The Three Types Of Practicing Lawyer Blogs

SCOTUSBlog, the premier media source — internet, newspaper, anywhere — for Supreme Court news, has just undergone a revision, including sponsorship by Bloomberg Law. Scott Greenfield, the premier source for complaints about legal blogging, thinks something was lost in translation:

Most disturbing is the resort to the formulaic approach of “ask the expert,” and the expert invariably being someone with scholarly credentials so that their every utterance comes with built-in academic credibility. We see it in newspaper articles and on television news, the lawprof opining about things he’s never personally touched and only seen from afar. We were knee deep in ideas from people who have never actually done the things they speak about with such refined expertise. Now we’ll be neck-deep.

For those of us who have long appreciated SCOTUSBlog being there, being the first resource for Supreme Court decisions, briefs, reports, it seems unfair and unappreciative to question Tom Goldstein’s effort to make money off his blog and further his career as a Supreme Court litigator. And yet, I can’t help feeling that we’ve lost a trusted friend, a reliable neighbor, who is moving from the ‘hood to the corporate bigtime. And that our comments will be deemed too stupid and unworthy to make it onto the small screen.

Bob Ambrogi is more sanguine:

I believe that Bloomberg’s sponsorship will prove to be a benefit to readers of SCOTUSblog. For several years now, this blog has moved closer and closer to becoming a serious — dare I say “mainstream” — news site, particularly since bringing aboard Lyle Denniston. Now it will be able to devote more staff and resources to that task, which can only make it all that much better.

And before anyone bemoans the blog for “selling out,” keep in mind that this new sponsor is, itself, a professional, global news organization, one that already has a strong legal news component. As a matter of fact, I would say that this sponsorship will be better for the blog’s readers than was the blog’s longtime affiliation with a major law firm, Akin Gump.

The rebirth of SCOTUSBlog as more a form of SOCUTSNews was unavoidable and has been a long time coming. You don’t get very far as a Supreme Court litigator by pointing out how unprincipled and political many of the Court’s decisions are. You also don’t become a major media source for commentary by pointing out that the court’s key opinions are loaded with rank hypocrisy — consider how often the five “Federalist” judges these days use ambiguous federal statutes to pave over state-created rights — or that their poorly-reasoned opinions often raise more questions than they answer.

Truth is, as a blog gets more popular, it tends to get more “mainstream” and less provocative. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; SCOTUSBlog was never particularly edgy, and there are plenty of people around more than happy to criticize our robed overlords. I couldn’t be happier that SCOTUSBlog has a bright and secure future as the primary source for plain-vanilla apolitical analysis of the Supreme Court; it’s the first place I go for information about the Court. No offense to the New York Times or NPR, but, when they report on the latest opinions, they simplify matters for their non-lawyer audiences, and they don’t helpfully link to the lower court opinions and the merits briefs.

The SCOTUSBlog revision puts into perspective some trends I’ve seen in the universe of practicing lawyer blogs. (Put aside the legal academic blogs and media ventures unaffiliated with firms; they have separate trends.) It seems the practicing lawyer blogs are separating into three general classes of blogs, which I’ll call the mainstream, the personalities, and the marketers.

The mainstream are blogs with several in-depth, substantive posts every week. These blogs are typically written and edited by multiple people and aim for a journalistic style, sometimes in the form of third-person-omniscient, apparently-neutral-reporting or in the form of a typical newspaper opinion/editorial. Like newspaper websites, they tend not to engage in discussion with other bloggers, though they will engage with major media and academics.  SCOTUSBlog is one. Francis Pileggi’s blog is to Delaware corporate law what SCOTUSBlog is to the SCOTUS. Bill Marler’s blogs (scroll to the bottom) own the field of food poisoning litigation. Big firms in particular have jumped on this one; Fox Rothschild has a bunch of blogs written by lawyers.  These aren’t blogs when you feel like it, they’re part of a systematic process to produce substantive legal content.

The personalities are the single lawyer or handful of lawyers who write when they’re inspired, and they’re written with a distinctive voice. These blogs can range from analysis of case law (e.g., Drug and Device Law, D & O Diary) to personal observations about law (e.g., Erik Turkewitz, Associate’s Mind, Day on Torts) to a mixture of both (e.g., China Law Blog, Abnormal Use) . When someone mentions the “blawgosphere,” they’re usually talking about those blogs — not least because those blogs are far, far more likely to link out to other websites and to engage in discussion with one another. “Organic” is an apt description.

