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Big law firms don’t blog well? Says who?

I wonder what people would think if I started offering insight and commentary on legal issues relating to the pharmaceutical industry?

I take tylenol and ibuprofen from time to time. I’ve even been prescribed antibiotics for pneumonia on two occasions. And anyone checking with Vern’s Winslow Drug on Bainbridge Island would find my 5 kids have consumed a lot of prescription drugs for which I’ve paid a ton in co-pay.

I could offer opinions on which drugs are effective, which ones are not. How we could move more and better drugs through the FDA. Maybe get into IP issues as they relate to drugs.

But my VP of Client Development, and others on my executive team, may start to question my judgment. Why would someone who’s developed some expertise on Internet marketing for law firms, particularly as to blogging and social media, and who knows little about the pharmaceutical industry start to opine on such things. Why would a guy with a six year old blog about law firm marketing, blogs, Web 2.0 and a little baseball start talking about drug and device law?

They’d be probably be right. I couldn’t expect folks to view me as a much of an authority on the subject.

But it’s never stopped Mark Herrmann, a leading defense lawyer at Jones Day, with a particular expertise in pharmaceutical claims, from offering commentary on the effectiveness of law blogs on his Drug and Device Law Blog (excellent blog on that subject). Wilder yet, lawyers and even the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, have cited Hermann’s commentary on the subject for the proposition that law blogs don’t work well for client development..

The latest is Hermann’s commentary on Why Big Firms Don’t Blog Well. And why don’t large law firms blog well, per Herrmann? Because lawyers in large law firms aren’t funny enough.

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.

Hermann proposes three hypotheses why large law firms don’t succeed. Here’s the first two.

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.

The fact is there are some great large law firm blogs written by lawyers who’ve experienced practice and client development success through blogging. Here’s just a few from the LexBlog Network:

  • Francis Pileggi of Fox Rothschild, publisher of the Delaware Corporate and Commercial Litigation Blog. Pileggi, the “dean of Delaware law bloggers” has been blogging for several years now, and receives regular accolades from other attorneys, judges, and members of the media. See more in our Q&A with him about his blogging experience.
  • J. Russell Jackson of Skadden Arps, publisher of the Consumer Class Actions and Mass Torts. Jackson posts regularly and insightfully about complex class actions and mass torts – he actually started blogging because Herrmann encouraged him to. See our Q&A with him.
  • Ken Odza of Stoel Rives, one of the publishers of the Food Liability Law Blog Odza and his team constantly provide updates, commentary and analysis – not dull law review type posts or simple aggregation. Says being part of a large firm is actually beneficial because he has a larger body of knowledge and attorneys to draw from. See our Q&A with him.
  • Joseph Rosenbaum of Reed Smith, publisher of Legal Bytes, blogs about developments in law, marketing, and technology. Rosenbaum says having a blog at a large firm has helped internal firm communication and helps them serve clients better. See our Q&A with him.

Hermann’s a nice guy I’ve enjoyed a beer with. I’ve described him as a little quirky, Woody Allen like (in a good way), when asked about him by our team here. But being a funny guy on your blog is not a prerequisite to publishing a good blog as a lawyer in a large law firm.

And when deciding who to take seriously on whether large law firm blogs can be a client and practice development success, please look at the source.

  • http://www.BennettAndBennett.com/blog Mark Bennett

    Consider the source, and what they have to gain? Or just consider the source?
    Aren’t you stretching, comparing Herrmann’s expertise in blogging to your expertise in drug law?

  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    Folks may always question me as I have a dog in the hunt Mark. That comes with the territory.
    But, the fact is I’ve come to know a lot about blogs and Internet marketing when it comes to law firms. So I don’t think I’m stretching what Hermann knows about drug law vs what I know about law blogs, Internet marketing, social media, and the like.
    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • http://markmelickian.blogspot.com Mark Melickian

    Curious that you did not address Hermann’s third point – that it can be hard to develop and maintain an “engaging voice” when blogging from a large firm, particularly if the firm owns the blog. Any thoughts on that point?

