Lawyers in Blogland
Lawyers in Blogland
Law blogs are exploding and Florida lawyers are in on the action
Armed with a Dummies book on html, a software program called “Blogger,” and plenty of curiosity, St. Petersburg lawyer Matt Conigliaro set out to write the code for a legal blog he could call his own.
For two months in the spring of 2003, on weekends and in the middle of the night, he hunched over his computer fine-tuning Abstract Appeal, billing it as “the first Web log devoted to Florida law and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.”
Then he set it free into the blogosphere.
Little did he realize that because of his blog, he would be quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and CourtTV.com during the raging controversy of the Terri Schiavo end-of-life case.
A misinformed radio talk show host provoked Conigliaro to set the record straight. Immediately. Even though he was in the middle of a trial, Conigliaro worked overnight to create a detailed info page on the Schiavo case, posting court decisions and discussing the history of the law.
At its peak, abstractappeal.com received 60,000 hits a day from around the world. And Conigliaro was being touted in the Progressive Blog Alliance HQ, Online Journalism Review, and the St. Petersburg Times as providing a refreshing breeze of factual information without taking sides during the political maelstrom.
These days, on an average day, abstractappeal.com gets around 600 hits, from both lawyers and nonlawyers. So far, guests to his blog number more than 751,000 and the total hits has exceeded a million.
This 35-year-old lawyer, who started fooling around with computers when he was 9, sees his legal blog — or blawg — as a natural extension of his work as a board certified appellate practice lawyer at Carlton Fields.
“The stuff I put on my Web site is exactly the stuff my co-workers and I talk about,” he said. “The only difference is I can talk about it in a way that more can know about it. It’s a rolling commentary about what goes on in our appellate system. For me, it becomes a form of note-taking. I’m a much better lawyer for doing this. I force myself to read every case that comes out and think about them.”
When Conigliaro launched his blawg in 2003, there were only a few other pioneering legal blogs around the country getting a lot of attention, such as How Appealing, Howard Bashman’s blawg mostly about federal practice; Bag and Baggage, where Denise Howell focuses on the tech side of practicing law and is credited with coining the term “blawg”; Ernie the Attorney, a New Orleans law firm partner who is “searching for truth and justice in an unjust world” and providing a mix of technical and social chit-chat; and My Shingle, where Carolyn Elefant is “opening doors to small law firm practice.”
Just two years later, blawgs are exploding over the Internet, joining an estimated 10 million Weblogs, on-line diary-like Web sites, around the world on just about any topic you can dream up.
Blawgs are cropping up more and more in Florida — as forums for exchanging information in specialty fields, a way to communicate with laymen about the law, and, yes, as a way for lawyers to market themselves in a new dimension of self-promotion.
Just as The Florida Bar grapples with how best to deal with lawyer Web sites as a form of lawyer advertising (an Internet phenomenon that first surfaced about a dozen years ago and is now embraced by 100 percent of firms in Florida with more than 20 attorneys, according to the 2004 Economics & Law Office Management Survey ) fresh questions arise about whether the Bar should regulate blawgs, the relatively new kid on the cyberspace block, too. Some exist to troll for business, while others exude almost a public-service tone.
“The Standing Committee on Advertising has not addressed this issue, because it is a relatively new phenomenon,” said Bar Ethics Counsel Elizabeth Tarbert.
“My position is that whether the Bar would regulate depends on the content of the blog. If the blog is purely political, the Bar would not. If the blog is purely information and not being used as an opportunity for the lawyer to obtain clients or provide info on the lawyer’s legal services, the Bar would not regulate unless there was something generally false, deceptive, or misleading in the blog.
“If, on the other hand, the blog is used as an opportunity for the lawyer to obtain clients or provide info on the lawyer’s legal services, the blog would have to comply with the lawyer advertising rules,” Tarbert said.
So it all depends on content.
And the content of blawgs runs the gamut from scholarly forums to the downright ditzy, like The Sassy Lawyer’s Journal, tidbits about Philippine law mixed with tofu recipes and pictures of cats.
The advertising question, Conigliaro says, is a hot issue among legal bloggers.
“My perspective would be that there is a difference between advertising your services to the public and speaking on legal issues, or speaking to people who know you are a lawyer about legal issues about things you like to talk about,” Conigliaro said.
“There are some Web sites that are obviously marketing efforts, first and foremost. There are some blogs that are not. Instead, they are tools for discussions about issues.”
And while Conigliaro’s Abstract Appeal’s aim is scholarly, he still has fun. He recently posted an answer to his Friday featured trivia question: “What four justices were together known as ‘the young bucks’?” And then he mentions he is posting the answer (Arthur England, Josepth Hatchett, Ben Overton, and Alan Sundberg) on his Treo while stuck in traffic at the airport.
To get a grip on the variety of subjects covered in blawgs, here are the top 10 most popular ones, as measured by click-throughs, according to blawg.org: “In Search of Perfect Client Service,” “May It Please the Court,” “The Corporate Counsel.net Blog,” “So Cal Law Blog,” “TalkLeft,” “CrimLaw,” “Intellectual Property Updates,” “Legal Extranet Blog,” “Underneath Their Robes,” and “How Do You Know That?”
Todd Mayover, the sole in-house attorney for a medical device manufacturing company in Ft. Lauderdale, is the author of a blawg for in-house property attorneys, called the “IP Counsel Blog” (ipcounsel.blogspot.com).
