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Blawg: Marketing Your Practice with a Weblog

by Jim Calloway and Tom Mighell

August 2006

Introduction:  A Brief History of Weblogs

Weblogs are perhaps the most over-hyped Internet phenomena to have come along in the few years since the 21st Century began.  Until recently, weblogs were widely considered to be only personal, journal-style sites; where people could have their own piece of the Internet, to talk about the latest movies, political issues important to them, and that great Thai restaurant they ordered from last night.  There are so many weblogs out there -- Technorati is currently tracking 28 million blogs -- it's easy to get lost in all of the noise.  In fact, the New Yorker recently featured a cartoon with two dogs:  one says to the other, "I had my own blog for a while, but I decided to go back to just pointless, incessant barking."

Once you get past the hype, however, you will find (as many others already have) that weblogs are remarkable tools for communicating ideas and information.  Indeed, a large subset of the blog population has taken this new medium seriously, with thousands of blogs providing helpful information and commentary on almost every subject, on a daily basis.  And the legal profession is no exception; lawyers and other legal professionals are taking advantage of the weblog platform to reach out on the Internet, developing professional networks, becoming valuable resources, and winning new clients.  Is a blog right for you and your practice?  This article will discuss some of the basic considerations in creating a law-related weblog, and how you can get started in no time at all.

Before we begin, maybe we should make sure we're all on the same page. We assume that most ABA TECHSHOW© attendees have a good grasp on the meaning of the term "blog." But just in case that's not true, let's start with a definition. As Jim noted in his January, 2005 Oklahoma Bar Journal article, "Was 2004 ‘The Year of the Blog'?":

"Weblogs are Internet sites, arranged chronologically, where one can quickly post their opinions and messages for the entire world to see. I mentioned several of the most well-known legal blogs in the article noted above. Blawg is a combination of words "law" and "blog" into one word.

"Merriam-Webster defines blog as "Blog - noun [short for weblog] (1999): a Web site that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments and often hyperlinks provided by the writer."

"Merriam-Webster also named "blog" the number one word of the year 2004 based on online searches for words.

"Even though the majority of Internet users may not have heard of them, 2004 was in many ways the year of the blog. According to the Pew studies, 8 million American adults say they have created blogs."

In February 2006, Dave Sifry of Technorati released the most recent version of his "State of the Blogosphere" report, which revealed the following stats:

A study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project at the beginning of 2005 found these interesting facts:

 

A Note on the "Legal Blogosphere"

Law-related weblogs first began to hit the scene around 2002.  In that year, around 75 law weblogs debuted.  In contrast, 2005 saw the creation of over 500 law-related blogs, from all corners of the legal space:  big-firm lawyers, solo/small firm lawyers, law professors, law students, librarians, legal technologists, paralegals -- if it involves the law, chances are someone is blogging about it.  Tom has been tracking weblogs since he first began publishing Inter Alia nearly four years ago; during that time, by his count more than 1,500 law-related blogs have been created since 2002.  Even more amazing is the fact that over 80 percent of those weblogs are still in business, publishing daily, weekly, and monthly commentary on virtually every legal topic imaginable. 

There are many different types of law-related weblogs. What types of blogs might be useful to a practicing lawyer?

  1. Those that focus narrowly on a legal subject.
    1. DUI Blog (http://www.duiblog.com)
    2. Construction law blog (http://blog.constructionlawblog.net)
    3. Video Game Law Blog (http://www.davis.ca/community/blogs/video_games)
    4. Financial Institution Law Blog (http://www.financialinstitutionlawblog.com)
    5. Beyond Structured Settlements (http://s2kmblog.typepad.com/about.html)
  2.  

  3. Those that connect us to innovative legal thinkers.
    1. Between Lawyers (http://www.corante.com/betweenlawyers)
    2. Dennis Kennedy.com (http://www.denniskennedy.com/blog)
    3. Legal Sanity (http://www.legalsanity.com)
  4.  