  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    Thanks for the comment Mark.
    There are some lawyer blogs (from both large and small law firms) where you feel the blogger is not engaging their audience as much as just sharing legal information and news. Those blogs which do engage their audience tend to be more successful for practice and client development purposes.
    I view engagement as listening to your target audience of clients, prospective clients, and referral sources as well as the influencers of all three (bloggers, reporters, association leaders, publishers, conference coordinators) and offering value to the online discussion.
    I don’t view engagement as Mark does as requiring being provocative and blogging in what he calls a risky way. That’s not needed for an effective blog.
    I find many lawyers from large law firms as not terribly provocative or funny, but still very capable of networking with people for client development. Just as engagement is done off line, it’s done through blogging.

  • http://www.twitter.com/VBalasubramani Venkat

    For some reason when it comes to the relationship between blogging and client development no one has ever bothered to ask the clients what they think…
    The best source for data would be a cross-section of clients (people who hire lawyers, whether they are in-house counsel, defendants in criminal cases, or business execs). The second best source would be data from a reasonably large group of bloggers in a given area.
    Kevin: your opinion is valued since you deal with many many bloggers and people in the space. Probably somewhat biased, but it is what it is.
    Drug and Device’s opinion is valued as well since the writers are bloggers who have achieved recognition through blogging and they’ve been doing it a long time.

  • http://blog.simplejustice.us shg

    Feh. No one said Biglaw blogs aren’t informative. Hermann said they’re boring and fail to capture a readership, and nothing you’ve said contradicts that. They are boring. They are monumentally boring.
    But what you missed is that the vast majority of blogs are boring, whether biglaw or otherwise. The vast majority of Lexblog clients have boring blogs that serve no purpose whatsoever. They either offer little of value or they’re just plain boring. The vast majority of all blogs are that way.
    And if they weren’t, there would be far too many blogs to read, and they would fail for lack of readers in any event. The reality is that no one reads 500 blogs a day and no one ever will, so they will focus on the handful of blogs that are informative and interesting and the rest will fall by the wayside. It blogospheric Darwinism, and there’s no argument you can make that will change this certainty.

  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    Scott, it’s my fault. I’m sorry.
    We don’t teach LexBlog clients to be funny and entertaining. We don’t teach them to make their blogs an entertaining read for everyone, especially a good criminal defense lawyer in NYC named Greenfield.
    The reason is that the lawyers and law firm client development professionals I talk with aren’t asking to blog so they can entertain. The result is you’ll find their blogs boring and uniformative. Don’t read them.
    But in-house counsel, executives, reporters, consumers, publishers, conference coordinators do read LexBlog client blogs. They find the blogs as serving a purpose. They find them informative and insightful on topics ranging from mass tort defense to green construction law to New Hampshire Family Law.
    The chance we’ll see only a handful of law blogs because of what you describe as ‘blogospheric Darwinism’ makes as much sense as saying we’ll see the end of lawyers networking and building relationships with their target audience for client development. Lawyers, and more of them, are going use client development tools that work, blogs being one of them.

  • http://blog.simplejustice.us shg

    Save the sales pitch. You would do far better to get your clients to take a chance and capture a place in the blogosphere than blow smoke up their butts.
    “But in-house counsel, executives, reporters, consumers, publishers, conference coordinators do read LexBlog client blogs.”
    Come on, Kev. They’re playing to an empty house. That’s not good for you or them. It’s not your fault, but you do them no favors by spinning yarns about it either. As for your blog/lawyer networking comparison, be careful saying stuff that goofy or nobody will hire you anymore.
    Hey, it’s your business, but it seems to me you would have greater longevity if your clients’ blogs survive than if they fail in a year, one after another after another, for lack of interest. No skin off my nose either way.

  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    You’re comments are without any foundation Scott.
    LexBlog has a 96% client retention over 6 years because our clients do to continue to blog. They continue to blog because they are experiencing practice and client development success as a result of their blogs. Most of our clients tell us their blogging is a lot of fun.
    I’m not giving you or anyone a sales pitch, just facts.
    My post was not meant to sell our services. My post was in reponse to Mark Hermann’s statements about large law blogs not being any good, primarly because large law firm lawyers aren’t funny enough.

