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Janzen: 4 tips for starting a law blog and finding your voice

July 16, 2014
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janzen Janzen

By Todd J. Janzen

Almost five years ago a friend suggested that I should start blogging about the legal issues I was handling involving agriculture. She knew I grew up on a farm, that agriculture was one of my passions, and that I was handling a number of different agricultural legal matters. She told me farmers and agriculture industry professionals would enjoy reading about my experiences. I immediately responded with a number of predictable lawyer excuses: no one will read it; I don’t have time; and there are ethical landmines when lawyers blog.

In spite of these initial misgivings, later that night I signed up with an online blog provider and started writing my first post about how growing up on a farm helped prepare me to be a lawyer. By the next morning, the Janzen Ag Law Blog was born (www.janzenaglaw.com). My career would never look the same.

Today, I think back about my initial reservations and realize they were unjustified. Blogging is a great communication tool for lawyers. For other attorneys who are considering launching their career into the blogosphere, here are four tips.

1. Write for a broad audience. Would my future clients read an agricultural law blog? That was my biggest concern in the beginning. Farmers are busy farming. Other lawyers (referral sources) don’t necessarily care about hot agricultural law topics like biotechnology and environmental regulations. They won’t read it. But my reservations were the result of me thinking like a traditional lawyer and not understanding the power of good online content — a belief you should only write articles for your target audience and writing for anyone else is a waste of time.

With a blog, nothing could be further from the truth. Potential clients don’t have to read your blog for it to reach them. Farm industry professionals read my blog and these people regularly communicate with my target audience of clients — farmers and agribusinesses — and they often talk about what they read. Of course, social media users follow blogs, but surprisingly, so do the people who author traditional media. Reporters and journalists frequently read my blog, and they further convey my message to others, adding to the blog’s credibility. A good blog article spreads like wildfire.

In 2012, for example, I wrote a series of articles about the Environmental Protection Agency’s use of aerial flyovers to inspect Midwestern cattle feedlots for water quality violations. Beef Magazine, a national livestock publication, republished one of my posts, and the pageviews on my blog immediately skyrocketed. Cattlemen were outraged, as most were unaware of the federal government’s practice of taking aerial photos of farms. Senators and Congress members from beef-producing states wrote protest letters to the EPA denouncing this practice. This led to a speaking engagement to the Nebraska Cattlemen at their summer convention about the topic — all because of a blog post.

The first month my blog received about 100 pageviews. Five years later my blog averages about 300 to 500 pageviews per day and is also republished with Farm Journal, another national publication, on its website AgWeb.com.

2. Make the commitment and stick to it. Blogging takes time. There is no way around this. Like many young lawyers, in my early years of practice I tried to write at least two detailed articles for bar journals, law reviews or other traditional printed media each year. Today, I’ve shifted these non-billable hours to writing multiple, shorter blog posts.

This shift has led to a personal realization for me that wasn’t evident when I was only writing letters, briefs and bar journal articles – I love to write. My blog is a creative outlet that keeps my mind refreshed. Blogging rubs off on my formal legal writing too, keeping it more like the “plain English” standard lawyers strive for and less like the legal jargon most non-lawyers despise.

Before you start, ask yourself these two questions: (1) Will I consistently make time for a blog; and (2) do I enjoy writing? If the answer is no to either question, go no further, as a blog will quickly become a chore. Set reasonable expectations for how often you will post and try to stick with it. A neglected law blog sends a worse message to potential clients than having no blog at all. It says “I lack commitment,” or “I’m no longer interested in this subject.” Take it down if it doesn’t work or you don’t have time.

3. Set ethical ground rules before beginning. The open nature of blogging seems at odds with the confidential nature of lawyering. I set some simple ground rules to address this concern before I began. I don’t blog about pending cases or transactional matters. I don’t mention clients by name or even veiled references—unless the matter is over and the client consents or asks me to write an article. For example, a client of mine, Obert’s Legacy Dairy, recently prevailed at the Indiana Court of Appeals in a precedent-setting case involving the Right to Farm Act. My client was delighted to have me write about this case after it was over.

Other rules I follow: I fact-check before publishing. I note when something is my opinion. I don’t criticize judges or opposing counsel. If there is a problem with a ruling or statute, I try to point out the problem with the law rather than the law’s author.

4. Use a blog to find your voice and focus your practice. A number of law firms have firm-wide blogs, where internal lawyers take turns writing case or legislative summaries that are routinely posted like clockwork. Google’s algorithms might like these articles as a way to boost page rankings, but in my opinion, firm blogs don’t work. They miss the whole point of a blog. A blog is personal. Read some of my posts, and you will have a better understanding of who I am and why I love practicing agricultural law. Read traditional firm blog posts, and you’ll learn almost nothing about the author (or the firm for that matter). A blog is not something that can be outsourced to a marketing department. A law blog should come from a lawyer with a unique perspective.

And that’s why I love blogging about agriculture and the law. There is no better way to connect my rural, agricultural roots to my life as an attorney. My blog has allowed me to find my voice and focus my legal practice in a way that clients know is genuine, because it is.

Being a lawyer is all about being able to communicate. Blogging is just another tool to accomplish this. A blog is certainly not appropriate for all lawyers or all legal subjects. But for this attorney, I cannot imagine practicing without it.•

__________

Todd J. Janzen – tjanzen@psrb.com – is a partner at the law firm of Plews Shadley Racher & Braun LLP. In addition to his law practice, He is currently chair of the American Bar Association’s Agricultural Management Committee and serves as general counsel to the Indiana Dairy Producers. His blog can be found at www.janzenaglaw.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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