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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. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

  2. When I served the State of Kansas as Deputy AG over Consumer Protection & Antitrust for four years, supervising 20 special agents and assistant attorneys general (back before the IBLE denied me the right to practice law in Indiana for not having the right stuff and pretty much crushed my legal career) we had a saying around the office: Resist the lure of the ring!!! It was a take off on Tolkiem, the idea that absolute power (I signed investigative subpoenas as a judge would in many other contexts, no need to show probable cause)could corrupt absolutely. We feared that we would overreach constitutional limits if not reminded, over and over, to be mindful to not do so. Our approach in so challenging one another was Madisonian, as the following quotes from the Father of our Constitution reveal: The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse. We are right to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations. Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty, but also by the abuse of power. All men having power ought to be mistrusted. -- James Madison, Federalist Papers and other sources: http://www.constitution.org/jm/jm_quotes.htm RESIST THE LURE OF THE RING ALL YE WITH POLITICAL OR JUDICIAL POWER!

  3. My dear Mr Smith, I respect your opinions and much enjoy your posts here. We do differ on our view of the benefits and viability of the American Experiment in Ordered Liberty. While I do agree that it could be better, and that your points in criticism are well taken, Utopia does indeed mean nowhere. I think Madison, Jefferson, Adams and company got it about as good as it gets in a fallen post-Enlightenment social order. That said, a constitution only protects the citizens if it is followed. We currently have a bevy of public officials and judicial agents who believe that their subjectivism, their personal ideology, their elitist fears and concerns and cause celebs trump the constitutions of our forefathers. This is most troubling. More to follow in the next post on that subject.

  4. Yep I am not Bryan Brown. Bryan you appear to be a bigger believer in the Constitution than I am. Were I still a big believer then I might be using my real name like you. Personally, I am no longer a fan of secularism. I favor the confessional state. In religious mattes, it seems to me that social diversity is chaos and conflict, while uniformity is order and peace.... secularism has been imposed by America on other nations now by force and that has not exactly worked out very well.... I think the American historical experiment with disestablishmentarianism is withering on the vine before our eyes..... Since I do not know if that is OK for an officially licensed lawyer to say, I keep the nom de plume.

  5. I am compelled to announce that I am not posting under any Smith monikers here. That said, the post below does have a certain ring to it that sounds familiar to me: http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnwonline/2014/0907/cardinal.aspx

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