  5. Those that teach us research skills and information
    1. Inter Alia (http://www.inter-alia.net)
    2. Robert Ambrogi's Law Sites (http://www.legaline.com/lawsites.html)
  6.  

  7. Those that serve as news and current event sources
    1. How Appealing (http://legalaffairs.org/howappealing)
    2. beSpacific (http://www.bespacific.com)
  8.  

  9. Those that teach us better practice management skills
    1. Jim Calloway's Law Practice Tips (http://jimcalloway.typepad.com)
    2. Reid My Blog (http://reidtrautz.typepad.com/reidmyblog)
    3. Law Tech Guru (http://www.lawtechguru.com)

Why are all these legal types blogging?

 

Why Blog?  The Advantages of Having a Weblog

Make no mistake about it; both of us are "blog evangelists."  But we also recognize that a weblog is not for everyone, so we're not going to make the assertion that every lawyer should have a weblog to be successful.  However, there's no question that for many lawyers having a weblog can be a successful addition to their overall marketing and professional development plan.  Here we'll cover some of the reasons why.

A Passion for Writing

Most of the early adopters of blogging did so out because they loved writing and wanted to take that passion to another level.  If you plan on having your own weblog, you should enjoy writing -- or at least not be afraid of it.  Otherwise, you might have to delegate the writing to another attorney in your firm, or even your marketing department if you're in a larger firm.

But we should also point out that the ability to write well is an important criterion. Spelling and grammatical errors can give a very bad impression of you and your attention to detail. The overly precise language of a contract draftsman or the "legalese" found in standard legal documents can seem remote and unfriendly, causing readers to click on the next Web site, never to return. Blog posts, by their very nature, are spontaneous and do not go through numerous revisions or editing by third parties. One could operate in that manner, of course. But if your writing usually requires editorial help and review, then you might question whether blogging is right for you. 

Becoming a "Go-To" Expert, and its Benefits.

Weblogs definitely have a habit of establishing a person's expertise on a particular subject.  Because lawyer weblogs are so relatively new, you have the opportunity to go online, right now, and provide information to the public in a way that no one else in your geographical area is doing.  Five years from now, there may be 30 weblogs on Montana employment law.  But right now, yours would be the only one, and your practice can reap the benefit of that exposure.

Giving Your Name a Place on the WWW

Even more than a traditional Web site, a weblog can give you a place on the Internet that reflects you, your accomplishments and your interests. Even if your last name is Smith, a Google search for your name and state will likely find your weblog. A weblog also gives you the opportunity for a rapid online response to any event or news in your practice area without having to wait on a web developer to process your changes or additions.

Professional Networks.  One of the great side effects of law-related weblogs is the ability of lawyers to further develop and extend their professional networks; where such a lawyer's network was once regional, now its reach is nation-(and sometimes world) wide.  Some of our blogger friends know more about the practices of lawyers halfway across the country than those of their colleagues in their local bar association.  These growing relationships bear fruit of various types -- lawyer bloggers become referral sources in their geographic area, with the evidence of their expertise visible to anyone with an Internet connection.

The advantages of these "virtual" relationships are already becoming apparent, with lawyers joining forces across the country to create blog networks and even law partnerships.  Intellectual property law bloggers Steve Nipper, Doug Sorocco, and Matt Buchanan all met through their respective weblogs, and over a long weekend at last year's TECHSHOW they came up with an idea:  to join together and find ways to reinvent the practice of IP law.  The immediate result of this partnership was the creating of Rethink (IP) (http://www.rethinkip.com), a blog dedicated to their mutual purpose.  Not long after, Matt (an Ohio lawyer) joined Doug's firm (which is based in Oklahoma) -- the first "virtual law firm" created out of blogging relationships.  Between Lawyers (http://www.corante.com/betweenlawyers) is an example of another collaborative blog by lawyers (of which Tom is a member).  Two other blog networks are the Law Professor Blog Network (http://www.lawprofessorblogs.com) and the Law.com Blog Network (http://legalblogwatch.typepad.com/legal_blog_watch); these two networks were created not so much out of a need to collaborate as out of a desire to aggregate quality weblog content by lawyers.

