Best of 2013: “Inside Straight” on blogging for lawyers

First published on June 2, 2013.Inside Straight - Mark Herrmann

Some of my best (online-who-I-never-met-but-believe-me-they-have-your-back) friends among legal bloggers don’t believe in legal blogging at all.  For example, Scott Greenfield both excels at it and is absolutely contemptuous of it — if, of course, you don’t realize that this depends on what “it” means:

Frankly, I was quite surprised when Mark Britton, Avvo’s CEO, asked me to give the closing keynote address at this year’s Lawyernomics conference.  The reception for my presentation at Avvo’s last effort at a marketing conference, Avvocating, was luke warm, at least from Avvo’s general counsel, Josh King. who thought it was a bit on the “screed” side. . . .

As we all painfully know, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. They are dogs, but they have websites that make them look like the greatest lawyer since Benjamin Cardozo.  They know nothing about how to represent clients, but ten minutes of skimming a few well-written blogs and they can crank out a post that gives the impression that they have a clue.  Or worse still, they let other people write their posts for them in exchange for a link back to some website that sells Nigerian diet pills. It’s not like potential clients know right from wrong.  But let’s keep that between us, okay?

So these are the bar for each of you, with their search engine optimized anchor text sucking up the Google-juice that would otherwise be yours.  It’s breaking your hearts. It’s killing you. These scoundrels are sucking up all the good cases and clients out there. You know they must be, because they good ones certainly aren’t coming to you so they have to be going somewhere.

You’ve heard from speakers here about how they sell laundry detergent and shiny doo-dads. You’ve heard from speakers here who tell you about the cutting edge trends, even though they, like you, can barely feed their children. You’ve heard from speakers who are smart marketers, knowing that if they endear themselves to you, you will trust them enough to give them your last few dollars.

But what they are all trying to tell you is that the special, hidden secret of marketing yourself as a lawyer on the internet is always position yourself one step below your competition. If they scream, you scream louder. If they stroll the boulevard in hot pants, you stroll it in tighter hot pants. If they claim to have 100 satisfied clients named “Justin T.,” you claim to have a thousand.

Marshmallow Man

I’m just a big gooey trademark lawyer!

Scott, of course, is one of the most successful, accomplished and well-known legal bloggers on earth.  He’s also a pretty tough cookie, to put it mildly.  And believe me, compared to the kind of emails he can send if he’s annoyed, most of what you read on his Simple Justice blog is mild. I’m a big gooey softy compared to Greenfield. Thank God we have people like him prepared to do what he does for a living while I do this mushy-gushy stuff.

We are of the same mind, however, regarding the above.  Real blogging is hard.  Real, blogging, that is — not prefabricated garbage blogging sold to desperately underemployed lawyers seeking a turnkey virtual  marketing-based solution to professional development.  Contrast this with the old fashioned approach of learning things and meeting actual people.  And maybe doing some blogging.

Again:  Good legal bloggers may or may not develop business “because of” blogging, but that’s not why they blog.

And if you can do it the hard way, is it worth it?  Is it?  Is it?

Stupid question.  You couldn’t even have been listening.  You don’t do it because you want clients — we all want clients.   You do it because:

  • You want to blog — you, personally, want to have that for yourself.  A blog.
  • You have something to say.  Your blog will have content because you will fill it with content that you write.  You — the person reading this.
  • You’ve earned the right to say it.  You’ve researched the issue, you’ve lived the practical question or you’ve at least culled the views that are already out there and have something original to conclude from the process of doing so.
  • You know how to say it.  You can write.  You don’t have to write like Greenfield,  Goldman or Coleman but for Heaven’s sake you know what you’re doing with a keyboard.

Good.  Now, this:  What about this old post by my old (online, etc.) friend and schoolmate Mark Herrmann, perhaps known to you now as the “Inside Straight” columnist at Above the Law?  The post is old but I write about it now because I just came across a version of it in a review copy I was sent of his collection of Inside Straight posts, which you can buy here.

