Every year, the OACDL has a Superstars Seminar, where they bring in some top lawyers from all over the country to speak on various subjects. This year, I was invited to give a talk. Did they want me to share my keen insights on sentencing issues? Give the audience my tips on writing a winning appeals brief, or how to navigate the rocky shoals of an oral argument?
Not so much. They wanted me to talk about blogging.
So, that's what I'll do here.
Actually, the whole seminar was blogger-heavy. Mark Bennett, a Houston lawyer and the author of Defending People, led off with a session on jury selection. Miriam Seddiq, who writes Not Guilty, No Way, followed with a talk on immigration law for criminal lawyers, a topic which has become exponentially more important after the Supreme Court's decision in Padilla v. Kentucky. A lovely woman who anonymously authors the blog appellatesquawk talked about... well, appeals. Brian Tannebaum, who used to write for one of my favorite blogs, Above the Law, and now does one called Criminal Defense, spoke on marketing for lawyers, and Scott Greenfield, who writes Simple Justice, finished up with a session on cross-examination techniques.
Jeff Gamso, a friend of mine and the author of Gamso for the Defense, put the whole thing together, and he and I were going to do a session on blogging. Then he figured that as long as all these other people were here, we'd do a panel session, with me moderating.
So, some thoughts.
While there are several reasons to do a blog, making money isn't one of them, at least for the other members of the panel. In fact, for three of them, it's been a cost: they got sued for calling a hosebag lawyer in Texas a liar. (The suit got tossed because, well, the guy was a liar.) It can be an effective marketing tool nonetheless; I know it's helped me substantially, just by raising my profile as a lawyer who's good at appellate work.
But for the most part, people, me included, blog because we like to write. Again, I'm a little different here; I do case analysis, while the others do more philosophical takes on issues in criminal law. Because of the nature of the practice, and the people who practice it, some of it is venting; I've told Jeff that his blog should really be titled, Boy, Am I Pissed Off. But the others write for a more general audience, and you often get some keen insights into what being a criminal lawyer is really about. And some of it is profoundly creative; appellatesquawk has a list of quotations from a fictional Judge Wool, one of my favorites being this gem:
Getting a conviction affirmed on appeal is "winning" in the same way a stone rolling downhill is "traveling."
One of the other differences between me and the others is they were bright enough to do this on the cheap. There are a number of blog hosting sites which will allow you to set up a blog, essentially free, with a template of your choosing. That's what I did originally, then paid someone $150 to spruce up the banner a bit. Then I got stupid, probably spending the better part of $5,000 to finish up with something I like less than what I got for free. Oh well.
The discussion also brought out the ethical issues in blogging, which are still in flux. (Another quote from appellatesquawk: "Whenever I hear a court say 'flexible standard' I picture a carpenter using a rubber band for a tape measure.") There are a number of companies now who will set up a blog for you and also provide the content, and that's come under increasing fire: if you're going to hold yourself out as having written something, you better have written it.
Client confidentiality can be another problem. I frequently write about my cases, although I never disclose anything my clients tell me, but the others are much stricter. Jeff, for example, wrote numerous posts about the Anthony Sowell case when it first started, but hasn't written a word about it since he got assigned to handle the appeal. And that depends on state rules, too. Brian practices in Florida, which has the strictest lawyer rules in the country: you can't discuss any aspect of a case, even if it's a matter of public record, without the consent of your client.
And sometimes there can be blowback from something you write. I know I've had oral arguments in the 8th District where I'm wondering if one of the judges on the panel remembers that three months ago I described an opinion of hers as a "real headscratcher." And it's not just judges. Several years ago I had a trial of a tough case, where I mentioned that there were two attractive young female prosecutors at the other table, and that "I may have cannons to the right of me and cannons to the front of me, but at least I've got some eye candy to my left." I think it took maybe an hour after that post went up for them to find out about it. They were pretty good about it, because, as we all know, women find it flattering when they're sexually objectified.
Anyway, I still enjoy doing this, and I enjoy looking at other people's work, too. My blogroll hasn't been updated in years, so I'm going to do that this weekend, and include the blogs I've mentioned here. Take a look around; I think you'll enjoy them.