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LexBlog Q & A: Jeralyn Merritt of TalkLeft

October 10, 2007

This update to the LexBlog Q & A (formerly titled Five Questions) marks a change in direction: today, our interviews begin to move beyond the LexBlogosphere. While our clients will still be featured, we’ve also got some great interviews lined up with important bloggers from around the country. Kicking off the proceedings is Jeralyn Merritt.

Jeralyn, a Denver-based criminal defense lawyer, is well known in the blogosphere for her blog TalkLeft, which dubs itself as “the online magazine with liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news.” She is also frequently featured as a legal commentator on nationally syndicated television news programs.

1. Rob La Gatta: As you see it, do lawyers today understand that they have an obligation to step into the nationwide dialogue as defenders of our civil liberties (and of democracy on a whole)? As a follow-up, how (if at all) can blogs help them to fulfill that obligation?

Jeralyn Merritt: I don’t think law bloggers are obligated to write about any particular subject. Nor do I think being a lawyer obligates one to discuss politics.

The point of blogging is to write about what interests you. A lawyer might prefer to blog about wine or sports. If the blog is intended to complement one’s law practice, writing news updates with commentary on topics related to his or her field of practice may be the sole topic. I’d be hard-pressed to say a commercial law or wills and estates law blogger needs to write about civil liberties or democracy.

As a criminal defense lawyer, I’m interested in civil liberties and government. So I write about these topics from my point of view. But lawyers, just like everyone else, have the right to be apolitical or non-political and to keep their political views to themselves.

2. Rob La Gatta: You seem quite tech-savvy compared to most lawyers. What other unique skills have you picked up throughout your legal career that you think have made you an effective lawyer?

Jeralyn Merritt: I’m more tech savvy because I created websites before starting to blog. To do that, I spent a week holed up in a basement with a techie-type lawyer who taught me HTML coding so I could build and maintain my own sites. Happily, for blogging, those skills aren’t necessary and I don’t think they contributed anything to my lawyering.

Strong typing skills and being computer software literate did make me early prey for Lexis and Westlaw, which sharpened my legal research abilities and made me more confident in arguing my positions in court.

As to non-tech skills, I think being a TV legal analyst and continuing legal education speaker honed my public speaking ability and made my court presentations shorter, more focused and smoother. And being an Internet journalist and op-ed writer has improved the grammar and style of my motion and brief-writing.

3. Rob La Gatta: So far, TalkLeft – liberal leaning in nature – has lived its entire life under the presidency of Republican George W. Bush. What do you plan to do if, come January 2009, a Democratic president is sworn into office? Do you expect that under such circumstances, the content, mission or direction of the blog would change?

Jeralyn Merritt: TalkLeft won’t change for quite some time. No Democrat running for office fully supports my position on criminal justice issues. Since the Democrats gained control of Congress in 2006, I’ve found plenty to criticize, particularly in their voting to amend the FISA wiretap law and not voting to cut off funding for the Iraq War.

The mission and direction of the blog is not so much to criticize, but rather to educate the public and encourage them to lobby our elected officials for change. For TalkLeft, that will be as necessary with a Democrat in office as it was with a Republican.

When we get a President who vows to impose a moratorium on executions, close Guantanamo, and try accused terrorists under the Code of Military Justice or in federal courts, who pushes Congress to abolish mandatory minimum sentences, put a lockbox on social security benefits and provide mandatory health care, including affordable and compassionate nursing home care for the elderly, and who has ended the war in Iraq and promised not to get us into other wars preemptively or under false pretenses, then TalkLeft’s mission will be accomplished and I’ll start a travel or food blog.

4. Rob La Gatta: Did you see increased readership in the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election? Have you been noticing any increase in traffic as we move closer to the 2008 election?

Jeralyn Merritt: Traffic was way up in the months before the 2004 election. It’s down from that level now, but as the primaries approach, I expect it to rebound.

5. Rob La Gatta: You recently featured a guest post from former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who to my knowledge is the biggest name we’ve seen guest blogging at TalkLeft so far. Can we expect to see more posts from high profile political figures in coming months?

Jeralyn Merritt: I hope so. I don’t have the time to solicit them, but if they reach out to me and want to write about an issue germane to TalkLeft, they are welcome to be a front page guest poster. I did make an overture to former President Clinton when he brought a group of bloggers to New York in 2006 to learn more about blogging, but he hasn’t taken me up on it – yet.

I think you can expect more interviews with prominent political figures on TalkLeft as the 2008 election – and particularly the Democratic Convention, which will be held in Denver – approaches.

Know an influential blogger you’d like to see interviewed? Send me an e-mail with their name and why you think they’d be good to hear from, and we’ll try to set something up.

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