Lawyer Ron ColemanReview copies of books are very flattering to receive.  I seldom do them justice, however, because I hardly have time to read.  I am reading this one, though, because Mark is such a good writer, we go back so far (I even got to write a blurb for his excellent Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law), and because his new book gives me insight into a world that has most assuredly passed me by but which I once foolishly thought would be my home, i.e., Big Law.

Which leads me to the point:  Mark’s post.  I’m going to quote another long excerpt here rather than trying to paraphrase:

The folks who sell blogging platforms to lawyers say that blogging is the route to riches. But bloggers themselves are far less certain whether blogging actually generates business. What’s the truth?

Let me start with my personal experience; I’ll conclude with a thesis. The personal experience is just the facts — what I did as a blogger, how successful the blog was, and how, if at all, I profited from the experience. (I’ve previously recited parts of this story in both the print media and elsewhere. I’ll try to add a few new thoughts here.)

What did I do as a blogger? For three years — from October 2006 through December 2009 — while I was a partner at Jones Day, I co-hosted the Drug and Device Law Blog with Jim Beck, of Dechert. We wrote almost exclusively about the defense of pharmaceutical and medical device product liability cases. . . .

How successful was the blog? By the time I left the Drug and Device Law Blog (and the private practice of law) in December 2009, the blog’s readership had grown to something north of 30,000 pageviews in a typical month. (That’s quite good by “niche blog”standards, but abysmal for a blog aimed at a more general audience. Above the Law, for example, can get 30,000 pageviews in a single business hour on a typical weekday.) Drug and Device Law’s readership, so far as we could tell, consisted of (1) other lawyers at large firms who defended pharmaceutical product liability cases, (2) plaintiffs’ lawyers who labored on the opposite side of that v (3) in-house lawyers at drug and device companies, (4) government officials interested in our field (we received, for example, occasional hits from the FDA and Congressional offices), and (5) other publications, including folks who wrote both at blogs and in traditional media.

How, if at all, did I profit from the blogging experience? Let me start with a disclaimer and then count the ways. First, the disclaimer: It’s awfully hard work to fuel a good blog. If you publish one post a week, announcing “truck accident on I-95! Hire me!,” your experience may not resemble ours. That’s it for the disclaimer; now let me count the ways in which we profited from blogging:

1. I became a better lawyer. To fuel the blog, I had to analyze new decisions (and, heaven help me, law review articles) as they were published. I had to think about those subjects and then write articles commenting on them. This is more professional reading than a sane person would choose to undertake, but it does make you a better lawyer.

2. We influenced the law. Most prominently, we proposed an idea for a new FDA regulation in our blog and saw that regulation enacted within two years. We later heard an FDA official mention in a speech that the idea for the regulation had come from our blog. We also influenced the public debate on legal issues in our little sandbox, as other blogs, law review articles, and the popular media addressed issues that we raised. . . .

3. We became unbelievably plugged in to events in our area of law. . . .

4. We dramatically raised both our personal profiles and our firms’ collective profiles in this particular field of law. Within our niche, we became startlingly well-known. When we attended conferences, strangers would say, “You do the blog?!  I’m delighted to meet you.” The General Counsel of Merck actually asked a mutual acquaintance to introduce the GC to me. If you’re trolling for business in the drug and device field, that’s a triple. (It would be a home run if the guy actually retained you.) And the mainstream media noticed the blog, too. As a result of our blogging, we appeared on CNBC and Bloomberg TV. We were quoted in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and countless regional publications across the country.

5. We received invitations that further raised our profiles in the field. People who sponsored conferences about drug and device issues were keen to have us participate — in part because we might know something about the subject, but more because, if we were speaking at a conference, we could be counted on to mention the conference on the blog and link to the conference registration materials. There’s nothing like providing free advertising to make you a popular speaker. We were also solicited to write articles for publications large and small. The most notable invitations that came my way resulted in my publishing bylined articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune.

6. We got our book deal. . .

7. We had fun. Blogging is terribly hard work, but it’s very rewarding, in a weird sort of way. That’s worth something.

But now the grand finale: dollars and cents. Did the blog bring in business?

