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Lawyer blogs draw fans, foes and a few clients

Lawyers who blog – whether to boost business or for personal satisfaction – like having the online outlet. Directly or indirectly, blogging can improve the bottom line. Keeping up the pace of posting, however, may require a good dose of self-discipline or even external encouragement, many bloggers say.

A blog – the word derives from “web log” – is a running series of posts available on an Internet website. Blog “posts,” which range from a single sentence to long essays, may be more personal in nature, reflecting the writer’s point of view.

News organizations often use blogs to report news quickly. At this newspaper, for example, The VLW Blog and The SCoVA Blog provide news, case and verdict results, as well as smaller news items. In the Publisher’s Notebook blog, our publisher, Paul Fletcher, provides news as well as personal observations and commentary.

Most lawyers acknowledge their blogs are marketing tools, but not necessarily the kind that produce immediate results.

Richmond lawyer Jeffrey M. Summers started blogging on his website to build up his practice, but ended up getting the most comments from non-lawyer friends in other states. As a result, he said, the blog has become a means to polish and display his writing, with a conscious aim to make it easily understood.

“I’m trying to write in a way, both in my briefs to the courts and in my website, that average people can get the gist and understand it, and maybe get a little humor in the way I write it,” Summers said.

The comments from lay people, he said, are helpful. “It doesn’t bring in a lot of business, but that’s OK if I’m getting the feedback that I’m looking for which is about my writing and my writing style.”

Jonathan D. Frieden of Fairfax, author of the E-commerce Law blog, said he started a blog several years ago as a way to correct an Internet misimpression. He had successfully handled a highly publicized case of a woman accused of having too many cats, and his name became associated online with the defense of pet owners.

He started blogging, he said, so that he could better control his own Internet image and write about the topics that interested him.

“At the outset, it helped with what I call ‘credibility marketing,’” Frieden said. When a client described a problem, he could point to a blog post on the topic, “giving a client or potential client comfort that I know what I’m doing in a particular area.”

Roanoke lawyer James J. “Jay” O’Keeffe, author of the De Novo blog about appellate practice, agrees that legal blogs are not a direct ticket to quick profits. “If I had simply started a blog and then expected my phone to start ringing, I would have set myself up for a pretty severe disappointment,” he said.

That’s not really the point, he said. “The real value of blogging is that it lets me talk with – not just to – potential referral sources and their influencers,” he said. As a result, he said, he gets to learn, develop relationships, and network – things that ultimately lead to more business. “More clients and better client relations are a few steps removed from the blog itself,” he said.

That may be the case for a blog about appellate practice, but attracting potential clients is a clear goal for other websites, including the plaintiff-oriented blogs maintained by lawyers T. Daniel Frith III and Lauren M. Ellerman of Roanoke. “More clients for sure,” Ellerman said when asked about the results of her firm’s blogging.

Frith and Ellerman maintain the LegalMedicine blog devoted to developments in medical malpractice and nursing home litigation, both from a plaintiff’s perspective, and the Virginia Non-Compete Law blog about business employment disputes.

Another blog aimed directly at the client is the 6-month-old Alexandria, Virginia Bankruptcy Blog maintained by lawyer Robert S. Brandt. The posts provide advice for consumers who are considering bankruptcy. Is it working? “I would cautiously say, yeah, to an extent,” said Brandt. “People have told me they landed on the blog.” Other contacts have complimented him on the site, Brandt said.

Then there are legal blogs that are not sparked by any commercial purpose. The pioneering SW Virginia Law Blog was a mix of legal and personal musings when Bristol lawyer Steven R. Minor started the blog in June 2003. Nevertheless, Minor said, the blog highlighted his commercial law practice, much of it in federal court, and that exposure brought referrals from other lawyers. “I wasn’t really doing it for marketing, but a lot of people read it and thought it was interesting,” he said.

No matter the motivation for a legal blog, the challenge for the blogger is to keep it fresh. A blog that doesn’t get updated very often gets dumped from bookmark lists and deleted from aggregators.

