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- In today's competitive legal environment, it's a safe assumption that all practicing lawyers have commercial websites. Or, they're at least referenced on one.
Blogs - or "blawgs" as legal blogs are called - are another matter. Here in the Midwest, university professors, libraries, and even legislatures boast a raft of blawgs.
Professional attorneys, on the other hand, have mostly taken a wait-and-see attitude.
A lot of clients would be impressed with an attorney who has an advanced level of computer literacy, and who is comfortable enough with his or herself to step out into the public arena.
But other clients wouldn't go near a lawyer who blogs. Part of the hesitation, said Ann Althouse, a law professor at University of Wisconsin - Madison, is that while blogs are perfect tools for networking and community building, some would see them as carelessness. Althouse created a blawg in January 2004, althouse.blogspot.com
. She said that her "moving average" was 9,000 a day over the last 30 days.
"There are some special problems that working lawyers have, Althouse said. It can be a way to get clients and that's something that could worry clients. They might think you're someone who could do something unpredictable."
"Most of the time people want a lawyer who's conventional and won't go to a lawyer who seems goofy," she said.
What exactly is
a blog? Generally speaking, each blog is a stripped-down version of a website, combining personal diaries, professional information, and links to many of the source materials discussed in a post. And of course there are links to even more blogs.
Business Week Online magazine calls blogs "a prerequisite" for anyone doing business, adding that even the most elite firms can't afford to get fussy: 9 million blogs already exist with 40,000 new ones coming online each day.
The best blogs offer one-stop shopping for news on your subject that's been culled from around the world, summarized, with a personal perspective on important current issues.
Indeed, Althouse adds that potential clients could also be impressed. "I think that when you're putting yourself out there in the world, and you are posting to your blog every day, it says something about you. And you're always being held accountable."
Or, it helps keep others accountable, as in the case of one law blawg, http://ernieattorney.typepad.com
. His posts report the latest inter-company news and announcements within the New Orleans branch of law firms decimated by Hurricane Katrina.
This kind of subject-area blawging makes up the majority of blogs, says Wisconsin State Bar spokeswoman Teresa Weidmann-Smith. She observes that most of them she sees are trending towards subject areas, more than individual law firms or attorneys.
Take Two Rivers attorney Donald Chewning, who offers an outstanding blawg on legal developments and case law on appellate decisions for the 7th
Chewning would agree that blogging could become a time-consuming activity, with little or no financial reward. And despite this, he spends the early mornings checking the newspapers, case law updates, and emails and posting to his blog.
"It's an outlet more than anything, Chewning says. "The only reason I started mine was because nobody else was doing it. I enjoy keeping up with the law. I usually post daily with things that interest me, if there's something that doesn't interest me, I ignore it.
"From an attorney's standpoint, I think legal blawgs provide a great source of information for what's going on in the case law."
Chewning commented that despite the familiarity that blogs breed, they don't invade client privacy or break any laws. "I think you can do it in a way that's entirely ethical and above-board. This isn't about my practice, certainly not about my clients. This is about legal issues that are already in the public arena."Best Practices
Finally, a few pointers:
Foremost, be genuine. Sanitized musings instantly turn off bloggers.
Be accurate. You'll be quickly educated on how much time some blog readers will spend explaining where you went wrong. Conversely, you'll find yourself with a regular fan base if you're posting well-researched, timely information. So only post when you can present yourself authoritatively. It's a good idea to run it by your legal department, or another attorney.
Be realistic. Ask yourself how much time you can afford to spend researching, writing and answering comments.
Plus if you expect it to grow your business, realize that might take longer than you hope, or never happen. A higher profile, even a positive one, doesn't automatically equal more billable hours. And after all, are you really there to dispense legal advice for free?
Approach launching a new blog as you would anything else that involves reaching out to the public: research your audience, think about and state your goals, implement with care, and then monitor.
The best advice for law firms considering a leap into the blog world, sounds like what a marketer would tell you - know your audience.