Thursday, December 03, 2009

Why Big Firms Don't Blog Well

Herrmann's off on a solo lark again.

He looked at the ABA Journal's list of the "Top 100" legal blogs of 2009 to see how many blogs affiliated with big firms -- the AmLaw 200 -- were on the list.

How many do you suppose there were?


The first is SCOTUS Blog -- but Tom Goldstein launched that when he was a solo practitioner and presented the blog as an established institution to Akin Gump. That doesn't count.

And us.

How can that be?

The absence of big firm blogs from the list is not for want of choices. Fully 41% of the AmLaw 200 are now blogging, to the tune of 227 blogs. But the ABA isn't impressed. Why not?

We (or, at least, Herrmann) thinks there's one reason: lack of voice.

There are three main ways to make a legal blog succeed:

1. Be a first source of news.

The Wall Street Journal Law Blog can do that; Ashby Jones is paid to monitor the news. Lawyers at big firms can't compete.

2. Be extremely smart.

With all respect to -- well, ourselves -- we can't compete on this score either. The guys at Volokh Conspiracy, Concurring Opinions, Prawfs Blawg, and the like are not just smart, but -- because they're academics -- are also paid to sit around thinking great thoughts. Lawyers at big firms are paid to pursue clients' interests; it's hard to compete on your nights and weekends with the thoughts of the full-time thinkers.

3. Have an engaging voice.

Be funny! Be provocative! Do something that will draw readers in.

That's the key for many successful blogs, such as Simple Justice. It's not a first source of news. It's not breathtakingly intelligent (although it's not bad on that score -- don't take offense, Scott). But it has a voice. It's funny, and it can be thought-provoking.

We suspect that our limited success at blogging is due in large part to our voice. We're rarely a first source of news. We're not that smart. But there are apparently a fair number of lawyers who appreciate sophomoric humor -- so we're golden!

But why aren't other big firm blogs having the same success? Why doesn't the ABA Journal appreciate them? Why can't big firm blogs succeed by virtue of voice?

We propose three hypotheses:

1. Most lawyers at big firms are not funny.

That may be true of many lawyers at big firms (although it hasn't stopped us). But it's surely not true of all. So some lawyers at big firms could write blogs in an engaging voice.

2. Lawyers at big firms are trained not to be funny in writing.

Now we're on to something. Opinion letters are not funny. They may do a fine job of analyzing issues and protecting the firm from allegations of malpractice, but they're not funny.

And briefs are generally not funny. (At least not intentionally so.) Briefs present the legal issues in a persuasive and intelligent way, and they give proper dignity to the occasion of a legal dispute. They're written in formal prose, with no room for contractions, the first person, or colloquialisms.

Briefs also avoid humor, and for good reason: Humor runs a risk. If you say something cute in a brief and the judge appreciates it, you might earn yourself a smile. And maybe some good will. But you're unlikely to win the motion on the basis of personality.

On the other hand, if you say something cute and the judge finds it to be offensive, you may have done your client a world of harm. So most lawyers appropriately use humor only very sparingly in briefs.

Perhaps years of brief-writing beats the humor out of lawyers.

3. Writing in a distinctive voice is risky.

We think this is the real explanation for why most big firm blogs don't draw large readerships (or accolades from the ABA).

Just as it's risky to be provocative in a brief -- because the benefits are so small, but the costs so potentially large -- it's risky to be provocative in a blog.

If we write something funny here, you might smile. But you'd never send an e-mail to our colleagues praising us for being a laugh riot.

On the other hand, if you read our attempted humor and are offended, you might not be so constrained. You might write directly to us (and some of you have) or you might write to others in our firm to complain about us (and some of you have done that, too).

Solo practitioners don't have to worry about that risk: If Scott Greenfield embarrasses himself at Simple Justice, no one can complain to his colleagues. Not so for those of us in the AmLaw 200.

Why should lawyers at big firms run that risk?

The benefits of blogging are awfully intangible (Kevin O'Keefe's protestations notwithstanding), while the risk that a complaint will resonate, and cause you trouble, is real. Even if you can convince yourself to spend nights and weekends reading and writing about the law (and thus to fuel a blog), there's no reason to run the risk that you'll be criticized (and pay a price) for all your efforts. So you strip all humor and provocation out of your posts.

You lose your voice.

The posts are good. They're informative. They're lawyerly.

But they're boring; no one's drawn to them.

So that's our best guess: Crafting a distinctive on-line voice entails risk; most lawyers at big firms (perhaps intelligently) choose to avoid that risk; and so most big firm blogs just dangle out there, twisting slowly in the wind.


