Features - Law Meets Blog: Electronic Publishing Comes Of Age

Denise M. Howell is a member of Crosby Heafey Roach & May's appellate and intellectual property practices in Los Angeles. She is also a blogger.

Although the World Wide Web was born thirteen years ago, lawyers and courts continue to struggle with their online identities. Most recognize the value and potential of the Web as a communication tool - email is ubiquitous, and access to legal information through public and private outlets has never been greater.

Judges and lawyers, however, are not programmers or Web developers, and for a legal institution this reality can halt the Web's potential dead in its tracks. While court Web sites provide ever-increasing quantities of raw data about cases, decisions and dockets, they offer little in the way of interaction or personalized assistance.

And, while some attorney and law firm sites are more useful than others, most continue to suffer from the same problem they have had all along: on the whole they are glorified brochures and telephone directories, devoid of up-to-date information geared toward concrete issues and client problems.

Enter the weblog, and things begin to look very different. Weblogs, also known as "blogs," are online publications which can include links to news stories, opinion pieces and commentary. Because they can be updated throughout the day, blogs enable immediate, virtually effortless Web publishing. With a minimum of technical know-how, a weblog author - or "blogger" - can publish and maintain an ongoing, informative dialogue with an unlimited number of readers. Weblogs take the Internet to the next step by leapfrogging conventional publishing roadblocks. When applied to the legal field, they present an irresistible channel for moving beyond the realm of operational details into that of informed perspective. Welcome to Communication v. 2.0.

Taking It To The Streets

Weblogs have been around for a long time, in Internet years. The first weblogs appeared in the early 1990s, and were collections of links and information the authors found worthy of compiling or categorizing as they journeyed around the World Wide Web. Blogs were much like other Web sites in one important way: creating and publishing one required skills and resources that legal professionals may lack, such as proficiency in hyper-text markup language (the basic language of the Web) and access to a Web server, just for starters.

In the summer of 1999, blogging became more accessible and popular when several free, build-your-own weblog tools launched, including Blogger from Pyra Labs. These tools provided a straightforward interface - anyone who can type can use Blogger - as well as all the behind-the-scenes support necessary to maintain and update a weblog on its own or as part of another site. As the result, weblogs have flourished and spread. Blogger now powers some half-million sites, and applications from others like UserLand Software and Movable Type also are popular.

Today, blogs come in all shapes and flavors. Some are personal journals, others have a more journalistic slant, and some combine the two. During the Winter Olympics, for example, security guard b-may drew thousands of readers with his timely and humorous event-side take on the games. But blogs are not just for individuals. Any site can use a weblog, including those maintained by businesses or branches of the government.

Whatever their principal purpose, all blogs filter information and archive it in an enduring chronological manner. Because updating is immediate and seamless, the information can be extremely timely. The format also encourages conversation and exchange in ways a static Web site cannot. A blog can have multiple authors, and readers can comment on the posts, ask questions and receive prompt and specific responses.

Internally, organizations maintain blogs to bring workers together and aid collaboration. On the public Web, blogs provide fascinating, witty, practical or utterly useless information - all remarkably current. Many blogs have loyal followings and are visited thousands of times a day. The major search engines index weblogs regularly, and a number of search tools exclusively analyze news sites and weblogs. More and more, those seeking topical information online are finding it on blogs.

The Next Phase

It should come as no surprise that those motivated to earn their living in the legal field also are motivated to make use of weblogs. Such people tend to have education, expertise in controversial, confusing or emergent areas, and years of experience at their craft.

Law librarians have been quick to recognize and exploit weblogs as a way to share their knowledge. Steven Cohen, librarian for a large New York firm, blends the latest in library resources with humor and industry news in his Library Stuff blog, while Cindy Curling of the law firm of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobsen law firm keeps Washington, D.C. law librarians informed about weblog developments, and notes that while "blogs have huge potential for more interactive, collaborative applications," at the moment, "there are not enough experts writing professional blogs."

The gap noted by Curling will be closed by the lure of speedy, attractive and interactive Web publishing, as the blogs of several legal scholars, practitioners and students already demonstrate.

Law professor Glenn Reynolds is a blogger (InstaPundit; University of Tennessee), as is his fellow academician David Sorkin (Law Blog; The John Marshall Law School).

Blogs are springing up on the practitioner side as well. Take, for example, Ernie the Attorney by Ernie Svenson, Law And Everything Else by Burt Hanson, Organized Anarchy by Chuck Hartley and Ipse Dixit by Dodd Harris. Students at Yale Law School have launched LawMeme - a blog about telecommunications, Internet and intellectual property law - in connection with the school's Information Society Project. Even future law students are getting into the act: Larry Staton Jr. will commence his legal studies at Case Western this fall, which should provide ample fodder for his Staton.Blog, a running commentary on current issues in law, economics and technology.

As more and more individuals within the legal field begin to blog, legal institutions will find themselves wondering whether to lead, follow or get out of the way.

Yale's LawMeme is a good example of how a weblog sponsored by an institution can achieve many goals that a Web site may strive for, but will be hard-pressed to attain unless it adopts this kind of technology. LawMeme's weblog format gives the students a hassle-free way to exercise their intellects and publish their work. It gives a public, yet human, voice to Yale Law School and its Information Society Project, while emphasizing the expertise of those bodies through post after well-thought-out, timely post. Finally, it opens an immediate dialogue - a student's February 26, 2002 analysis of a potential copyright violation by a video game manufacturer, for example, generated over two-hundred thirty responses.

After examining LawMeme, it is easy to see why other law-related Web sites will want to embrace weblogs. Take law firms, for instance. Much as private firms have hoped to draw visitors to their Web sites in search of useful, interesting or current legal information, they have failed.

Why Have Law Firm Sites Failed to Draw Visitors?

Because that kind of information isn't typically found there.

Now, consider what happens when lawyers within the firm begin electronically publishing articles, commentary and current interest updates as readily as the student-authors of LawMeme. The site goes from static to dynamic, from one-way to interactive, and in the process it becomes a powerful marketing tool. It stops describing the firm's expertise, and begins palpably demonstrating it.

And just as weblogs can help lawyers and firms gain standing and clients, they likewise can help courts and bar associations better serve their constituencies.

Augmenting a court's "Frequently Asked Questions" page with a weblog could help ensure understanding and compliance with court policies and procedures, thus minimizing phone inquiries and red-tape. West Virginia's Supreme Court of Appeals agrees, and provides its recent opinions and other court information in weblog format. A bar association weblog could let those in need of representation or other practical advice obtain guidance from knowledgeable practitioners, or could help foster collegiality and exchange among bar members.

The best information is the precise thing you need at the precise moment you need it. As weblogs become more prevalent, they will permit lawyers and legal institutions deliver the best information, by allowing them to share knowledge quickly, efficiently, responsively and personally.

Courtyard Bazaar At The Ivory Tower

In the vast wilderness of undifferentiated legal details, think of weblogs as the professional guides. Individual bloggers will continue to provide insight, perspective, wit and opinion. (Note to California appellate Justices Bedsworth and Gilbert: "A Criminal Waste Of Space" and "Under Submission" are eminently bloggable.) Additionally, firms, courts, law schools and other legal institutions will unleash the knowledge and experience of the individuals within them by adding weblogs to their Internet offerings.

Those blogs will gather, collate, filter and present information of genuine interest and necessity to legal consumers and the public at large, helping them get the answers they need, when they need them. As Emerson observed, "imagination is not a talent of some men, but is the health of every man." Weblogs both harness the imagination, and set it free.

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