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The Internet Roundtable #37: Are Blogs Right For Law Firm

By Brenda Howard, Dennis Kennedy, Jerry Lawson, Tom Mighell and Ernest Svenson, Published on August 31, 2003

Dennis Kennedy (DK): Last month we explained blogs and how to get started, but there's more. If that were all that's going on with blogs, I'd be saying what's the big deal? How are blogs any different from web sites? Aren't email newsletters a better vehicle for content delivery? There is much more to blogging and this brings us to my favorite aspects of blogs and why I do think that they are changing the Internet: the world of newsfeeds, RSS feeds, XML feeds and news aggregators. We have two special guests who will help us understand blogging.

Jerry Lawson (JL): Of course, news feeds and news aggregators are highly relevant to blogs, because most blog software, unlike conventional web design software, makes it easy to add an RSS feed automatically. Blogging and news aggregators are closely linked. Before we get into too much detail, though, let me welcome again this month our two insightful and articulate guests:

Blogs vs. Other Solutions

Ernest Svenson (ES): Well, E-mail discussion groups have had an attraction, but a lot of the attraction is based on the fact that E-mail was once the most efficient way to communicate with a disparate group of people. I can't see how E-mail discussion groups will survive except for groups that want to communicate in private.

If you want to have an open discussion then the web is the place to do it, and weblogs or wikis (which are sort of like multi-author weblogs) are going to be the preferred medium of communication. RSS, combined with news aggregators, makes it easy to "subscribe to" information and also easy to ignore information that isn't relevant. I don't need more junk in my E-mail in-box. So I like the idea of weblogs and RSS/news-aggregation. Increasingly, I see other people who prefer it as well. But I'd be the first to admit we're not yet at the critical-mass stage yet.

(JL): Absolutely. The blog/aggregator scene reminds me of the World Wide Web and the web browser market, circa 1994 or so. It seemed like a new browser program was coming out every month. They all had rough edges, but they worked well enough so that you could see the potential. Similarly, today we have a flood of aggregator programs. Again, none of them are perfect, but they show enormous potential.

Ten years ago Netscape came along and blew the browser competition away. Netscape has lost its innovative edge since AOL bought them out, so we tend to forget how revolutionary they were in their heyday. I'm waiting for the Netscape of news aggregators. When that comes along, and/or when news aggregator features are routinely incorporated into web browsers or e-mail programs, the Internet is going to look very differently to marketers than it does today.

Tom Mighell (TM): I have a slightly different take on this - for lawyers, I think it's all about how to get content to them, because as a general rule lawyers don't have a lot of time to go out looking for it. That's why I still like the e-mail format for certain types of communication. As weblogs become more popular, RSS feeds will definitely be the method of choice for "pushing" information to lawyers without a lot of effort on their part.

Understanding Newsreaders and RSS

Brenda Howard (BH): You can't really understand the power of blogs without understanding newsreaders and RSS. J.D. Lasica's article, News That Comes To You, is a great introduction.

(DK): Here's a description of my Internet world before news aggregators. I couldn't find anything with search engines because of all the pay for placement plans. I'd never remember to check web pages I was interested in because my bookmarks were so difficult to use. My email box was being bombarded with spam and dealing with email newsletters was wearying me. Sound familiar? Now I've moved much of the delivery of web information to me over to a news aggregator or newsreader. I see the information I want in one place and have reduced the number of newsletters I get via email, because I get the same newsletters as RSS headline feeds. The quality of my information experience has greatly improved. That doesn't mean, unfortunately, that there's still not information overload.

(ES): Dennis's description is exactly why I prefer news aggregators as a way of receiving information. I see more and more people adopting the same view.

(TM): I currently visit 170 sites per day in order to find the content to publish on Inter Alia, and 125 of those sites reside in my news aggregator. I have to say, though, that I don't mind receiving e-mail newsletters, because that's one less site I have to visit every day.

(BH): Tom, I agree with you. I don't mind a newsletter in my inbox if I've chosen to receive it. It's the "spam" that makes email so miserable these days. I still believe that it is efficient to have the information come directly to me and newsreaders provide this service.

(JL): A small percentage of people use newsreaders now, but their influence is disproportionate to their numbers. The first time I really began to understand the importance of blogs was one day around January. I asked myself, "Who do I know that is using news aggregators?" The answer was:

My next question was: "What do these people have in common?"

The answer: They are all early adopters and opinion influencers. People like these are the first ones you want to reach when you are trying to get a message out. Amid all the clutter on the Internet, an RSS feed is one of the best ways to catch their attention. That's true already, and RSS feeds are only going to become more important as more people learn how useful they are.