Before you start your blog, one of the important questions you'll need to answer is:  who is your target audience?  There are four possibilities:

If the subject matter of your blog makes it feasible, there's no reason why you can't target all four of these groups with your weblog -- you cast a much wider net and gain more exposure as result.

If you're still questioning whether a blog is right for you, ask yourself these 23 questions, at "Is a Blog Right for You?"(http://www.problogger.net/archives/2006/02/14/is-a-blog-right-for-you/).

Marketing Your Practice with a Blog

Why are blogs touted as such a great marketing tool?

Generally speaking, it is because they are relatively inexpensive and require very little technical expertise to publish. We'll cover some of the publishing methods soon. But suffice it to say that you could operate a blog for decades (at current rates) for what a web page design firm would charge to design and initially publish the most basic web page. Search engines love weblogs, often giving them very high ratings. It is not unusual for a relatively new blog to be ranked higher on the search results for particular topic than long-established and authoritative web pages. As of this writing, there was some talk about Google changing its search algorithms to not favor blogs so heavily. But since blogs are frequently updated, often visited and generally linked to by other bloggers, we doubt Google will do much to downgrade or disregard those attributes in a web search.

Clearly blogs can be a useful marketing tool for a law firm.

Indeed, many lawyer bloggers are reporting all sorts of perks from their online efforts:  speaking engagements, job offers, and new clients, among others.  Several lawyer bloggers have claimed to generate significant business from their blogs; anecdotal reports have some lawyers receiving thirty to forty percent of their work from their weblogs, and others write that they have generated six-figure revenues from blog referrals.

But before you rush to start a blog with visions of immediate riches in your head, let's discuss marketing in a more general sense. Most lawyers equate marketing with advertising. They also appreciate the value of networking. But marketing should be more than merely advertising. You should have a marketing plan and a marketing budget, complementing a strategy. Despite the accounts of some lawyers reaping significant returns from their blogging activities, a more realistic goal is to make the weblog a part of your overall marketing plan.

Therefore, you need to determine a message and a theme. A general practitioner, who tries to blog about every aspect of law, will likely flounder; they are incapable of giving good treatment to "everything" and they fail to draw an audience. Even though you may handle many different types of matters, your blog should likely be directed to one area, perhaps the most profitable matters or the area you most enjoy. Trying to be everything to every potential client does not work on the Internet and perhaps does not work at all in our specialized legal marketplace.

Blogging will yield best marketing results when it is combined with the message delivered by your client brochure, your other publications, your traditional web site and even your business card design.

Experts will tell you that the best approach for marketing in professional service firms is to focus on building relationships. This is where blogs particularly excel in the online arena. A person who follows your blog and regularly reads your postings will begin to feel like they know you. In many ways, blogs are more personal than any other Internet communication. Writing daily or weekly lets you reveal parts of yourself whether or not you intend to do so.

As referenced above, a blog can serve as a marketing tool for lawyers in varied ways. Here are some possible approaches:

 

What's Not Working -- Is There a Downside to Blogging?

We asked some of our blogging friends the question -- "what's the downside to blogging?"  The answer was nearly unanimous:  the time commitment.  If you want a successful weblog, you need to make time available in order to write your blog posts.  If you are with a larger firm, you may not have this problem; blog posting in bigger firms can often be delegated to associates or members of the marketing department.  One of the best things about a weblog is the ability to deliver information to your readers on a regular basis, but that's also one of the ways it is different from a regular web site.  Most people don't expect standard firm web sites to be updated very often (once or twice a month will do), but if you don't update your weblog with new content on a regular basis, you could lose credibility with your readers.

So what's a "regular basis?"  Some bloggers (like Tom) feel that if they do not provide value to their readers every day, they are letting them down.  But don't worry -- we're not suggesting that you blog every single day.  Jim feels that three posts per week is the target for his audience of busy lawyers, and by promising tips, he believes that brief posts or direction to interesting web sites or services are anticipated where other bloggers may be expected to write more essays and original material. Posting a minimum of twice a week will usually ensure that your readers keep coming back for more. Of course, if you want to post more frequently, no one's stopping you.

