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A Contrarian View Of Legal Blogs

by Joe Hartley


The hottest Web development for lawyers in the past year has been the appearance of legal blogs. Everybody wants one, and predictions are flying that the blogless firm will soon go the way of the dodos and dinosaurs.

Do Legal Blogs Work?

Simply because something is new and hot doesn't mean that it's effective. I haven't seen anyone address the question of how blogging fits into a law firm's business plan, which should measure why and how a law firm will make the considerable investment of time necessary to run a blog.

But let's give the devil his due. Having spent the last few weeks reading lots of blogs, both legal and non-legal, and interviewing several bloggers, the following are my observations of conditions in which blogs can be effective for some professions or areas of interest, but why they usually fall short for law firms.

1. Narrow Topics, Clear Expertise of the Blogger, Subject Matter Related to Events in the News Cycle

All three of these elements are necessary for a legal blog to work effectively if the purpose is to demonstrate the expertise of the lawyer.

For example, the HIPPA blog,, produced by Jackson Walker LLP, is a useful resource for exploring the intricacies of and developments in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, an act whose very name suggests its complexities.

But why is it better than, say, the newsletter that Fried, Frank sends out on qui tam cases?

The best example of this type of blog comes from outside the legal sphere. Informed Comment, is a blog about the Middle East written by Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan. He speaks Farsi and Arabic and specializes in the history of the Shi'a.

His blog combines his paraphrases of Arab- and Farsi-language news reports with his own analysis based on his research. His analysis of the political situation in Lebanon on March 1, 2005 surpasses anything I've read in any of the major publications, including the leading opinion journals. Why? Because most journalists are generalists and don't have the profound knowledge of the history, culture, and politics of the Middle East.

But note that Cole is a tenured professor, and is passionate about his subject. He writes well and quickly, and clearly devotes a great deal of time to the blog, and has the time to link the blog postings to current events.

Imagine what a blog written in legalese or academese would read like. Do you have someone in your office who can write well enough on a regular basis to produce a well-written blog?

2. Massive Distributed Parallel Computing

Consider the case of the Dan Rather fiasco with President Bush's military records. Hundreds of opinion bloggers got copies of the documents described in the story and started dissecting them. By closer attention to detail (attention bordering on the compulsive), and by devoting far more time than a single reporter or national news correspondent could to the issue, bloggers discovered discrepancies and inconsistencies in the use of typefaces in the various documents.

This is very interesting stuff, and a nice example of the kind of massive distributed parallel computer power, similar to that used by the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) or cryptographic systems designed to engage in brute-force password cracking spread over thousands or millions of computers. But being a very small cog in a large machine is not what you want for your law firm.

3. News Service

Many blogs appear to be adopting news feeds from other sources. Most are opinion blogs, citing sources that favor their world view. This is fine, but what application does it have for a law firm? Law firms are not news organizations, and the value to clients (or to the firm) is at best unclear.

There is one news service in which a legal blog can excel, and that is the reporting of recent cases. Far and away the best legal blog I've seen is Abstract Appeal,, Matt Conigliaro's blog covering Florida and 11th circuit opinions.

Matt, a partner at Carlton Fields in St. Petersburg, Florida, practices appellate law, and provides daily summaries of significant Florida and federal cases, as well as reporting and commentary on statutory developments and court rules. His comments are pithy, usually only a sentence or two, with links to the opinions, statutes, or rules. As a public service, he also assembled many of the relevant documents concerning the Terri Schiavo case, and offered cogent commentary on the legal issues presented by the case.

Matt reports that it's not much more work than what he's supposed to be doing as a practicing lawyer, anyway, and it's clear from talking to him, as well as from reading his blog, that Abstract Appeal is a labor of love.

Significantly, Matt is unable to report that any new business came his way because of the blog, although he reports that it has somewhat increased his exposure around the state.

4. Announcements

Many of the political blogs include announcements of demonstrations or upcoming events. Again, this is something that blogs are well suited for if there are rapidly-breaking developments. Is this more effective than an announcement on a Web site? I don't see the advantage of a blog here.

