote as much time to reading the same advance sheets and other publications.

The nature of their firm's practice, too, is more friendly to activities such as blogging, for with plaintiff's work done largely on a contingency basis, "there's not the focus on billable hours that there is in many defense firms," says Crotty. And both Crotty and Jakubowski say they don't mind the time they put in. They'd be putting much of that time in anyway, they say, out of a desire to keep current with practice in their fields. The additional time they spend writing about it helps each to understand their areas better, they say.

Jakubowski also observes "There's some very high quality legal writing on blogs. When the Grokster case came down, everyone started blogging about it and figured out its significance in a couple of days. Without blogs, we'd have had to wait for months or years for law review articles to come down."

Crotty and Jakubowski echo the comments of Homann, Kennedy, and Schaeffer, saying they've met some terrific people through their blogs. "I'm always looking for dialogue with other attorneys because it helps me to learn," remarks Crotty. She also says that she'd now feel comfortable calling attorneys in other jurisdictions whom she's met through blogging to ask for counsel, say, perhaps, if she takes on a case and becomes specially admitted in a jurisdiction currently foreign to her. She speculates that some of those attorneys may someday be sources of business for her firm or sources to whom her firm might like to refer business.

Schaeffer gives yet another reason for starting one of his blogs: "I started The Illinois Trial Practice Weblog to give back some of the benefit of my experience to younger lawyers. When I started out as a young associate in a large firm, I really appreciated the older lawyers who were willing to answer my questions about practice issues."

Remembering that law schools do not teach many aspects of real-life practice, Schaeffer recounts war stories in his posts and isn't reluctant to admit his mistakes. (One example is the exchange One Appellate Court, archived at http://www.illinoistrialpractice.com/2004/09/ precedent_in_il.html; see also When ‘one appellate court' disagrees with itself, LawPulse, December 2004 Journal.)

Believing, like the other bloggers interviewed for this article, that dialogue and different points of view are beneficial, Schaeffer also regularly invites others, including law students and defense attorneys, to post as guest bloggers. One law student who's guest posted on Legal Underground is Jeremy Richey, a 3L at Southern Illinois University School of Law who has his own blog, Jeremy Richey's Weblawg, focusing on his experiences in law school, thoughts on developments in the law, and the legal profession.

Citing Schaeffer as a prime example, Richey says that through blogging he's met other bloggers online and in person who have been overwhelmingly willing to answer questions he's had about blogging, law school, and the legal profession. Indeed, just as Olson receives and responds to e-mails from law students wondering what it's like to start a practice, Richey receives e-mails from people wondering about aspects of law school life. He does his best to respond. And while Richey says he hopes his blog will benefit his professional life, he gives the same reason for blogging as do the other bloggers quoted: He enjoys it.

Should you do it?

Should every attorney blog? Schoen-meyer and other bloggers say no - just as not everyone should serve on a public board or join the Rotary Club. Remarks Richey: "If you don't enjoy doing this, you quit." Schoenmeyer, for his part, says a lawyer-blogger must commit to posting meaningfully at least three or four times a week for at least three to six months. "You have to establish yourself. It takes time for search engines to find you and for others to link to you. There's nothing worse than seeing a new blog start out well, then diminish to nothing."

Kennedy agrees, saying "Blogging is easy, but isn't good unless you have a plan and commit to it. It's a writer's medium." (Not all bloggers agree that posting three or four times a week is necessary. Olson, for example, generally posts once a week, as do Professors Becker and Posner.)

Schoenmeyer, who made the decision to blog primarily to market his services once he left a law firm to fly solo, says, "I thought about what I'm comfortable doing to market myself. For me, blogging about probate law feels more natural than going out to lunch with financial planners, because I love to write." Others, though, with different strengths and preferences, may find that doing lunch, playing golf, serving on boards, and securing public speaking engagements are not only more enjoyable but also serve their own marketing purposes better.

Even those who enjoy writing may not wish to post to Weblogs. Many are uncomfortable sharing their thoughts and personalities over the Internet. "Lots of blogging is first draft stuff, not the six or seven drafts so many lawyers are used to," says Dennis Kennedy. Additionally, part of blogging etiquette is to leave posts and comments, except for typographical errors or purely hateful or spam comments, undisturbed and archived for posterity - including professional associates, acquaintances, future employers, and members of that future Senate confirmation committee.

"Maybe I should worry about that, but I don't," says New Orleans attorney Ernest Svenson, whose A-list blog is Ernie the Attorney. Posting some personal information gives your blog credibility and appeal, he opines. Additionally, Svenson feels there's not much risk to posts on a Weblog - as long as you think before you post and are careful in your choice of topics.