The other thing to understand about blogging is that to have a successful and useful blog, you will have to freely share your expertise and information; you can only hope that there will be some return on this investment. As Lincoln said, all lawyers have to sell is their time and advice. Giving away your knowledge may seem in conflict with your law practice. Many lawyers have a tendency to be "information hoarders" even within their own law firm. These individuals will likely not easily fit into the model of publishing their expertise for free on the Web for anyone to read.

 

How to Get Started with a Weblog

Well, you've gotten this far in the article, and you're still interested in starting your own blog.  What are you waiting for?  In this section we'll discuss some of the best tools to get you started on your entry into the blogosphere.

Weblog Software.  Obviously, this will be your most important decision.  Actually, your first decision will be:  what type of blogging platform will you choose?  The answer to this question depends on how "hands-on" you want to be in maintaining the back end of your blog.  The first, and most basic, is the hosted weblog system.  This is the easiest to use; all you need to do is set up an account, choose a template and color palette, and you're off.  The weblog company hosts your blog on its servers, so you won't have to get a separate web hosting account or set up a domain name. 

Two of the most popular hosted blogging systems are Typepad (http://www.typepad.com) and LiveJournal (http://www.livejournal.com).  Typepad blogs are widely used in the legal community; they are easy to set up and maintain, and they don't require the lawyer to know about stuff like HTML, CSS, and FTP.  One downside to hosted weblogs is that you are stuck with the domain name provided by the host -- a domain name like http://mynewlawyerblog.typepad.com doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.  Typepad runs from $4.95-$14.95/month, which is less than or equal to what you'd pay your own web host for a basic site.  LiveJournal is free, but the quality is correspondingly not as good as Typepad.

On the other side of the spectrum is stand-alone weblog software.  As you can guess, this option offers the blogger the greatest range of options, but also calls for the greatest level of technical competence.  You'll have to obtain a domain name and a web hosting account, and it's up to you to install, design, and configure the weblog; but once you're done, you'll be happy you did.  Bloggers with stand-alone software have greater freedom to customize the blog or add new functionality, and you will also have a domain name customized to your particular practice or marketing plan.  Our favorite stand-alone product is Movable Type (http://www.movabletype.com); Tom has used Movable Type in the Between Lawyers blog, and likes its versatility and variety of options.  It's a one-time charge:  $69.95 for the personal version, and $99.95 for the premium edition.  WordPress (http://www.wordpress.com) also offers stand-alone weblog software, as well as a hosted version.

Somewhere in between are the remote weblog systems.  These blogs give you the option:  to host on their servers, or to use your own web host.  In either event, you don't install the software -- the company basically does it for you.  Blogger (http://www.blogger.com) is the best-known of the remote weblog services.  If you'd like some control over your weblog but don't want to go through the trouble of installing weblog software, this option is for you.  However, we both would not recommend programs like Blogger for lawyer blogs; they just aren't very professionally-designed, and will not give the air of credibility necessary for a successful law-related weblog.  If you must use Blogger, we recommend you use a Blogger account simply to practice your blogging skills.  Blogger is free, so you can blog to your heart's content; then choose a more fully-functional product for your real lawyer weblog.

If you just don't have the time to fool with setting up your own weblog, let the folks at LexBlog (http://www.lexblog.com) do it for you.  For a reasonable price, LexBlog will create a nicely-designed, fully functional blog for you and your firm, and host it for you on their computers.  All you have to worry about is providing the content.

