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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. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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