“It does require a conscious effort to spend some time on it. If you can’t do that, then most lawyers would be best advised not to jump into it,” suggested L. Steven Emmert of Virginia Beach, author of the Virginia Appeals blog. He describes the commitment as almost a covenant with the reader. “It’s really a promise. I’m going to cover these things and communicate with you.”

“It’s not easy and it takes some discipline,” said O’Keeffe. “I aim for about a post a week.

“Blogging interferes with practice and real life, just like everything else. There’s never enough time in the day to do everything,” O’Keeffe said. “But blogging is also fun and rewarding. When it stops being fun, I will stop doing it,” he said.

Finding the right time and place to compose a blog post is important. For Summers, it’s usually at home at night after dinner. “It’s built in to the practice,” he said.

Summers acknowledges he gets some outside help in the motivation department. His marketing consultant, David Rourk of Virginia Beach, sometimes gives him a call to suggest it’s time for a new post.

“Maybe where other lawyers are letting their sites trail off, my guy gives me a gentle nudge – ‘Hey, you need to freshen the thing up here.’ I’ve got my head in the weeds, working on a brief, and he says, ‘Take a minute and get something up there.’ I think that external nudge is important,” Summers said.

Regular posting comes easier for Roanoke’s Ellerman. “It is like any habit. Once you make time for it, it becomes part of your routine and not a burden,” she said.

Posting personal thoughts and analysis on the Internet, without any immediate acknowledgement, can be discouraging for those who need prompt response to their work. Blogging lawyers say they get feedback, but not always in their e-mail inbox.

“We get a great deal of feedback on our non-compete blog,” said Ellerman. “Our legal medicine blog generates discussion, but most often from the other side.”

O’Keeffe said he found it liberating at first, when he got little feedback and assumed few people were reading his work. “I could experiment, tell bad jokes. As more people that I admire are reading my stuff – and calling me on my mistakes – there is increasing pressure to be good,” he said.

Even now, O’Keeffe said, he gets feedback mainly through e-mail and personal conversations, not from online comments. “It’s exciting to meet someone for the first time and learn that they follow (or recognize you) from your blog.”

Successful bloggers seem to thrive as much on the personal satisfaction of writing and posting as on getting comments from others. “The most entertained person about the blog has been me,” said Minor.
Many legal blogs have a sharp focus on a particular niche. Virginia lawyers host blogs devoted to disparate topics such as local government and patent infringement litigation before the U.S. International Trade Commission. Virginia Local Government Law is authored by Richmond attorney Andrew McRoberts. ITC 337 Law Blog, covering patent cases, is written by lawyers at Oblon, Spivak, McClelland, Maier & Neustadt in Alexandria.

Frieden’s “E-Commerce Law” serves another niche. He represents technology companies on intellectual property issues. “Most of my clients work in Internet space,” he said.

Eric A. Welter, who writes the Laconic Law Blog, said there is a valuable side benefit to blogging – it keeps the writer up to date on his or her practice area.

“The blog forces me to be on top of it almost daily,” Welter said.

Some blogs start with great promise and energy, but seem to stagnate as the pace of posting drags. One blog that appeared to quickly run out of steam was “Appeals Granted,” authored by lawyer Ronald M. Gore of Amelia Courthouse.

Gore’s blog, devoted to previewing appeals that had been accepted by the Virginia appellate courts, was greeted with enthusiasm by Emmert and other appeal-watchers when it launched in 2009. It seemed to promise a scorecard of upcoming decisions. “Everybody wants a peek into the crystal ball,” Emmert said.

It was last updated in August of last year. Gore, a former clerk for Court of Appeals Judge Walter S. Felton Jr., explained his new work as a solo “country lawyer” left little opportunity for appeal analysis. “Once I got into business for myself, as a one-man firm, I just simply didn’t have the time,” he said. “I didn’t want to put up something that was half done. That’s worse than putting up nothing. I felt really bad about it. It just was too much to do a good job.”

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