(DK): I've been using the news aggregator called Amphetadesk. It takes a different approach than some of the other news aggregators in that it grabs all my headline feeds and puts them all onto one big web page that I can then scroll through. For example, if I subscribe to 80 newsfeeds, I can scroll through a single web page generated via Amphetadesk every morning and see everything that's new on those 80 sites in a few minutes, with the ability to click on links to articles that interest me. And, I can refresh those feeds at any time and check the status of all 80 sites. That may not impress some of you, but that is pretty close to the Holy Grail of web surfing that I've been looking for for many years. Think of it as My Yahoo or My Excite on steroids with a huge amount of personal control.

The sad news is that because people with newsreaders are not going to web sites as much, they want to see the full posts rather than excerpts. Full posts make the use of Amphetadesk increasingly cumbersome. I think the battle is all but over and I'll probably move to the "Outlook" style of aggregator/reader such as NewzCrawler or NewsGator. I was such a big fan of the well-written headline summaries, but that era seems to be passing.

What newsreaders are the rest of you using?

(ES): I've used NewzCrawler, and I like that a lot. I have used Amphetadesk on occasion, but I prefer NewzCrawler's user-interface. But even though I complain about it, I use the News Aggregator that came with Radio. I'm used to it and I have learned to like the fact that it doesn't let me categorize my newsfeeds (I like this because it creates a certain chaotic serendipity-sort of like hitting 'shuffle tracks' on your music player).

(TM): I'm also a NewzCrawler fan - like Amphetadesk, it has a "Newspaper" function that lists all of the new posts on one page. Another nice feature of NewzCrawler is the RSS Auto-Detect feature; when I visit a site with an RSS feed, NewzCrawler automatically alerts me, prompting me to save that site to the news aggregator. There are many other types of news readers out there - you can see a directory of most all of them at http://www.hebig.org/blogs/archives/main/000877.php.

(JL): I use AmphetaDesk and the Radio aggregator and have been testing some others, but I'm still experimenting. I haven't found an aggregator that I find completely satisfactory. There are a lot of rough edges to the present generation of browsers. They work well enough already to provide significant benefit, but none of them seem to work exactly the way you want. Like I said, I'm waiting for the newsreader equivalent of Netscape 1995.

Newsreaders Are Important Tools for Bloggers

(DK): As you can see, there are a variety of approaches. Since many of the newsreaders are free, you can try a couple of them and see which approach you like. By the way, I think that the headline feed component of blogs is so important that no one should start a blog without first using a newsreader to subscribe to a decent number of feeds for a while to get a feel for the newsreader experience of blogs. Am I out on a limb there?

(ES): I agree with Dennis. If you are going to blog then a newsreader is essential, and it's best to tackle the learning curve (which isn't steep) for the newsreader first.

(TM): No argument here. Because I have to visit so many sites each day to find some of the content for my own weblog, I would be lost without a newsreader.

(JL): As I've said before, I think reading blogs through newsreaders is the single most important thing you can do to prepare for starting your own blog. My top three tips are: "Read blogs, read about blogs, and (most important) read blogs through news aggregators."

(BH): Ditto. Before you write a book, it's nice to have read a book first. Same thing applies to blogs.

Creating A Newsfeed for Your Blog

(DK): How do you create a news feed, also called an RSS feed or XML feed? Here's the good news - the blogging tools will handle that for you. How do you publish your feed so the newsreaders pickup your new posts? The blogging tools handle that for you. As a writer, the difficulty of reaching your audience is drastically reduced as compared to web pages. So, how does someone "subscribe" to your feed in their newsreader?

(ES): Creating the RSS/XML feed is easy if you have Radio or Movable Type, and not as easy if you use Blogger. I think it is essential that your blog have an RSS feed. I don't read sites that don't have RSS feeds and I know of several other well known bloggers who feel the same way. It's sad because there are a couple of sites that I like that either don't have RSS feeds, or the RSS feed doesn't work in my news aggregator, and, even for those sites, I don't visit them.

(TM): And subscribing is easy, too. Just find and click on the XML icon on my page, copy the URL address of the RSS page, and paste it into the appropriate place in your newsreader. The newsreader does the rest.

(BH): It still amazes me that this is all so easy now. I remember doing it all the "hard way". It only makes sense that someone would eventually create software that does all the hard work for you.

Publicizing Your Blog

(DK): And when you enter the blawgsphere, people like Tom notice and publicize you right away. In fact, many blogs get a nice launch because other bloggers mention and link to them.

(ES): I try to publicize new lawyer bloggers, but the pressure to be complete is not as great as it used to be because Howard Bashman, Tom Mighell, and Denise Howell are pretty good about making the announcement. If someone sends me an E-mail then I'll always give them an announcement.

(TM): The blogosphere is really a connected community of bloggers, and to an extent we rely on each other to "get the word out." Although I tend to announce any new law-related weblog I learn about, I especially want to publicize those weblogs that might be useful to my legal researching audience.

(BH): And all this cross-linking increases the search engine rankings for the new blog almost immediately. It's great that the community of bloggers is so supportive of one another.

