By Kevin O'Keefe

Carolyn Elefant of MyShingle [LexBlog Q & A]

For a recent interview, we spoke with lawyer/blogger Robert Ambrogi, who – among other things – makes up half of the ALM Blog Network’s Legal Blog Watch. Today’s LexBlog Q & A features the other half of that blog partnership: Carolyn Elefant.

Carolyn, who will release her new book Solo By Choice early this year, is a well-known solo practitioner based out of Washington, D.C. She focuses her legal practice on energy regulatory issues and uses her expertise to write a blog dealing with offshore renewable energy. She also publishes her own blog, MyShingle.

1. Rob La Gatta: Kevin has described you as a champion for solo practitioners. What do you see as some of the most important impacts blogging has had for solo practitioners in the past few years?

Carolyn Elefant: There are so many, it’s hard to know where to start. I think that blogging help solos and small firm practitioners both on a macro level – in terms of improving the way that they’re regarded within the legal profession – and also on a micro level, in that it has specifically helped solo and small firm lawyers build practices.

I think that on the micro level, what you see are many solo and small firm lawyers who are recognizing the power of the blog, and who are developing practice-specific “niche blogs,” as Kevin calls them (I think Enrico Schaffer at Greatest American Lawyer calls them “vertical blogs”). [Solo and small firm lawyers] are developing very practice-focused blogs on their sites that are giving them visibility on the Internet and giving them credibility with clients.

But I think that another trend that you’ve seen with blogging is the explosion of blogs devoted to starting a solo practice, and that was a trend that I started with MyShingle. Since then, there have been maybe 10 or 12 blogs that talk about the benefits of solo practice, that highlight the accomplishments of solo practitioners…and I think that the profession is finally seeing the positive side of solo practice. They’re seeing the important things that solo and small firm lawyers are doing, rather than just hearing about ethics violations, or how pathetic some solo is for not calling clients back, or for coming to court with a busted briefcase…all the types of stories that you used to read about in the mainstream media. I think that that is improving the reputation of solo and small firm practitioners on a macro level.

2. Rob La Gatta: During your time writing Legal Blog Watch, have you noticed ALM making any noticeable changes to accommodate or highlight blogs?

Carolyn Elefant: I can’t speak for ALM, because I’m not employed by them and I’m not very much involved in the editorial decisions that they make. But I do know that ALM was one of the first legal publications to come up with the concept of an accompanying blog. Legal Blog Watch started in November of 2004, and that was a whole 2 years before the Wall Street Journal or some of the other mainstream newspapers were supporting blogging.

3. Rob La Gatta: Let’s talk about Solo By Choice. What compelled you to write a book advising lawyers on the process of going solo?

Carolyn Elefant: I started the blog in 2002, and when I started to gain traction in 2003 or 2004, I thought, “Well, I’ve got all this material here; it won’t take much to compile these posts into a permanent format and come up with a book.” […] I was tracking trends of people coming to solo practice from more unusual backgrounds (like from a large firm, and starting a practice maybe in securities litigation or corporate law; that is not something that solos would typically handle). So I also felt a book would allow me to write about that.

As I discovered, writing a book is a lot more than just pasting together a series of blog posts. I found the process a little bit more difficult. With writing a book, there’s more of a permanence, and in some ways that’s bad: even though my book went to press over the summer, there are already things that have changed. If it were a blog, I would simply write an update.

But at the same time, even though people do enjoy reading blogs, I think there’s also a value for people who are considered starting a practice to being able to sit in bed at night and page through a book, and actually hold something in their hands and look at it and think about it.

The other thing I wanted to add about my book is that it’s only partly a “how-to” book; it’s also a “why-to” book. The first part of the book makes the case for why lawyers who are unhappy or dissatisfied with the profession should consider starting a solo practice. It breaks my heart to see – for example, from my class in law school – really talented women, head and shoulders above me in our class ranking and intelligence, who basically left the law because it wasn’t something that was compatible with a family. I don’t think that many of them really knew that solo practice could be a viable option.

It also kills me to see these associates just chafing at large firms, earning all this money and feeling miserable, and then trying to assuage the misery by – like it said in that New York Times article [“The Falling-Down Professions,” 1/6/08] – going to Neiman Marcus and buying fancy things. They could really be doing something with their careers, and they would never consider solo practice because up until now they’ve thought, “Well, a solo practitioner is a country lawyer sitting in a little office in the middle of nowhere, handling accident cases or writing wills.” They don’t realize that they can take their large firm practice, basically move their office from inside big law into their house or onto the street, and make a good living and have much more flexibility.

The second part [of the book] discusses a lot of marketing issues. There’s a huge amount of material on marketing in the digital age, which, as my colleague Susan Cartier Liebel has said, has really got to be the focal point of any person’s marketing portfolio when they start a practice today.

4. Rob La Gatta: Do you personally feel more comfortable writing blog posts, which are short and concise, or do you like being able to draw out and explain your ideas more? Which is more of a challenge for you?

Carolyn Elefant: It differs.

There’s something about when you write a blog post; you can really let your fingers fly a little bit more. You know that you can always take it down, you can always change it…in some ways, it’s easier to go into it when you don’t have that kind of commitment. Writing a book has a little bit more permanence, [and] you have to be more thorough. You have to anticipate changes that might happen, or who might read it, because you can’t change it as much. It’s a little bit more strategic.

They’re really just two types of writing styles. I enjoy both of them, and I also burn out on both of them. I find that when you do any of them long enough, it becomes a challenge to keep it fresh, whether it’s putting up different blog posts or writing chapters in the book.

5. Rob La Gatta: If you were to offer one bit of advice to a lawyer just starting his or her first blog, what would it be and why?

Carolyn Elefant: First of all, they should pick a blog in a niche that hasn’t been covered. For a lawyer who has a regional practice, [try] to pick something to focus on the region, and bring in other events. For a lawyer who has a national practice, just pick a niche or some angle that hasn’t been covered. You can always find a way to make something into more of a niche.

For example, there are a couple of blogs that are devoted to Ninth Circuit Appeals. But you could focus on just Ninth Circuit Criminal Appeals, or even Ninth Circuit Decisions by a particular judge…just come up with some kind of a spin, so you have a reason for people to seek you out.

The other thing that I would recommend is to really provide some good analysis. One trend that is driving me crazy with blogging now is [when] you get people posting big chunks of news articles. First of all, it’s not even always clear how much material they’ve listed from the article versus how much is their own writing, and so it’s a little bit deceptive. Second, there’s no analysis; like that New York Times article on unhappy lawyers: there are a couple of people who do give some information on it or some analysis. But there are some people who just quote a big block from the article and leave it hanging there. You can go to a thousand different blogs for that. You want to have something in your blog that makes it stand out.

And use any opportunity to latch on to a popular event, no matter how tangential it is. I mean, I think that every family law attorney these days should be blogging about the Britney Spears case, just because that’s going to improve rankings in search engines. It might even get you picked up by the media if they happen to be covering that story…they could call you for some type of analysis.

I know one colleague of mine runs a FOIA blog, and he blogged about the Wesley Snipes tax evasion case because there was a FOIA component to it. That generated so much traffic to his site…his blog really took off, and I think his business increased as a result. So see if you can come up with any way to tap into a national story – especially with the elections. Every politician these days is going to have a spin on something that matters to you, and if you can just link [your posts] into that, it’ll really help to jump-start your blog and get more exposure for it.

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