Here’s the bottom-line truth: As a result of the blog, I was retained to write one amicus curiae brief in an appeal, which we agreed to do for a flat fee. I agreed to write another amicus curiae brief in a different appellate case free of charge, in part because the party that asked for help was a drug company, and the assignment offered a chance to create a new relationship. And I was contacted about endless other stuff — such as representing plaintiffs (not my business), writing other pro bono briefs, and so on — that didn’t come to anything.

So, is blogging worthwhile?

It depends on what you want. A law firm will pay a lot of money to run advertisements to raise awareness of a firm’s name. Our blog resulted in “earned media” exposure — newspapers voluntarily choosing to quote us — that would have been worth a ton if you had been forced to buy the same exposure with advertising dollars. We also “touched” clients and potential clients regularly, because those folks read our posts (and heard our on-line voices) regularly. Ultimately, that exposure and those touches are worth something — maybe a great deal — but you may not be able to tie a particular retention to your blogging work.

Ultimately, however, our (or at least my — I don’t know about Jim’s) actual, dollars and cents, return on investment was pretty thin: One flat-fee appellate brief was the monetary payoff for maybe ten hours of work every week for three years. I shoulda flipped burgers at McDonalds.

Finally, my thesis: Whether blogging makes sense as a business development tool depends on your particular situation. Firms specializing in personal bankruptcy buy advertising space on billboards and time on television. Maybe a good personal bankruptcy blog would be a business magnet. So, too, for plaintiffs’ personal injury work, which seems analogous from a business development perspective. Eric Turkewitz, for example, writes a solid blog in the personal injury field; maybe he can tell us if it’s landed him any business.

Criminal defense work? Scott Greenfield, over at Simple Justice, blogs awfully well in the criminal defense field, and he insists that the blog hasn’t been worth a dime in actual business.

For other fields? It depends. I didn’t land any pharmaceutical mass torts from my blogging, but who would pick a mass tort defense lawyer based on blog posts anyway? . . .

What about other firms or other situations? I can only guess. But it wouldn’t surprise me if a medium-sized firm in Wilmington could attract a retention or two as local counsel if it blogged about some aspect of Delaware corporate law. Both corporate clients and lawyers at other firms might follow that blog, and they might think of you for a lawsuit in Delaware. Similarly, you might build a perfectly nice niche practice if you staked out and dominated a particular field in the blogosphere.

I’ve never actually come out and said this here, but I’ll answer the question too:  “Have you ever gotten any business from your blog?”  Answer:  Of course not.  Who would pick a lawyer to handle an important trademark infringement litigation matter for his company based on blog posts?  On the other hand, does this blog enable me to — one way or another — get my past work, achievements, credentials and personality in front of prospective clients?  Of course it does.

It does because I wanted to blog and still do, and it shows.  It does because I have something to blog about, and it shows.  It does because I have earned the right to blog, and it shows.  It does because I’m good at blogging, unless you count blogs about blogging like this one; but, God help me, I’m in for a penny and in for a pound.  I blog what I blog.

LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSIONBetter question:  Have you ever lost any business from your blogging?  Answer:  I must have. Because I blog what I blog, how I blog it.  I have two ways of coming to terms with this.  One is that my loss, hopefully, is more than offset by my gain.  This seems highly likely, because most of the prospective clients who have been turned off by the blog cannot, I think, really have been seriously considering someone with my profile.

The second answer is related:  Love me, love my blog.  Not in the sense that it’s a condition to loving me.  Rather, if you don’t like LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION®, you’re probably not going to like its author all that much.  It’s my baby.

I guess it’s more than that.

It is, to no small extent, a very tangible slice of Ron Coleman, for better or for worse.  So: live it or live with it.

Go ahead, then.  Just one more reminder, though — like me, you’re not a partner at Jones Day. (Don’t get me wrong.  Partners at big firms read this blog.  But not too many of them are wrestling with this question.)  So if there’s one thing you can’t plan on doing, it’s what Mark did with his blog:  walk away from it.

Unless, of course, you’re just buying it all shrink-wrapped and search-engine-optimized.  In which case, don’t let me get in your way.  You won’t have to worry about “live it or live with it” — not having lived it yourself at all.

I guess that’s a sort of plan for some people.  But sorry for all the big words.

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Author:Ron Coleman

I write this blog.

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