5. Opinion

The vast majority of blogs appear to be soapboxes for the bloggers' opinions. There's nothing wrong with that at all, although most opinions I've seen are atrociously written and poorly argued.

So if you have strong opinions on breaking stories, blogging may be perfect for you. However, ask yourself where it fits into your business plan, and if you figure it out, please let me know. Perhaps some celebrity lawyers can generate additional buzz for themselves, but I don't see the application to most law firms.

6. Inherently Interesting Bloggers

I have been told that there are some bloggers out there who are just plain fascinating. I confess that I have not found any. Even with interactive blogs, the quality of the comments is distressingly banal, filled largely with statements like "I agree" or "Right on!" or vulgar comments suggesting that the blogger's argument is somehow linked to his parentage, or lack thereof.

Do You Have What it Takes?

What can we learn from these examples of successful blogs?

If you are in a narrow area of practice with rapid developments, a blog can nicely advertise your expertise, although you do have to worry about giving away the store. It can, if you think it appropriate for your business plan, burnish your reputation as an expert in a specific field. If you are something of a celebrity, people may even enjoy reading your opinions on developing events.

But if you're like the vast majority of lawyers, you don't fit into this category. So what advantages does a blog have for you? Consider the following requirements to produce a good blog:

1. You have to produce quality writing under short deadlines.

If the received wisdom that a legal Web site must continuously be updated is true, it is even truer for blogs. Blogs with infrequent updates quickly lose readership and die.

With the advent of the popularity of RSS (see for an explanation of this technology) to inform readers when there's new material on the blog, the time pressures and demand for production become even more acute. Make no mistake about it: you must become a publisher, with all the challenges that entails, if you want to have a successful blog.

Do you, or does someone at your firm, have the time to make this kind of commitment?

2. Blogs are a pernicious extension of the already problematic 24-hour-news cycle, in which information gets out because of perceived competition or the need to fill space.

Does anybody in America who's really interested in news think that news coverage has been improved by a desire to scoop the other networks by 15 seconds? The recent full-time coverage of the Terri Schiavo and Michael Jackson cases, even by commentators who claim to be lawyers, is dispiriting to anyone interested in something as minor as, say, learning the facts.

Placing comparable time pressures on lawyers who are probably already overworked seems like a recipe for disaster.

3. Consider further whether you want to be tied to any particular viewpoint.

Under time pressure, you may take a position on a legal matter that could prove embarrassing or harmful in the future. Rest assured that your opponents will discover everything you have ever written on the Web, so you'll either run the risk of being quoted against yourself or you'll start self-editing, which diminishes the strength and character of the writing you bring to the blog.

4. Blogs are easily accessible only for the current month.

True, you can facilitate keyword searching by placing a search engine on your blog. But a successful search requires the searcher to use exactly the words you used to describe a particular issue. If their language is different, they won't find it.

If your goal is to get information to potential clients, a well-organized hierarchical structure like an index or table of contents is far more effective and helpful. Browsing a well-organized list of published articles is a lot more user friendly than asking your readers to search through the haystack of past blog posts hoping they find something useful.


The real flaw in the rush to legal blogs is that no one has ever answered the most critical question of time: What, in legal practice, is so crucial that it needs to get out immediately? I can't think of much of anything that actually fits into the business plans of most law firms.

A well-written piece in your firm's library of available articles, composed without the pressure of immediate deadlines, will serve your firm far better than following the blogging crowd and joining the cacophony of loud voices and empty content.

This article originated in TechnoFeature, a free weekly newsletter containing in-depth articles written by leading legal technology and practice management experts, many of whom have become "household names" in the legal profession. TechnoFeature is part of the TechnoLawyer network. You can learn more and subscribe here:

About The Author

Joe Hartley practices law in Santa Monica, CA,, specializing in professional liability, commercial litigation, and fraud cases. Unlike many of his brethren at TechnoLawyer, he has not yet been smart enough to escape from the practice of law. His attitude toward new technology is a combination of interest and skepticism, which most of his technophilic friends find annoying. You can contact Joe via e-mail at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.