Following on earlier posts about Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for law firms, this entry will look at the last of the Big Four social media tools, blogs. In all the recent excitement over the three famous brand options, we sometimes forget that blogs started it all; equally, we can confidently predict that if unforeseen disasters were to befall social networking, blogs would be the last ones standing. As before, this post will look at the use of blogs in the enterprise context, for firms in general rather than for individual lawyers. That’s an important distinction for all these tools, but especially for blogs.
I wrote about law firm blogging 2 1/2 years ago, at Law21, and my opinion at that time was that blogs were a mediocre fit for law firms (as opposed to the lawyers inside them):
Blogs are the perfect vehicle of modern lawyer branding. If every lawyer in the country started a blog, each would be as unique as that lawyer’s fingerprint. An individual lawyer can, through her blog, show herself to be, yes, smart, expert and thoughtful, but even more importantly, memorable, personal, unique — all the things to which people are attracted, and precisely those things that a law firm cannot be. Firms are things; lawyers are people — and clients prefer people.
I still think that the benefits of blogging tend to accrue to the blogging lawyer more than to the firm where he or she works, and that a lawyer’s voice and personality are the key elements of a truly successful blog. But I’m no longer prepared to say that a law firm can’t use blogs as effective marketing and communication tools. My opinion has evolved because both blogs and the profession have evolved since then too.
Blogs have evolved mostly by becoming so plentiful, even borderline ubiquitous. The ABA Journal‘s Blawg Directory recently added the 3,000th law blog to its roll, while Kevin O’Keefe reported in March that 96 of the AmLaw 200 had blogs, a 149% increase since August 2007. Over at Stem’s Lawblogs.ca, the number of Canadian legal blogs has surpassed 200. Statistically if by no other measure, blogs have become sufficiently widespread at law firms that a watershed moment is at hand: firms will shortly be asked why they don’t have blogs rather than why they do.
As blogs become more common and accepted, they also become regarded as just another communication and marketing tool, perhaps even a conventional one. I’d argue that this has been a negative development for blogs, in terms of quality: being grouped with routine legal alerts, bland newsletters and self-serving press releases has lowered the bar for what blogs can be, risking a concomitant lowering of our expectations and standards for them. But the fact remains, these blogs do exist and they are being read, and that should be neither denied nor lightly dismissed.
Equally, it has to be acknowledged that law firms have evolved more quickly, in their use and appreciation of blogs, than I would’ve figured in 2008. Granted, many law firm blogs still leave a great deal to be desired. Some bloggers seem to think they’re still in law school, publishing lengthy case summaries of recent decisions that would bore lawyers, let alone clients, who happened upon them. Some are clearly doing nothing more than feeding the SEO monster — you can recognize the “keyword phrases” they’ve been directed to sprinkle liberally throughout the text. And still others evidently feel unsure about just what they’re doing with a blog, or hesitant to move outside a narrow zone of safe and predictable content.
But for all that, the quality of many law blogs, even at well-known regional and national firms, surpasses what I would have expected. That’s a credit to the bloggers, who found their own voices and the confidence to use them, and to their firms, which have relinquished enough control over the process that a lawyer can blog without looking over his or her shoulder. Clients are starting to notice as well, as one survey suggests in-house counsel take blogs into consideration in choosing law firms (though it’s also worth noting that blogs have their limits in this regard).
So I’m now prepared to say that yes, a law firm can use blogs effectively as a modern marketing, communications and branding tool — especially since blogs also function very effectively as “conversation starters” in the other three social media networks. But firms still need to follow some rules if they want to continue to extract value from blogs and increase that value over time. Here are some of my recommendations about how a law firm can blog effectively; I’d invite you to add your own in the comments section.
1. Publish numerous blogs. Unless your firm is exceptionally small and focused, you should publish several blogs simultaneously. The reason should be clear: does your firm only offer one type of legal practice? If not, then why would you offer only one blog to the world? You should run as many blogs as you have (a) practice areas you want to support and (b) lawyers willing and able to offer that support. Larger firms should have a blog for every practice group of any consequence. Reed Smith has 12 blogs, from employment and real estate law to life sciences and media and entertainment in China, all professionally branded. Womble Carlyle, a substantially smaller firm, has no fewer than 18 blogs, including super-niche categories like supply chain and furniture law. If it’s possible for a law firm to have too many blogs, I haven’t seen it yet.
2. Brand the blogs as yours. Some of the best and most widely read lawyer blogs out there are written by lawyers who work for mid-size and larger firms, but you’d never know it to glance at the blogs themselves. They operate on free platforms like Blogspot and WordPress, and you need to look hard to find the name of the author’s firm or its logo anywhere on the site. I can understand how this situation comes about — the lawyer doesn’t want to (or can’t) get the firm’s approval to blog, or the firm wants to maintain its distance from and deniability regarding the blog. So the blog lives in a netherworld, building up the lawyer’s profile and expertise without channeling those benefits to the firm. And what happens if the blogging lawyer leaves the firm, as he or she often does? The blog and its advantages go with the lawyer, and the firm is left with nothing. Take pride of ownership in your lawyers’ blogs, support them, own the domains in which they’re published, and insist they be brought into the firm’s marketing sphere (but see also entry #4, below).
3. Maintain a deep bench. As just noted, law firms whose lawyers blog (even if they blog under the firm banner) run the risk that if the lawyer goes, so does the blog and its branding benefits. Accordingly, every blog should have a multitude of active contributors. The main reason is that if one blogger defects, several remain to fill the gap — the analogy I use is Saturday Night Live, which keeps losing stars to Hollywood (from Chevy Chase through Eddie Murphy and Will Ferrell), yet keeps going because the ensemble cast stays behind and supports the brand. But there are other reasons: for one thing, more names and faces in the Author column support the idea that this really is a firm blog, not a one-lawyer project. And blogs are an easy and effective marketing development tool for new lawyers who rarely get other opportunities to establish a public presence and who are usually already comfortable with the medium. Check out Pitblado LLP’s Pitblawg for a good example of an author ensemble.
4. Let your people go. The one thing about law firm blogs in 2010 that has most pleasantly surprised me is the emergence of lawyers’ true voices and personalities in their blogs. I had expected, reasonably enough, that a combination of overt pressure from senior partners and self-censorship by nervous lawyers would render most such blogs a whiter shade of bland. But blogs become popular precisely because their authors are informal and accessible in their tone, when you get the sense that they have freedom to express their opinions (obviously within reason) and demonstrate a wider range of personality and interest than a website biography can reveal. Firms owe it to themselves and their lawyers not to muzzle these blogs or modify these voices — this is how more and more branding and business development will be done in the years to come, lawyer-driven rather than firm-driven. By all means, prepare policies and codes of conduct to guide your lawyers and temper their enthusiasm where appropriate; but otherwise, let your people go.
I was speaking with the 80-year-old (and still active) founder of a mid-size firm the other day, and one of the things he mentioned was that he wants to start up a law blog himself. Not only do I think that’s terrific in and of itself, it’s a great example for every other law firm out there to let down their guard and embrace what blogs offer. Law firm blogs are the natural successors to and improvement upon law firm newsletters, which have long since lost their power. In ten years, if not sooner, they’ll be utterly unremarkable on the law firm landscape. Your firm shouldn’t wait that long.