  • http://www.delawarelitigation.com francis pileggi

    Success at blogging can be measured in many ways, just as people define success differently in their own lives. Speaking only for myself, my blog has been wildly successful as I complete my fifth year of blogging. As a partner in a firm of about 450 lawyers, blogging has increased my professional profile with judges, lawyers, clients and reporters–and it has made me a better lawyer. According to Google Analytics, I have readers from all 50 states and 100 countries. My blog summarizes the corporate decisions of Delaware’s Chancery Court and Supreme Court, in addition to providing commentary. Some have told me that it is considered an unofficial reporter of the corporate and commercial decisions from those courts. I don’t purport to be a humorist, but if I was not reaping substantial tangible and intangible benefits, and enjoying increasing widespread readership, I would not be spending so much time on it. I am excited about starting the sixth year of my blog.

  • http://www.gamingtechlaw.com Giulio Coraggio

    I believe that the truth is in the middle: at least on the European side of the world very large law firms like mine mainly invest only in the traditional marketing channels (newsletters, conferences etc.) and lawyers do not even think about developing additional marketing sources since the brand of their firm attracts per se clients. Therefore, basically they believe that they do not need blogs.
    Honestly, I think that my blog (www.gamingtechlaw.com) is – together with the blogs mentioned in the article – one of the very few blogs run by lawyers in very large law firms especially in Europe. However, I try to adopt an approach in my blog that is more taylored on the needs of a large law firm.

  • http://blog.simplejustice.us shg

    The “funny” point is a strawman. It’s not what Mark Hermann spoke to, nor is it the point. It’s about being interesting, rather than boring. Humor is but one way to make a tedious blog more interesting to readers.
    Nor is retention rate a relevant metric. While certainly good for Lexblog (and I’m happy for you, Kev, since you know that I think you provide a good service), we’ve talked often about how some of your clients post some truly awful crap, other post so infrequently as to make their blog a joke, others post nothing of consequence, and only a very small number maintain decent quality content.
    We have both long agreed that content is king. Rather than try to pretend that a blog that gets a couple hundred reads a week is a roaring success, even if it satisfies the rather low expectations of some clients, your emphasis (like Hermann’s) should be to turn every blog into a destination. It won’t happen, no matter how hard you try, but it’s the goal that counts.
    As for blogopsheric Darwinism, that’s just nature, and neither you nor I can stop it or deny it. Only the fittest will survive, whether because they are funny, passionate, interesting or just that good. But we can’t read every blog, nor would we want to. There will never be that much time in a day, and most of them make your eyes bleed (and nobody likes it when they’re eyes bleed).

  • http://www.myshingle.com Carolyn Elefant

    The difference is very simple, and the point of my post, here: http://www.myshingle.com/2009/12/articles/blogging/why-big-firms-dont-blog-well-not-too-much-risk-but-too-little-passion/
    Lawyers blog because they want to or because they have to. Most big firm bloggers blog because they have to: not because they are forced, but because blogging is a way to serve clients (by providing substantive content) and build reputation. Most of the large firm blogs are, like most large firm lawyers themselves, quite high quality and extremely substantive. Few would deny that most large firm blogs have value to the narrow audiences that they serve (just as the small handful of energy blogs that I read, while lethally dull, are a lifeline for my practice because otherwise I’d have to pay several hundred dollars for subscription services).
    The blogs that engage us most are those where the authors blog because they want to – either they have a point of view they want to share or a passion for a topic that precludes them from being silent. Sometimes, one’s work and one’s passion for that work align and you get a blog like Drug & Device law or the Marler Blog. But when one blogs only because it’s another part of the things they need to do, the results are less than inspired.

  • http://www.legalsatyricon.com Marc J. Randazza

    LexBlog has a 96% client retention over 6 years because our clients do to continue to blog. They continue to blog because they are experiencing practice and client development success as a result of their blogs. Most of our clients tell us their blogging is a lot of fun.
    The last category… those who think it is fun… those are the only ones with any credence here. Carolyn is exactly right. When you do it because you are a writer, = right reason. If you’re doing it for marketing it shows through, and it sucks.
    The blogosphere is littered with abandoned and orphaned blogs that started with grandiose dreams of attracting traffic to sell crap. None of them survive for long.
    The reason that big firm authors usually write crap blogs is a) they are doing it for the wrong reason, and b) the pedigree you need to get into a big firm almost requires a complete lack of creativity and “voice.”

