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. My firm’s main 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.