Gadgets and Gizmos.   All you really need to publish a great weblog is the software that we describe above.  However, if you're interested in providing additional functionality to your blog, consider these tools, utilities, and sites:

 

Starting and Publicizing Your Blog

Now that you're loaded up with the latest blogging technology and your blog is ready to go, don't announce it just yet.  If you  post your "Hi, and Welcome to my new blog!" post and then send an e-mail to all of your friends/clients/fellow bloggers to go read your first post, you will have trouble gaining a regular audience, and you may lose credibility with the rest of the blogging community.  Instead, "seed" your blog with posts for a few weeks, or a month (if you can stand it).  Our good friend Sabrina Pacifici actually added over 500 posts to her blog, beSpacific, before going public! Once you have a good number of posts, send an e-mail to your friends, clients, and those law bloggers who 1) you read regularly, 2) you admire, and/or 3) who have blogs on the same topic as yours.  Once the law bloggers know about your site, word will travel quickly -- it's the best kind of viral marketing.

Blogging Tips and Tricks

We wanted to share some of our accumulated wisdom from our years of blogging.  In no particular order:

 

Reading and Keeping up with Blogs, Law-Related and Otherwise

As you are spending time starting your blog and reading other blogs, you may find yourself addicted to receiving this information every day. But do you have the time to read these great sites? Surely you can't visit them all each day – that would take an inordinate amount of your work day. So how do lawyers with an interest in many topics keep current with a bunch of weblogs? Well, they use something called a "newsreader" to capture the headlines and stories using a technology called RSS. You do not have to have the slightest clue what RSS or XML does or means to use this method of getting the news. And if you do, then according to the Pew survey (referenced above) you're in the exclusive group of only 5 percent of Internet users who does.

One of the most powerful aspects of weblogs is not the space they occupy on the Web, but the fact that every blog also distributes its headlines beyond the site using a technology called RSS. What RSS means is subject to debate; some say it means Rich Site Summary, while others say it stands for Really Simple Syndication. It really doesn't matter what it stands for – RSS now means RSS. With a newsreader, you can use RSS to subscribe to dozens of blogs and receive their headlines or the complete posts all in one place. Free online newsreaders include Bloglines (http://www.bloglines.com) and My Yahoo (http://my.yahoo.com). We should also note that the Firefox browser has tools built in to read RSS feeds that are absent in the present version of Microsoft Internet Explorer, but will likely be in the next version.

Newsreaders are not all web-based, however. Most are applications you can download and install on your computer. Some resemble Microsoft Outlook and others actually plug into Outlook. Newsreader applications have one benefit over the online web-based version. With these you can download the news and then read it later when you are not online. These tools include products like Newsgator (http://www.newsgator.com), Onfolio (http://www.onfolio.com) and FeedDemon (http://www.feeddemon.com). There are literally dozens of these products.

If you'd like to learn more about RSS, read All About RSS(http://www.faganfinder.com/search/rss.shtml). There are many more RSS tools and blog resources than we have time to cover today or in this paper, but here are a few we like:

 

Our Favorite Law-Related Blogs

The following is a list of some of our favorite law-related weblogs to get you started on your own blogroll:


76 Oklahoma Bar Journal 146 (January 15, 2005), "Was 2003 ‘The Year of the Blog'?", at http://www.okbar.org/members/map/articles/011505.htm.

"State of the Blogosphere, February 2006: On Blogosphere Growth," (February 6, 2006), at http://technorati.com/weblog/2006/02/81.html.

"The State of Blogging," Pew Internet & American Life Project, January 2005, at http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_blogging_data.pdf.

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About the Author

Jim Calloway is Director of the OBA Management Assistant Program, where in addition to frequently writing and speaking on law office management and legal technology issues, he also manages the OBA-NET, the official online service for OBA members, and the annual Oklahoma Bar Association Solo and Small Firm Conference. He served for four years on the ABA TECHSHOW Planning Board and was Chair of the board for ABA TECHSHOW 2005. He serves on the ABA Law Practice Management Section's Council. He received his J.D. from the University of Oklahoma College of Law, where he was named to the Oklahoma Law Review.

About the Author

Tom Mighell is Senior Counsel and Litigation Technology Support Coordinator a Cowles & Thompson in Dallas.  He publishes the Internet legal research and technology weblog Inter Alia , and is the current Chair of ABA TECHSHOW 2008.  He and Dennis Kennedy talk about legal technology, with a focus on the Internet, in The Kennedy-Mighell Report .