The 2012 Clawbies are now in the books, and if you haven’t yet reviewed our picks for the best of the Canadian legal blawgosphere, now’s your chance. We think you’ll agree that this year’s winners were truly outstanding and that good law blogs are flourishing right across the country.
I thought I might also share with you, however, some observations I made during the assessment and judging process about areas in which law blogs (not just Canadian ones, by any means) could improve. As encouraging as the massive growth in lawyers’ online legal publishing has been, I’m also seeing some worrying habits start to develop in many blogs, especially those that have debuted in the last year or so. I’d like to highlight some of these trends and encourage law bloggers to minimize or avoid them as much as possible.
Put differently, if you’re wondering, “How can my blog win a Clawbie in future?”, this would be a good list of features not to adopt.
1. An over-reliance on case comments. Sometimes, when I look at the blawgosphere, I feel like I’m back in law school. The case comment is by far the most ubiquitous form of blog post entry: the summary of a recent case in the blog’s area of practice, with some brief commentary on what it means. Unfortunately, the vast majority of case comments seem to be written by lawyers, for lawyers: heavy on the facts and applicable law, weighed down with lengthy excerpts from the judge’s ruling, and light on analysis and implications for readers. If you’re going to include case comments, you should strive to reverse the weight ratio for these two aspects of the post. Readers don’t care about the facts nearly so much as the result and the repercussions. Which leads me to:
2. An absence of reader relevance. The old saying about publishing, especially online, is that “content is king.” I think we need to modify that to “The reader is king or queen.” Every law blogger needs to remember their audience: for whom are they writing, and what do those readers care about? Some law blogs are in fact written for other lawyers, especially those authored by specialists seeking referrals. But most law blogs are meant to be read and acted upon by clients, and it’s their interests that have to dictate tone and content. Just because you find that particular tribunal ruling fascinating doesn’t mean your audience will. Who are your readers? What matters to them today, right now? What will they read, and what will they remember? These are the questions law bloggers need to ask and answer before writing a single word.
3. A tendency to go on … and on. Remember the classic line: “My apologies for this lengthy letter; I had no time to write a shorter one.” Lawyers in a hurry (which is to say, almost all lawyers) frequently fall into the trap of posting a lengthy blog entry that, with some time and editing, could have been reduced to a shorter, stronger, and more readable one. Attention spans online are notoriously short, and readers confronted with a sea of grey text that extends more than a couple of screens often abandon the effort before starting. Strive to be concise: if a topic requires extensive analysis, break it into several shorter posts over the course of a week. This circles back again to the idea of serving your reader, as well as doing your topic justice: don’t punish your point by burying it inside 2,000 words of prose where it will never be found.
4. A reluctance to take a position. This may be the most common shortfall in law blogs today: the blandness of neutrality. The most successful and widely read blogs are those in which the voice and opinion of the author are clear and unmistakable. Readers want more than the facts: they want insight, analysis, perspective, judgment, and opinion. They want bloggers who will put themselves and their positions on the line, making a call about whether something is positive or negative and backing it up with reasons. These blogs are more than reporting services: they’re dispatches from expert correspondents, and they build loyal followings almost immediately. Harvard’s Clayton Christensen has a great line: “Decide what you stand for. And then stand for it all the time.” That should be part of your blog’s mission statement.
Those are four ways in which I see law blogs underachieving, falling short of their potential and failing to maximize value to both reader and author. Have you observed others? What are your peeves about law blogs, and how could they be remediated?