  • http://www.litigationandtrial.com Max Kennerly

    francis pileggi gets it, shg does not.
    If the point of someone’s blogging is to be entertaining and to get as many readers as possible, then, sure, there’s a Darwinian competition for attention with diminishing returns down the line.
    That’s not why I do it, and I don’t think that’s why francis pileggi does it. I like what I do and it makes me a better lawyer. It also brings clients in the door and builds/maintains my reputation among counsel and court. shg thinks that’s blowing smoke; he can tell that to the lawyers and judges who have told me they read my blog.
    My readership will likely never be as large as shg’s. That’s okay; readership numbers aren’t my goal, I’m not auditioning to be a TV pundit.

  • http://fashionlaw.foxrothschild.com/ Staci Riordan

    As a very very new blogger, I have to say that “boring” is in the eye of the reader and depends on who your target audience is.
    I did a great deal of “lurking” and asking my target market how I could help provide relevant information in a way they could relate to before I decide to commit to a blog. It turns out, in my space — fashion law — there is very little out there and most of it very very boring, especially when viewed through my target market’s eyes. Fashion industry execs are not looking for a re-hash of news reports or summaries of the latest cases. From my research, they want to know how to (legally) make more money from making clothes, in the shortest amount of words possible.
    There are some blogs out there on other subjects, Francis’ for example, that are excellent and serve its audience very well. But, my voice and Francis’ voice are different, even though we are both passionate about our subjects.
    Maybe the reason why more big law blogs didn’t make the ABA’s list is because they have not identified or properly identified their target market and are not writing in a voice or sharing the content that the intended audience wants to listen to.

  • http://www.pincusproed.com Faith

    “The reason that big firm authors usually write crap blogs is a) they are doing it for the wrong reason, and b) the pedigree you need to get into a big firm almost requires a complete lack of creativity and “voice.”
    Ouch. While I cannot speak to #1, Marc, I can certainly speak to #2. Way off.
    It’s really the other way around.
    The pedigree you need to get into a big firm does not remotely require a complete lack of creativity or voice. You just need to go to a top school and get great grades, oh and a clerkship or editing post helps – - a creative person with a voice can manage all of that without much problem.
    I know — I had two of the three and got into multiple large law firms, despite having worked “creatively” in PR, public speaking and political campaigns for years. Same goes for several of my former large law firm colleagues.
    I will admit, however, that large law firms do have a tendency to squash the creativity and personal voice of a lot of their associates.
    This is probably a necessity, given what clients and the court need and want from attorneys, but it doesn’t mean a person’s creativity and “voice” can’t continue in other areas – blogging or otherwise.

  • http://lawyermarketing.attorneysync.com/blog/ gyi tsakalakis

    At the risk of being accused of “totally missing the point on the importance / purpose of blogging”, there’s something else out there that really likes blogs (especially when they’re backed by a strong network of links)…. Hint: it starts with a “G”.

  • http://kevin.lexblog.com Kevin OKeefe

    ‘If you are blogging for marketing then your blog sucks.’ Now that makes a lot of sense.
    I started this blog 6 years ago to market what I believed to be a worthwhile and much needed service for lawyers, a professional turnkey blog solution.
    I didn’t solicite work. I didn’t run ads. I didn’t set up booths at trade shows. I did something where I thought I could offer value to others and establish a reputation as a trusted and reliable authority. I blogged.
    You know what? I enjoy blogging. I learn a lot. I’ve met some wonderful people. It’s helped my business succeed to the point where I employ about 20 people and support my family of 7. All in all it’s been a heck of a lot of fun.
    Notwithstanding the negative pundits, you can have an excellent blog while using your blog for practice and client dvelopment. And you can have a lot of fun at the same time.