The marketers are blogs written first and foremost for potential clients. They rarely link out and rarely go into substantive discussion about the law. Huge numbers of them are insulting and unreadable, but they don’t have to be that way. AboutLawsuits is largely an SEO front for Saiontz & Kirk and is too focused on potential-client-conversion in my humble opinion (would it kill them to cite a court caption?), but they’re doing original reporting by discovering new legal developments and reporting on them. Ron Miller has a couple quality blogs aimed at clients (see his Related Blogs sidebar), as does Jonathan Rosenfeld. You don’t have to be embarrassed of these blogs if you do them right, and they’re probably the least expensive and time-consuming to do.

Here in Philadelphia, there aren’t any mainstream blogs I’m aware of, Stuart Carpey runs a personality blog, Drug & Device Law is here, and there’s a couple thousand marketing blogs. I imagine the numbers are similar in most cities: there’s no mainstream blogs, a handful of personality blogs, then hundreds of marketing blogs.

I don’t agree with Greenfield that, for marketing blogs, “no one really cares when you write and, well, you don’t write anything of substance anyway.” I don’t really care what shows up on the marketing blogs — I either know what the blog is talking about or I don’t care — but some people do care. Not everyone is fluent in the languages of law or medicine. Our firm’s Philadelphia Personal Injury Lawyer Blog is a marketing blog aimed at potential clients; I don’t see why a practicing personal injury lawyer would care about it, but non-lawyers do, and we get inquiries from people who don’t have any sort of lawsuit but just want information about something. We’re happy to oblige, and we get satisfaction out that the same way a mainstream blog gets satisfaction out of a mention in the newspaper or a personality blog gets satisfaction out of a link or a thoughtful comment.

In turn, my organic blog here got me named as a co-defendant along with Greenfield, the ABA, and dozens of other ‘personality’ bloggers. C’est la vie; there are indeed, as Greenfield says, downsides to writing worthwhile content, like potential legal liability and in the frustration of dealing with obnoxious internet commentators hurling invective from their basements. Then again, I couldn’t write a marketing blog if I tried; as any decent public relations specialist will tell you, writing good ad copy that doesn’t sound like huckster garbage is actually quite hard.

This trifurcation of the blawgosphere has ramifications for both writers and readers. For writers, as I’ve said before, Google rewards quality content. All of the above blogs are high quality in their own way and in their own field; they are being rewarded accordingly, and they are useful not just in showing up in search results, but in actually developing lawyers’ reputations (PDF). Don’t feel compelled to write a particular type of blog; write what you like to write and get good at it, or it will suck and you will hate it.

In contrast, the marketing blogs that fail to distinguish themselves from one another and which might as well have been written by high school students or computer programs have been slipping and sliding for some time, forcing them to resort to an increasingly expensive and difficult SEO spam arms race. That’s not to say there’s no room for marketing blogs, but the same-old blather about last night’s car accidents won’t work any more. Even Jim Sokolove, who was marketing his practice thirty years before it was cool, has started filling out his site with some substantive (albeit short) content about asbestos. I find the odds of him linking out to anyone to be zilch, but original, substantive content is a good start.

For readers, the quality just gets better and better. SCOTUSBlog remains a valuable resource, as do all the blogs I listed above. LexBlog has a nice portal that highlights posts by their client firms, and there’s always something interesting a click or two away. There are about a billion Twitter lists (e.g., here, here, here, here) cultivated to put great content right in front of you.

All in all, I think we’re on the right path. Are practicing lawyer bloggers engaged with one another on the same personal, first-name basis as a few years ago? I don’t know — those types of blogs are certainly a smaller fraction of the overall legal blogging universe, but they’re still around, and many others are producing great content every day that someone, from other lawyers to educated laypersons to the hopelessly lost, will appreciate.

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  • http://twitter.com/butlerwooten Butler Wooten

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve recently started blogging for our firm, but I’m afraid that my “personality” posts might get lost in the “marketing” posts that are written on our behalf by FindLaw. Having two firm blogs – one for marketing and one for “personality” posts – is an interesting idea.

    Buddy Morrison
    Butler, Wooten & Fryhofer, LLP

  • http://twitter.com/associatesmind Associate’s Mind

    I’d say that’s a pretty accurate breakdown of the prevalent types of legal blogs. I’d also say that it’s a fairly natural evolution of the “blawgosphere.” I have no problem with SCOTUSBlog going “mainstream” either – it was already about as mainstream of a legal blog as you’re going to get. It provides comprehensive coverage of the most important Court in the country. That it’s taken it this long to get a large, exclusive sponsorship seems odder than anything else.