Anonymous said...

No offense to your sense of humor, but I think what makes this blog great is that it offers incredibly detailed and comprehensive analysis on a regular basis and with a specific point of view. I sometimes see posts that I'm interested in, but don't have time to read. I don't know how you find to the time to write them. However, if I were to ever write an article on preemption or some similar issue, your blog would be my starting point. It is a resource.

Ted Heise said...

I like the content *and* the sense of humor.

PKL said...

I would add "commercial self-censorship" to the list.

A solo or small firm lawyer knows her base of potential and current clients. She's not afraid to take a position that might offend a business or interest that will never retain her firm.

But a large firm lawyer has to be concerned about offending potential clients in his practice group and in every other part of the firm. That leads to tepid, dishwater writing.

Anonymous said...

It's also a question of creative control, depending on your standing in the firm. If you're a long-time partner with an established practice, no one's going to care what you write. But an associate, even a senior one, ah - that's a different question.

"So I was reading your blog, and I think it was inappropriate for you to criticize the logic of J. So-and-So's decision in X v. Y. Before you post another like that, the Marketing Committee will need to approve it."

or, in my case, probably -

"No more dick jokes."

So - write anonymously (as with moi - I'm not even going to use my blog name, for fear of being Dooced or Greenbaumed), or write blandly (and with the Marketing Committee's permission).

Greg Lambert said...

Although your count is technically correct that there are 2 blogs out of the ABA Journal's Blawg 100 list that are 'official' blogs of BigLaw firms, there are a few more that are a few more on the list that are written by either BigLaw attorneys or non-attorneys within BigLaw. MoFo's Dave Lynn is editor for blog, supposedly Corporette is a BigLaw associate, and 3 Geeks has bloggers from two BigLaw firms - Fulbright and King & Spalding (me being one of them). In addition, you should probably count some of the others (like Above the Law and LawShucks) simply because 50% or more of their blog posts are aimed at BigLaw firms (but, we probably shouldn't count them in the official tally.)
So, out of the 100 there are 5 that are linked to BigLaw. I'd say that probably matches pretty close the total percentage of BigLaw attorneys. I may be a little off on my math because I'm just basing that 5% off my faulty memory.
There are also a number of really good blogs out there written by BigLaw attorneys. Some of them are very insightful on specific legal issues -- take Perkin Coie's Digestible Law as a prime example. Some of them are very humorous -- example Lowering the Bar from Shook,Hardy and Bacon partner Kevin Underhill.
So, we shouldn't let this list define the universe of how good or numerous BigLaw blogs are. Scott Greenfield told me that being on this list, and a MetroCard would get him on the subway.
One of the things that I think you do nail in this article is that it is very hard for BigLaw attorneys to blog under their firm's name. I'd lay money that a lot of the blogs that are linked to BigLaw were started with a "as for forgiveness rather than ask for permission" approach. As much as I love the marketers in BigLaw firms, they can be a huge obstacle when it comes to individuality at a firm.
I'm glad you wrote this, and all of the secondary posts from others that were motivated by your comments.

Bill said...

It's tough to write well when your writing is done by a committee, and when a "big firm" lawyer is writing something it is often written as though it is the first draft of something that a committee will be marking up. This makes for timid writing, I think.

I also think, for what it is worth, that large firm culture is more inward looking than the culture found in smaller shops, and that this may contribute to the issue.

Finally, and I sort of hate to bring this up, but there was the whole flap about "And What Thanks Do we Get" ( a few years back. There isn't a lot of positive feedback for large firm lawyers who write blogs, even anonymous blogs.

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Daniel E. Cummins said...

Attorney Beck:

I want to first compliment you on your excellent post which, in and of itself, follows your own advice on superior blog writing. I cracked some smiles at your humor, even chuckled, but was never offended.

I try to stay away from humor and from injecting myself into my own blog posts on Tort Talk ( as the purpose of my blog is to provide updates on Pennsylvania civil litigation law in a straightforward manner. I have been advised by some of my readers that they appreciate that--no B.S.--just the stuff they need to know.

This is not a criticism of your position but just an indication that, as some of the other commenters to this post have noted, some people aren't coming to the blogs for humor but for information.

Congratulations again on making the ABA's Blawg 100--a well-deserved honor for your excellent blog.

Stuart Mauney said...

Interesting post. While I am not sure our firm qualifies for the "big firm" definition, see how our new blog on product liability compares.