On Starting a Law Blog: 10 Handy-Dandy Tips from a B-List Criminal Defense Blogger

Jamison KoehlerCriminal Law Bloggers


A while back, a criminal defense lawyer who was starting his own practice in D.C. called to ask me for advice on starting a blog. Great, I thought. Finally someone who wants to hear what I have to say about blogging!

The first thing you need to think about, I told this guy, is what kind of blog you want to do. If you’d like to do a marketing blog to bring in business, that is one thing. If you would like to be taken a little bit more seriously in the criminal law blogosphere, that is something else entirely. I then launched into a detailed discussion of all the mistakes I felt I had made over the past two years.

I had been talking for a long time before I realized there was just silence on the other end of the line.  So I stopped talking.  “That is fine and good and all,” the guy said after an awkward pause.  “But I think I will start with a marketing blog for now.”

Sure enough, last time I looked, this guy had a nice-looking website and blog and when I ran into him recently at the courthouse, he said his practice was doing fine and that the blog did in fact bring in clients.  Adding his own two cents to a crime-related story pulled from the local paper, my colleague will insert “as an experienced D.C. criminal defense attorney” into the text of the blog entry a couple of times to improve search engine optimization (SEO) for Google purposes.  He concludes with a call to action that warns of the danger of proceeding without the help of “an experienced criminal defense attorney.”

Although it is a well-written blog with accurate descriptions of the law, I am sure he will not be offended to learn that I never read it. I can read the Washington Post myself. I am already familiar with the elements of the offenses, and I know lots of “experienced criminal defense lawyers” should I ever get myself into trouble.  But none of that matters to him.  I am not his intended audience anyway.

Here, based on my experience after two-and-a-half years of blogging, is the advice I would have given him had he told me he wanted to write a non-marketing blog.  Looking for some excuse to post this at the mid-year mark, I note that this will be my 500th blog entry.

1.  Write What You Like to Read.

J Mascis once said that, when he began writing music for Dinosaur Jr., he wrote the type of things he himself would want to listen to.  This is my philosophy when it comes to writing for this blog.

I am usually not looking for heavy legal analysis when I come onto the Internet during the day for a break.  If the U.S. Supreme Court has issued a new opinion, I will want to read the case myself, not rely on another blogger’s interpretation. Since I am interested primarily in distraction, not substance, what I look for is lighter material — humor, gossip, reactions to current events, that type of stuff.  This also affects what I do with this blog.

2.  Figure Out Who Your Audience Is. 

Like the guy who inspired this blog entry, I started out writing this blog with potential clients in mind.  I avoided controversial or political issues because I didn’t want to offend anyone. These blog entries were tedious to write.  I am sure they were no more fun to read.

Sometimes I write for other bloggers. At the beginning especially, I was intrigued by the back-and-forth among other bloggers I read and sought to participate in the discussion. The problem with this, I have found, is that these entries don’t hold up very well over time.  I’ll look back at a blog entry I did one or two years ago and wonder what we were ever talking about.  Reading such a blog entry can be like listening in on one side of a telephone conversation.

I also write for my sister and brother-in-law who, although they may not read me as often as they used to, are still my ideal audience:  smart and educated people who, although not lawyers, have an interest in the law. I write for the law clerks and other criminal defense lawyers here in D.C. who tell me they follow this blog. And I write for some anonymous person in Falls Church who I know from Google Analytics is my most loyal reader in terms of both frequency and depth.  I feel bad for this reader every time I fail to post for a while.  I think of him checking the blog many times a day – which I know he/she does — only to find the same old entry.

Finally, like Scott Greenfield of Simple Justice, I write for myself.  Although I like to think that people are reading what I write (otherwise a private journal would do just fine), sometimes I don’t know how I feel about an issue until I have written about it.

3.  Find Your Voice.

Figuring out your intended audience brings you a good part of the way toward my next recommendation:  finding the right voice to express yourself.  Are you writing from an objective, third-party viewpoint?  Or are you familiar and chatty with the reader, bringing in personal experience to illuminate the points you are trying to make?

