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Legal Blogging

How paralegals can enter the blogosphere.

By Kim Plonsky

May/June 2006 Table of Contents

 

You have heard the buzz about blogging. More lawyers and legal professionals are doing it every day, and you are curious. What exactly is a blog, what type of people use blogs, what can a blog do for you as a paralegal and how do you go about getting one?

The word “blog” — an amalgam of the term “Web log” — has risen from obscurity since it was minted in 1997. WordSpy (www.wordspy.com) defines a blog as a “Web page consisting of frequently updated, chronologi­cal entries on a particular topic.” Generally speaking, a blog is a desktop publishing tool that provides the average PC user a forum to share ideas, opinions, information, files, photographs and music, or simply keep an online journal (private or public). What is unique about blogs, as opposed to ordinary Web sites, are the date and time stamps and permalinks that are created and assigned to each individual blog entry. Permalinks actually are hyperlinks to posts — virtual footnotes — used by other bloggers to establish permanent links to your posts, each of which usually consists of a title, category and body. Further, a blog can syndicate its site feed to the public via Really Simple Syndication, a format designed to share Web content, just like The Associated Press or CNN.

Law blogs (sometimes called blawgs) and law bloggers are well represented in this new world dubbed the blogosphere. Lawyers and paralegals are using blogs for everything from knowledge and information sharing and management, to marketing and anything conceivable in between. A blog’s ability to easily create and update Web pages has put the possibility of a Web presence within reach of the masses. And the masses have spoken. According to Technorati’s February 2006 “State of the Blogosphere” report (www.technorati.com/weblog/2006/02/81.html), today there are more than 60 times the amount of blogs than there were only three years ago, and approximately 75,000 new blogs launch every day. The study also showed only about half of the new bloggers tracked still were blogging after three months. This article touches on the elements of blogging, including the pros and cons, with a focus on legal blogging.

Often, blogs are authored and maintained by more than one person (group blogs), creating an online forum. Although each individual blog is unique, most blogs share a vast array of common elements, designs and goals. The potential and real uses for blogs are infinite, limited perhaps only by your imagination and creativity because free blog hosting services are plentiful and easy to use. And blogging can be as simple or complex as you want it to be. Myshingle.com, authored by Carolyn Elefant of Washington, D.C., and Mark Sindler of Pittsburgh, is a great example of a well-designed and well-themed law blog that makes use of various blogging features to provide ready links to resources and information. It typifies a common blawg. The individual blog posts appear mid-page in reverse chronological order. The posting layout implemented includes information below each post that identifies the author, date and time of post, followed by the author’s categorization of the post, a permalink to the post, a place for visi­tors to leave their comments and a TrackBack link. Several sidebar areas (created by simple modifications to the blog template) include the “Welcome” section, which contains links to things such as personal information about the authors and archives of past posts. The “Other Shingles” section contains links to blogs of interest to the authors.

MyShingle.com also features sidebars on the right that include recent headlines from the Law.com Newswire, achieved via RSS feed. The “Recent Posts” section contains permalinks that allow visitors to jump directly to a post by its headline, and the “Categories” section provides a method of retrieving all posts on a particular subject matter.

Choosing a Blog Hosting Provider

In my view, one of the most important and challenging decisions a potential blogger faces is choosing the right blog hosting service, primarily based on the specific needs and preferences of the blogger or the intended purpose of the blog. A good first step is to check with your Internet service provider to see if it offers blog hosting. Some blogging software requires an outside hosting service, which likely means a nominal added expense. There are more than enough blog hosting services to choose from that offer a myriad of interfaces from the instant access, no setup type to the fully customizable, unlimited option type.

