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 – firstname.lastname@example.org – 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.