As in the case of creative writer who tries out different writing styles from literary works he admires, you may need to experiment with different voices until you find one that works best for you. Norm Pattis is global and big-picture, crowing when he wins and sobbing when he loses. Brian Tannebaum makes effective use of sarcasm.  Jeff Gamso uses details to personalize the people on death row he writes about. D.A. Confidential is friendly, pleasant and often funny.  The leader in reason, fairness, and maturity has to be Carolyn Elefant. And so on. Having experimented with a number of different styles, including use of the second person, I am still trying to find the voice that works best for me.

4.  Take a Position.

While reading Simple Justice could sometimes be exasperating, I rarely came away from the site feeling indifferent. While Greenfield seemed alternately amused and offended by descriptions of him as a curmudgeon, if there was one thing he did represent– and the reason so many people read his blog– was that he was never afraid to take a position on an issue, even when it meant ruffling some feathers.  Nice may be pleasant but it is rarely interesting.  And, yes, I am still working on this one myself.

5.  Do Your Own Thing.

I am not crazy about Brian Tannebaum.  My dislike for him is due largely to the fact that he never misses an opportunity to come onto this site and tell me what an idiot I am.  I also don’t agree with him on many issues.  But at least he writes about the issues he feels passionately about:  IPADs and other play things, brick-and-mortar offices, lying social media gurus, and so on.

I am less forgiving of the Brian Tannebaum wannabes, ingratiators and clones. It is hard for me to believe that there are that many people out there who – coincidentally — feel so passionately about the exact same issues that Tannebaum does. My advice is that, unless you have something really significant to add to his already exhaustive coverage of these issues, you should find something else to harp on.  It’s a big world and a big profession.  There are lots of other things to write about.

6.  Avoid the Pack.

Although an Internet friend and reader of this blog has criticized me for participating in the Internet mobbing of Joseph Rakofsky, I have always pled innocent. After all, there was no mob when I first wrote about Rakofsky.  I wrote about what was then a purely local story. Gamso picked up on the story from me, Greenfield heard about it from Gamso, and the rest of the Internet learned about it from Greenfield.  Because everybody reads Greenfield.

While I may not agree with the characterization of the Rakofsky affair as an internet mobbing, there is certainly a pack mentality within the criminal law blogosphere.  There is the alpha dog, Scott Greenfield.  And then there is everyone else.

Some of what leads to the appearance of a “pack” is perfectly justified.  If one of the benefits of the blogosphere is the ability to exchange ideas with other lawyers, this will necessarily result in a number of bloggers all writing about the same thing.  Some of it, though, is mere piling on – a “me-tooing.”

In addition to Rakofsky, victims of a pack attack since I have been participating in the blogosphere include Jack Marshall, Andy Nolen, Sparta Townsend, Thedala Magree, and, most recently, Rachel Rodgers.  It is not necessarily that these people have not deserved every unkind word ever directed at them.  It is that I find the whole process of singling them out for such universal disapprobation distasteful.  And if this leads you to conclude that I am person of overly refined sensibilities, well, you would not be the first person to come to that conclusion.

7.  Think Twice About The Snark.

Flame wars drive traffic to a site.  I know from Google Analytics that the most frequently visited pages on this blog are often ones that involve some type of argument in the comments, in my case, usually involving Brian Tannebaum.  Part of the traffic, undoubtedly, is due to the participants in the flame war returning to the site to continue the battle. Other people come just to watch the rest of us debase ourselves. There is, after all, a reason the Jerry Springer show is so popular.

I have never bought into the notion that you need to be boorish and crude in order to be an effective criminal defense attorney.  As someone once put it, using your profession as an excuse for poor manners is like a saying a teacher can be forgiven for being pedantic or a military man for beating his wife.

8.  Lurk Before Joining the Conversation.

As with any social function, either real-time or on-line, it is usually a good idea to get a lay of the land before you jump into the conversation.  I made the mistake myself of trying to jump into the conversation within a couple of months of starting this blog.  This did not endear me to a number of the old hands.

Someone has compared the criminal law blogosphere to middle school, and I think the analogy works pretty well.  Lurking before you jump into the fray allows you to take some time to figure out which table to sit at.

Learn the rules of etiquette (attribution, back-linking, and so on).  And read what other people are writing.

9.  Don’t Use Lists.

Using lists to frame blog entries will immediately identify you as a flawger.  And nobody likes a flawger.

10.  Disregard all of the above. 

Hey, I know I do.