(JL): This is a key reason why good blogs are so effective. Conventional web sites can add RSS feeds, but it's difficult for them to duplicate the blog culture, which includes linking. Good blogs have a giant edge on search engine visibility.

Blogging as a Marketing Tool

(DK): I look at all the difficult parts of running a successful web site that blogs, almost by their nature, solve and it amazes me. Fresh, changing content; better search engine placement; publicity that makes it easy for people to return to your site; great design because of the standard templates; and ease of maintenance. All the things that we've been preaching over the years get handled nearly automatically through the vehicle of a blog. So, Jerry, that said, how are lawyers using blogs for marketing?

(JL): So far, most of the lawyer/bloggers seem to have used them as a hobby, or to provide a public service. The law firm promotional uses seem to be just getting started. Lyle Roberts' 10b-5 Daily is one of the first examples of a blog clearly oriented toward marketing.

(BH): The marketing aspect of blogging is its biggest return on investment. It gives the law firm exposure to a wider audience. Most people create blogs for personal reasons and they do not realize that they are inadvertently marketing themselves as experts and/or professionals who stay on the top of the latest information in their subject matter.

(DK): By any measure, the number of "blawgs" has exploded since the beginning of the year. The blawgs have interesting, practical, useful and helpful content. You really do want to visit them every day. It's difficult for me to estimate how the reputation of bloggers like Marty Schwimmer of The Trademark Blog has been enhanced by having excellent blogs. Sites like his shout out a great story of his obvious expertise and willingness to share valuable information, and they also show great personality. By the way, those three factors are the top three factors corporate counsel traditionally rate highest when selecting attorneys. Based on Tom's blog, I've grown to consider him one of the leading young attorneys working with technology in the practice.

(JL): Many approaches can lead to success, but I think most lawyer/bloggers who are interested in marketing will probably get the best results with a focused approach. That leads into another idea I call "self-validation":

Conventional lawyer web sites use a variety of techniques to try to convince visitors their lawyers are capable. This might include things like a bio, a list of cases litigated, and maybe copies of some dusty law review articles. Blogs make it easier to prove you are capable. A good blogger, like Howard Bashman, demonstrates every day that he is a good writer with sound judgment who stays on top of significant appellate litigation around the country. You can tell people you are good, or you can show people you are good. Which is more convincing?

Staying on the Cutting Edge

(TM): The real trick is getting corporate counsel to a weblog. In-house counsel are more likely to consult more traditional resources first when selecting counsel, including Martindale, search engines, firm websites, and referrals. I think this will change over time, but only as weblogs become more prominent as legitimate web resources.

(JL): This is all true, but it's also true that even today:

(DK): In addition to showing your expertise, a lawyer can also show that they are innovative, tech-savvy and even a little cutting-edge. Plus, they can show a little personality. Speaking of showing personality, it's interesting to note that I can't even think of one law firm blog, even though I'd certainly argue it's a good medium for a law firm. Wait, I think Jerry and Ernie have comments on that.

(JL): The diary-like format is a turn-off for some law firms. As Ernie has noted, that doesn't have to be an obstacle, though, and he's got some good examples at his law firm.

(ES): My law firm has a blog, but it's not proclaimed as such (see http://www.gamde.com/legalnews/index.html). My hope is that we can increase the involvement of attorneys in the firm with this page. If one or two of the attorneys learn how to post to the page then we can publish a timely newsletter right to our website and tailor it to our clients' evolving demands. Meanwhile, if anyone stumbles across it they won't be shocked because the "weblog" pages look pretty much like the other pages on the website.

(TM): I'd like to jump in here, too. Weblogs also have terrific potential as a knowledge management tool within a law firm. A weblog can easily be installed on a firm intranet, allowing lawyers (or sections, or client teams) to regularly update each other on new developments in their area of law. New cases can be discussed, recent court opinions dissected, and new policies and court procedures posted.

(BH): Tom, this is an excellent point. Even law firms that have concerns about using the open format of the Web, can still leverage this technology to benefit the law firm.

(JL): Some people will argue that blogs are primitive knowledge management tools compared to systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars or more. However, in my experience, a high percentage of knowledge management projects, even those using expensive tools, fail. One thing is certain: a simple system that people understand and use is better than an expensive system that no one uses.

Building Stars vs. Team Approach

(DK): What is the level of acceptance by management and other attorneys in a firm? Traditionally, there's usually some reservation about marketing approaches that highlight an individual rather than a firm.

(ES): The reception by the management of my firm has been good. On the other hand, I didn't tell anyone that the firm had a weblog until after it had been set up. I've found that with technology you have to show people what things can do, otherwise you waste a lot of time arguing about ephemeral concerns. Since setting up the weblog cost basically nothing I was free to try it out and see what people thought. And like I said, people like the idea. And now that it is in operation we are all free to discuss, in a tangible way, how we want to develop the firm weblog.