Svenson says his number one rule is never to write anything about a case he's handling or about a client. "Even the slightest degree of indiscretion can be very hurtful." On the other hand, Svenson feels that the public nature of a blog is a benefit: "A blog is a public conversation. You know up front that everyone can see it. E-mail, on the other hand, may seem private but can be forwarded to anyone without your knowing it."

Remarking that some federal judges have commented to him about some of his posts, showing that they read his Weblog, Svenson says, "A blog is a way to say something to someone when you'd never dare to say it in person because you'd never find the right time or the right place." Don't, however, succumb to hubris and assume that everyone will read everything you say, he cautions. "And I might not blog if I were a young associate - or I might do it anonymously," Svenson says. (For a discussion of the ethical issues raised by blogging, see page 225.)

Kennedy suggests, however, that even lawyers who don't necessarily consider themselves prime writers think about using blog technology for their firm Web site. "You can put new content on when you feel like it, and build content over time."

He finds blogging enormously satisfying, expressing his passion for both the law and the Internet: "In one sense, the Internet has nothing to do with the practice of law, but in another sense it has everything to do with it. It opens the range of your communication by allowing you to educate lots of people and communicate with clients, other attorneys, and the general public, going beyond the traditional practice of law." Through the power of the Internet, attorney bloggers are expanding a community that's making the practice of law more effective and more enjoyable.


Helen W. Gunnarsson, a lawyer in Highland Park, is an Illinois Bar Journal contributing writer.


 

Blawggers and their blawgs


Here are URLs to the blogs mentioned in this article (in order of appearance).

 


 

Blogging goes to law school

Unsurprisingly, blogs flourish in legal academe. Students such as Jeremy Richey, http://www.jeremyrichey.com/, blog about their experiences in law school (see accompanying article), and distinguished law professors maintain well-respected blogs covering their areas of expertise. Three professors at the University of Illinois College of Law were recently commended for their blogs in the March 2006 issue of Dean Heidi Hurd's newsletter. http://www.law.uiuc.edu/newsletter/2005-2006/Mar06.htm.

Professor Larry Ribstein, who teaches courses in business law and blogs at "Ideoblog," http://busmovie.typepad.com/ideoblog/, characterizes his initial blogging goal as simply a way to elicit feedback on a project about how business is portrayed in film. That modest goal has evolved into "a form of informal scholarship and a way of trying to influence the public debate on the issues I cover," which run the gamut from antitrust to federalism to securities fraud.

Professor Linda Beale, who teaches tax law, blogs at "A Taxing Matter," http://ataxingmatter.blogs.com/tax/. Says Beale, "I originally decided to blog because I thought that I could add to the dialogue about taxes as a feminist who cares about fairness and distributive justice considerations." She distinguishes her blogging style from her academic publications: "When I write an academic article, my goal is to articulate an idea thoroughly, with all necessary supporting rationale. When I write about the same idea in a blog, I can simplify and present the idea in a more accessible way, without as much of the structural framework that is needed for the academic article. That simplification also helps to hone the critical components of the idea, so blogging becomes another tool for sharpening one's thinking."

Ribstein's and Beale's fellow Professor Lawrence Solum, whose courses include civil procedure, intellectual property, and constitutional law, maintains "Legal Theory Blog," http://lsolum.blogspot.com/. Solum has drafted an article comprehensively discussing his own reasons for and philosophy of blogging and legal publishing, entitled "Download It While It's Hot: Open Access And Legal Scholarship." (The draft may be cited as Lawrence B. Solum, Working Paper: Public Reason, Welfarism, and Fairness (2005).)

In it, he says there's "a terrible dirty secret about long form legal scholarship," meaning treatises and traditional lengthy law review articles: next to no one reads most of it, either because of its forbidding length and density, because its subject is so obscure that it's not worth reading, or because it's too difficult or expensive to secure permission from the copyright holder to reproduce it.

Solum argues for "open access" publication, meaning, essentially, that articles should be freely available, reproducible (for nonprofit uses), and searchable to anyone interested, as long as credit is given to the author and the work's integrity is maintained. He predicts "There will come a day when the saying, ‘If it isn't on the net, it doesn't exist,' is true. Open access legal scholarship will be the only legal scholarship that is actually read." Solum sees blogging as an important part of the future of legal publishing, saying "blogging changed me and the way that I think about writing."

 

 


 

Learn more about blawgs and blawgging
Blawg
http://blawg.org/
This comprehensive site explains how to blog, describes blogging software options, and offers a wealth of info for would-be blawggers.

Blawg Republic
http://www.blawgrepublic.com/
A popular directory of blawgs, organized by subject matter.