    In regards to “personality” style legal blogs, I’d agree that they seem to be shrinking in scope and influence. There are seemingly a number of established personality blogs that have been around for some time, but many of them are dropping away. The bloggers burned out or are too busy to maintain the blog. And considering that there does not seem to be many new personality style blogs popping up, it’s a shrinking part of online legal commentary.

    I think it’s partly that personality blogging is much more difficult then straight mainstream legal analysis. A personality blogger typically shares more of their thoughts on life, the universe, and everything, and generally opens themselves more to criticism. For risk-averse lawyers, that doesn’t exactly sound appealing. Which is a shame, because while I absolutely keep up with mainstream substantive legal commentary – I also enjoy the extra “flavor” that personality style lawyer blogs provide.

    • Anonymous

      I agree with all of that, but I’m more optimistic about the ‘personality’ blogs. You’re a relative newcomer, something like 15 months. Jeff Gamso’s first post was only May 2009. New personality blogs are appearing, though many likely toil away in obscurity for a while before they receive any real traction, and I bet in the past few months several great personality blogs have been started, we just haven’t found them yet.

      ________________________________

  • John Day

    Max – thanks for your reference to Day on Torts.

    I agree with your breakdown of blog types, but I think there is a sub-set of marketing blogs that deserve their own category. Some alleged bloggers write only to report recent car wrecks or other tragedies. These are often one-line posts, offering no analysis, and link to only some television station or even less reliable source. The low-life meat-heads who generate these posts offer nothing of substance to anyone.

    To be sure, this type of blogging is unabashed marketing, but it is so devoid of substance and so crass that it is unfair to legitimate, pure marketing blogs to include it in the marketing category.

    If in fact a sub-category is warranted, we need a name for it. I thought about “Whore Blogs” but that might be construed as defamatory to whores who, after all, typically provide a service that has at least some value.

    Is there someone among us who has a better command over the English language than I do who can share an appropriate title to these scumbag blogs?

    • Anonymous

      Turkewitz calls them dreck blogs. I could also say crass blogs or sham spam blogs.
      ________________________________

      • Turk

        I only call them dreck blogs when I’m being nice.

        Good blog post.

        –ET

  • shg

    Sorry to come so late to the party, Max, but I didn’t stumble on this post until today. My issue with SCOTUSBlog, and hence your first category, is that it’s no longer a blog. It’s fine to appreciate it for what it is, and indeed, we should appreciate “things” on the internet that are useful and informative. But what was once a web log, a vehicle for Tom Goldstein to write about SCOTUS, is now a business.

    As for others, like Bill Marler’s, that offer excellent substantive legal commentary limited to a particular niche, Bill’s personality and perspective come through loud and clear, and it’s one of the things I appreciate about his blog. Blogs are personal, no matter what they cover. If they aren’t, then they’re not blogs.

    As for content written by findlaw, the confusion between blog and marketing speaks to the lawyer involved, not the nature of blogs. Anyone can call anything on the internet a blog, but that doesn’t make it so.

    • Anonymous

      An entirely fair point. I used the term “blog” in the post to mean a much broader set of websites than you deem “blogs,” in that I allowed commercial, non-personal content to fit into my title of “practicing lawyer blog” so long as the material was coming from a practicing lawyer / firm rather than from an entity created to profit from publishing itself (e.g., Above The Law).

      I prefer your limitation of “blogs” to those in which the personality of the author is clear, but then we lack clear terminology to refer to other sites. We could just call SCOTUSBlog a “media publication” or “news site” or the like the same way we’d call Bloomberg itself, but I think that misses the important fact that, at least nominally, the content is originating from a practicing lawyer’s firm. I suppose it’s SCOTUSBlog’s own fault for blurring the line there; I was going to write that, unlike a media site, SCOTUSBlog doesn’t seek to support itself off of advertising, but the Bloomberg agreement suggests otherwise.

      Whatever we do, I will continue my adamant stance against “blawg.” It just doesn’t look right, it’s like the name of a cartoon dog.

      ________________________________

      • shg

        My old buddy David Giacalone hated the word “blog,” insisting on using the original phrase “web log” and castigating me for using the “horrible bastardization” of blawg. As much as I admired David, I use blawg anyway, as it immediately distinguishes a law blog from a mommy blog.

        On the other hand, I refuse to call what is done on twitter a “tweet,” as it’s come to be called. I called in a “twit” first, and stick by my guns. Tweeples disagree.