(JL): There is a tension between promoting individual lawyers, or helping them to promote themselves, vs. the communal mindset that prevails in most law firms. This has been a recurrent Roundtable theme. My approach is that it makes sense to build stars, build rainmakers, but that goes against the mindset at most law firms. The law firms that can't break free of this mindset and give their lawyers running room are probably going to have limited success at best with blogs.

(BH): Unfortunately that's probably true. Another issue is that law firms cannot always reach a consensus regarding new technology. There are usually a few attorneys that are trying to convince the majority to take the leap of faith and they are not always successful. As such, the law firm does nothing. I like Ernie's theory of taking action and asking forgiveness later - if it ends up being necessary. Sometimes this is the only way to get the ball rolling.

Are Blogs For Everyone?

(DK): Jerry has written that blogs are appropriate for some lawyers, but not others. I'd like to see a thousand blogs bloom, but I agree with Jerry that a good blogger is probably at heart a good writer.

(ES): I agree with Jerry. There's an old adage: it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt. Of course, people who write well like to write, which is probably how they learned to write well. So I doubt that many people are going to blog unless they like to write.

(TM): Unfortunately, there are those bloggers out there who love to write, but don't necessarily do it very well. The sheer magnitude of weblogs appearing on the scene really threatens to dilute the quality of those weblogs with good writers.

(JL): I think successful blogging also requires a lawyer with time to invest, and also a certain personality. What kind of personality? Well, I suggest a sort of Rorschach test: Lawyers who think the childhood story of Stone Soup is silly (or cynical) should probably not start blogs. Lawyers who believe it's a heartwarming story with worthwhile insights into human nature are probably more promising blog candidates.

(BH): We've all touched on this, but it really requires someone with excellent time management skills. It takes a good deal of time to create an excellent blog and one has to be very careful about how much time is spent on creating and maintaining it. It can get out of control very easily.

(JL): The time issue may be the biggest yellow light for lawyer bloggers. One tip: It's not mandatory to post every day.

Favorite Blogs

(DK): Favorite blogs? Tom's, Ernie's and Jerry's, of course. Sabrina Pacifici's beSpacific is as professional a blog as I've seen. It's hard for me to nail down just a few. I really am a sampler and monitor well over 100 blogs to see what's interesting. I like the shopping bargain blogs, blogs about my favorite authors and my favorite interests, local St. Louis blogs, the blogs at Corante.com and Kuro5hin.org. Blogs are a great way to learn a little bit about areas that you normally don't have time to think about or things that you wish you had more time to think about. Where are the Bruce Springsteen blogs?

(ES): I like some of the young lawyer and law student blogs because they remind me of what it was like to learn about the practice of law. I especially like A Mad Tea Party, Sugar Mr. Poon, and Unbillable Hours. These people are insightful, keenly observant and witty. We need more people who enjoy law, but who have a healthy sense of perspective about life. Law isn't everything, and neither is blogging.

(TM): All of the above. Being an info junkie, I also like Bob Ambrogi's LawSites and Gary Price's ResourceShelf, and I'm looking forward to reading Larry Bodine's new venture, the LawMarketing Weblog.

(JL): I like most of the blogs mentioned, and one of an old friend, Rick Klau. Tech Law Advisor is pretty good, too. Ron Friedman and Doug Simpson have promising new blogs on strategic legal technology issues. I also like a team blog I started, eLawyerblog, which deals with using the Internet to better deliver legal services to moderate to low income Americans.

(BH): I'll stop the list now. There are enough blogs cited to keep any one person busy for a very long time.

Conclusion

(DK): Let's take it home. What's the future of blogs? I'm fascinated by the newsfeed / newsreader technology as a way of dealing with information overload and bringing the information you want right to you, and the flip side of using it as a way to open actual channels to your target audiences. It's such a cool thing.

(ES): You know, I really have no idea what the "future of blogging" is. All I know is I like blogging, and I'm going to keep on doing it until it gets boring. For me, that is.

(TM): I think weblogs are at a crossroads right now - we have seen their potential, but I don't think they have taken hold in a way that will meaningfully affect the legal industry - yet. That time is coming soon, I hope.

(BH): I've quit predicting the future of any technology. It's a wonderful software tool, but who knows what will be the "hot" technology a year from now. Everything seems to settle down eventually and that will probably happen with blogs too.

(JL): Blogs have enormous potential, but it's important to keep the phenomenon in perspective. I think we're going to see another instance of the "80/20 Rule." It will probably shake out something like this: About 80% of all lawyer web logs will fail. The remaining 20% will have greater or lesser degrees of success, mostly modest. One per cent or so, maybe less, will be extremely successful. However, some of that 1% will be so successful that they will make their owners very, very glad they got into the blogging game.