Navel gazing (or meta blogging) on the future of the law blog seems to be the flavour of the moment in the USA, and on this side of the pond, human law and binary law have weighed in with some thoughtful views on the future of law blogs. With this in mind, together with geeklawyer’s forthcoming carnival of the blawgers, I thought I’d have a muse too. Unfortunately, the musing could only be jotted down in 35 minute sessions on the train, pecking away at a PDA, so any fractured or episodic quality is entirely realistic.
Firstly, it seems to be clear that a critical mass has yet to be reached that would see law blogging become mainstream, both for writers and readers. This is so in the US and more so here, where we are arguably somewhat behind. 2007 as ‘the year of RSS’ has been held out as one precipitatory event, and this may be true, but I’d say it is not so much the technology of aggregation but the mindset of the ‘social web’ that is the current stumbling block. This is perhaps particularly the case for lawyers. There are three inter-related questions here: of writing, reading and discussion.
Writing – Nick Holmes at binary law suggests that the law blog of the future will be less personal and more firm or practice orientated. What does a practice or a firm blog look like? I don’t think we currently have much in the way of examples, with the exception of a few IP firms, who are understandably up on this sort of thing. That is not to say that there aren’t a lot of consumately professional blawgs, there are, but each has a distinct voice, focus or viewpoint that gives it an individuality, even if there are a number of people involved. Could this voice be achievable by an official firm or even department level blog? Maybe, but only in a few exceptional cases, I suspect. The danger is that the blog would be simply a list of press releases or news points, not necessarily useless but hardly enticing and far from a social web model. So, will firms be prepared to see a distinct voice on their blog or will it be over-monitored blog by committee? I’ll come back to this.
Reading – or, more accurately, readership. I’ve raised this before in part, but it strikes me as a vital issue. At the moment, most legal blogs seem to be written with an audience of legal professionals in mind. The address and issues are ‘between ourselves’. This is, of course, fine and entirely legitimate. But that isn’t who is reading, or at least, not only who is reading. Let me take this blog as an example. I post about developments in housing law, because it is what I do and it interests me. From my logs and search queries it is apparent that these posts get attention from law firms, yes, but also law students, local authorities, housing associations and many tenants. Who am I writing for? A good question. Initially it was those involved in law. Now, certainly with the housing law posts, I’m beginning to think about a lay audience more and more. To extrapolate from this example, the readership for any law blog will likely include anyone who has a related issue to those discussed.
The use of law blogs as means of reaching potential clients is often extolled, but this needs serious consideration. Who is reading? What will their interest be in what is posted? Will they get what they are looking for? Will they encounter a voice that appears to understand their concerns (not just a lawyer who is being impressively clever about law in their field)? Which brings us back to writing. How to write for significantly different readerships at the same time and engage them? This is one of the skills that will need to be developed, partly through the change of status to skilled provider and user of information from that of oracle and hoarder of information that I mentioned in a earlier post.
Incidentally, given that blogs require a certain reading style, it is worth noting that most people searching for ‘tolerated trespasser’ hit the first post here on the topic they find on the search engine and treat it like a static website, not realising that there are later updatings on the subject, to the extent I have actually added an addendum to the highest rated post with links to that effect. Widespread RSS adoption may change this, but blog reading requires a different approach to the way most people approach the web at present. Most people still don’t get that a blawg is a sedimentary record of a (sometimes evolutionary) process, not a fixed answer per page. I suspect this will take some time to change.
Discussion – which is where writing, reading and a culture change for law firms, if not for some individual lawyers, come together. As Justin Patten at Human Law notes, response and debate comes with the blog form. Not always, of course, but any blog that simply assumes it can deliver from on high, with no response, is likely to be as farcical as the Watson Farley & Williams trainee ‘blog’ (which also illustrates the point about ‘voice’). But, although lawyers certainly discuss matters, from practice through gossip to points of law, this is rarely done in public or with ‘strangers’, let alone in a manner open to clients and anyone else. Responses to a blawg may well include knowledgable critique or requests for information, digression or assistance. How and whether the responses are approached is part of the ‘voice’ of the blawg.
This blog is an individual one, it revolves around what interests me (or rather a part of me, there are boundaries, even if fuzzy ones, about what gets included here, and it generally has to be legally related). I welcome comment, discussion, argument and correction, but how far would this fly at a firm level blawg? Those of us individually engaged in blawgs are familiar with the idea and to some extent the experience of the blog as open forum, and through that with a form of respect being gained through apparent openness and willingness to engage. This strikes me as quite a different form of respect to that currently envisaged by firms or their marketing departments. To return briefly to the likely problem of blog by committee, it is all too likely that firms of a certain size, if at all convinced of the need for a blawg, will hand the ‘project’ to the marketing department, with oversight by partners. Again, Watson Farley & Williams trainee blog stands as an example of the sort of disaster that can result.
My sense is that Nick Holmes is right about a chasm between early adopters and the mainstream that has yet to be leapt. There are necessary changes that will have to take place in ways of writing, reading and discussing, but also firms will have to accept a certain loss of control. Control over information, over the details of public image (instead having to trust those who give the blawg its voice), and control over the forms of public discussion taking place on ‘their’ blog. Lawyers are not noted for their willingness to cede control.
This might all sound a little doom laden. It isn’t meant to be, I am after all a cheerleader for law blogging. I just think that this will be a slower process than some might want or expect. There are some major changes required before lawyers in general will consider law blogs for seeking information or providing information. Given that the youngsters are far more at home with social software and sites, a change will come, but I expect law firms to be behind the wave of a more general public adoption, not ahead of it.