The good news is there are scores of free blog hosting providers available, the majority of which come with predesigned, customizable blog templates (some basic HTML or other encoding usually is required). These templates make it a breeze to have a professional-looking blog up and running in minutes. For example, introduced in 1999, Blogger (www.blogger.com) became part of the Google conglomerate in 2003. It’s one of the most popular free blogging hosts. Blogger offers team blogs (group blogs), making it simple for multiple people with individually assigned administrative rights to contribute to a single blog. Blogger includes a host of free, third-party add-on programs, including Audioblogger for posting audio clips from any phone to your blog, and Blogger Mobile for e-mail blog posting and uploading photos from a cellular phone with Cingular, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon service. Because of all that it offers, including fully customizable, professional looking and aesthetically pleasing blogs, I chose Blogger to host my new blog.

With its three powerhouse blog hosting services, Six Apart (www.sixapart.com) seems to have cornered a large chunk of the blogging market with its TypePad, Movable Type and Live­Journal products. Typepad (www.typepad.com), the entry level of the trio, is a subscription-based hosted blogging service, which means no software to download and easy access wherever an Internet connection is available. It comes in three flavors: Basic with one blog, one author for $4.95 per month or $49.50 per year; Plus with up to three blogs, one author for $8.95 per month or $89.50 per year; and Pro with unlimited blogs, multiple authors for $14.95 per month or $149.50 per year.

Movable Type (www.sixapart.com/movabletype), designed primarily as a publishing platform for businesses, organizations, developers and Web designers, is software that you download and install on your own Web server. All Movable Type pricing includes unlimited blogs and is based on user classification. It costs $69.95 for the Personal Basic version (up to five authors), $199.95 for the Single Server edition (one to five users), $39.95 for the Education edition (single classroom) and $49.95 for the Not-for-Profit edition (one to five users). A free, unsupported version of Movable Type Personal edition, as well as detailed pricing information for all versions, is available for download at www.sixapart.com/movabletype/pricing.

LiveJournal (www.livejournal.com) is an online journal service with an emphasis on user interaction. Basic, fully functional accounts are free, and paid accounts are offered for as little as $3 per month to gain access to premium features.

On March 7, Six Apart launched two new business-oriented blogging products: TypePad Business Class and Movable Type Enterprise. Type­Pad Business Class is a hosted service aimed primarily at companies with high-traffic Web sites using blogs to communicate with their audiences. Movable Type Enterprise, a server-based blogging tool meant for large-scale internal deployments, currently is in beta tests with several U.S. companies.

Yahoo Small Business Web Host­ing with Movable Type (www.sixapart.com/movabletype/yahoo) or Word Press (http://sbs.smallbusiness.yahoo.com/webhosting/problogs.php) is another blogging service option. WordPress Yahoo Small Business Web Hosting packages with free domain name and 200 e-mail accounts include: Web Hosting Starter for $8.96 per month (200GB data transfer per month/5GB disk space); Web Hosting Standard for $19.95 per month (400GB data transfer per month/10GB disk space); and Web Hosting Profes­sional for $39.95 per month (500GB data transfer per month/20GB disk space).

Also noteworthy is MSN’s free blog offering, MSN Spaces (www.msnspaces.com), which supports categories, photo sharing and posting of photos and blog entries via mobile devices. GoDaddy (www.godaddy.com) offers ad-supported blog hosting (online advertising on your blog without pop-ups) free with every domain, beginning at $8.95 per year. For those who want to quickly get a blog up and running, check out the instant, free blog (beta only) offered by supersized.org (www.supersized.org). Simply choose a domain name, click a few buttons and you are blogging with software powered by the Serendipity (www.s9y.org) blog system.

The services mentioned are merely a sample of some of today’s most popular blogging host solutions, most of which should be adequate for new and experienced bloggers.

Options, Considerations and Must-Have Features

Once you have set up a Web presence via your new blog, there are untold options at your disposal that can be tweaked to maximize the impact of your blog. Although many blog hosting services provide automated templates that do the behind-the-scenes encoding necessary to create a blog and its entries, the brave of heart can edit the source code to add various features and attributes. I must admit that I never felt like a true blogger until I got “under the hood” and messed with the code, which can be a disaster when it goes wrong but supremely gratifying when successful. (See “Resources for Beginning Bloggers.")