“I thought it would be a great way to write about topics that relate to my profession.. . and in particular, to my areas of legal expertise: intellectual property and contracts,” Mayover said.
It’s instant gratification.
“The alternative is to write detailed articles that must be submitted to various publications for peer review before being published. Blogging allows you to write about current topics and publish your thoughts or comments without waiting for acceptance from a journal or periodical for publication,” he said.
Most of the visitors to his blawg, Mayover said, are other lawyers like himself: in-house counsel, intellectual property lawyers in law firms, and people interested in intellectual property news from Florida, throughout the nation, and in Europe, Asia, and Australia.
Mayover added an e-mail subscription service on his blog via a service called Bloglet, as well as Feedblitz, which e-mails Mayover’s posts to 60 subscribers. And he points out that most blogs can be syndicated using various types of feeds, such as RSS or Atom.
“Instead of going directly to each and every blog you are interested in reading, you can use syndication or blog reader software that compiles new posts from all the blogs you like to read,” Mayover said.
He considers his blawg an efficient way to network with his peers more regularly than waiting for annual professional conferences. And he’s learned a lot about other attorneys’ strategies.
“One example is whether to rely on legal opinions in patent infringement litigation in view of recent cases decided by the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit,” Mayover said. “Many intellectual property blawgs have commented on this issue.”
Inspired by presidential candidate Howard Dean’s success in Internet fund-raising, Jonathan Alper, of Lake Mary, started Florida Asset Protection Blog (florida assetprotection.blogs.com) and Florida Bankruptcy Law Blog (www.bankruptcy orlando.com) in February 2004. Averaging about 225 readers a day, Alper estimates about 20 percent are attorneys.
Alper checked out Dean’s blog, and read about new blogging software, particularly TypePad. Through a listserv, he linked up with Kevin O’Keefe, an attorney in Washington state, who was beginning to advise lawyers about Internet marketing and would later create LexBlog, a company dedicated to helping attorneys maintain law blogs. O’Keefe is someone Alper calls “without question the country’s leading authority on legal blogs.”
“O’Keefe encouraged me to use a blog to introduce myself to people who might be interested in my area of practice,” Alper said.
“Real people read legal blogs, too. In my opinion, blogs are proliferating because there is a great demand for information about the law,” Alper said. “People—attorneys and laymen—need legal knowledge, and competent legal information is hard to find and is expensive. Blogs tend to rank high in Google searches—for technical reasons beyond this article—so blogs are an effective way to deliver free legal information to people searching for answers on the Internet.”
Alper has used his blawg to help his clients.
“I once stated on my blog that a client interested in asset protection had asked me whether an IRA can own investment real estate. I confessed in the blog that I did not know the answer,” Alper said. “I received many responses from attorneys and CPAs all over the country trying to help me learn the answer. I passed on many of these comments to my client, without charge.”
But how trustworthy is information when anyone can create a blog and spew unedited thoughts, in what Conigliaro described as “people’s personal viewpoints expressed with too much passion in a grammatically incorrect way?”
How is a reader of blawgs to distinguish the good from the bad? What assurances are there that the information is accurate?
“None,” answers Conigliaro bluntly. “There is just no way to have a guarantee. It’s the same in news reporting, too. There are no assurances it’s true, but you believe the information because you respect the institution, in all likelihood. The same holds true for any Web site. If you know your source, and if you respect the institution, then you will trust the information.”
One reason both journalists and lawyers have a good deal of success in starting their own blogs, Conigliaro offers, is “because in their careers they already know how to write and communicate and they’re good at it.”
For the most part.
A post on LexBlog from Duncan Riley at Blog Herald gives pointers on blawg publishing that include: post regularly, post quality, and don’t give in.
“There are going to be times when you get the blog blues, where you’d ask yourself why you even bothered,” Riley writes. “We all get them at some stage. Your success will be measured on your ability to get past this and get on with the task at hand. Remember, the longer you post and the more you post results in more traffic from search engines, which means more visitors to your blog.”
Susan Soloman posted this tidbit at MarketingProfs: “What’s wrong with most blogs? They’re too chatty.. . You probably didn’t need to hear about my teen, but I thought it was clever. So I bulked up my writing with inconsequential meanderings. That’s bad blog form.”
And, as Mayover cautions: “The one downside to blogging is that you must build up your readership over time.”
He warns other lawyers: Realize the serious time commitment a good blawg requires.
“A good blawg has frequent posts, at least a few times per week, and more usually at least one post per day. Also, a good blawg will have interesting content and strong writing,” Mayover said. “Finding interesting topics may take time. Many people start
blawgs only to give up after a few posts, because they can’t find enough topics to cover or they aren’t willing to put in the time necessary to write and edit their posts.”
Can there be information overload, a saturation of the senses, trying to cull the wheat from the chaff?
“I don’t think I would ever say there is a thing as too much information,” Conigliaro said. “I would say there are good uses of time gathering information and poor uses of time gathering information.”
While some lawyers are in the business of helping other lawyers create blawgs for a fee, it can be done on the cheap.
Alper spent about $300 setting up his blog and pays $15 a month to operate it. Besides $30 for the Dummies book, Conigliaro’s do-it-yourself approach means he only spends $11.95 a month for his site.
Judging by the huge popularity of blawgs, Conigliaro said:
“If I had quit my practice two years ago to set up blogs for people, I would be incredibly rich. That would be my business, and it would be quite lucrative. But I truly love the business I am in: Florida appellate law.”
And he’s ready and willing to chat with you about it—at the office coffee pot or on his blawg.