A few of the noteworthy considerations for the newborn blogger are:

Categories and tags. Most bloggers append descriptive categories or tags (similar to key words) to their posts, which spawn site hits via Web search engines. One of the first orders of business in creating a new blog is to address the issue of categories in general, and specifically, whether your blog hosting service provides that option. For example (to my great chagrin), Blogger doesn’t currently offer this feature, which is a must for a blawg. However,  there is a workaround tool — the Techorati Delicious bookmarklet tool (http://tedernst.com/TechnoratiDeliciousBookmarklet.html) that invokes Delicious (described below) to accomplish this function.

Delicious. In my humble opinion, Delicious (http://del.icio.us.com) is one of the most exciting new tools not only for bloggers but paralegals and other legal professionals, or anyone who does any kind of Internet research. Bought by Yahoo in 2003, Delicious is a social bookmarking service that allows users to tag, save, manage and share Web pages from a centralized source. If you think it sounds like Internet Explorer’s Favorites, think again. With Delicious, you can access your favorite sites from any computer, share groups of links that you have tagged (categorized) with others, and even export them to your browser as Favorites. With the “post to Delicious toolbar” button, adding a site is as simple as clicking your mouse and categorizing it with the appropriate tags. Delicious also offers blog integration with features such as Link Rolls and Tag Rolls (ways to display your latest Delicious bookmarks on your blog or Web site) and Play Tagger (a way to play MP3 files directly on your blog or Web site).

TrackBack and backlinks. Track­Back is a tool that allows a blogger to see who has viewed a blogger’s post and posted a follow-up or commentary to it. It works by sending a “ping” between the blogs that provides a notification to the source blogger. Note: TrackBack is a blog setting that usually must be enabled. Although Blogger doesn’t support TrackBack, it offers a similar tool, Backlinks, which when enabled, keeps track of the sites that link to your posts.

News aggregators or readers. Instead of individually visiting your favorite Internet sites every day, why not have the stories come to you in a central, organized location by using a news aggregator or news reader? News aggregators or readers cull news and posts from the Internet based on your predefined selections, and then directly deliver them to an assigned repository (either Web-based or local). With a click of a mouse, a blogger can permanently save the aggregated article, blog or other feed, or establish a hyperlink from it to a new blog post that links directly back to the original, aggregated item. Free services, such as Feed­Direct (www.feeddirect.com), even provide the code necessary to post on your blog a hyperlink directly to selected headlines. Bloglines (www.bloglines.com) and NewsGator (www.newsgator.com) are two other free online news aggregators. Also, Yahoo now offers a news reader, RSS Headline Module, for My Yahoo members.

Blogrolls. Consider adding a blog­roll to your blog. A blogroll is a personal collection of hyperlinks to other blogs that usually is published in a sidebar on the front page of a blog and commonly includes lists of blogs that the blogger subscribes to or regularly reads. Scoring a blogroll listing on another blog is one of the first signs that your blog is beginning to establish a Web presence.

Copyright issues. Because Web sites are protected by copyright law, before publishing a blog, consider how to handle copyright issues. Many bloggers publish under a Creative Commons license (www.creativecommons.org), which restricts how others can use or distribute their copyrighted material.

Getting noticed. To gain exposure for your blog, consider subscribing to a service that posts lists of recently updated blogs, such as Weblogs.com (www.weblogs.com). Another way to network with other bloggers with similar interests is to join a WebRing that collects Web sites and groups them by category. And don’t forget to submit your URL to blog search sites, such as Bloglines (www.bloglines.com), Tech­norati (www.technorati.com), Daypop, (www.daypop.com), Blogdex (www.blogdex.com) and blawg (www.blawg.org), especially for law and legal related blogs. Google Blog Search (http://blogsearch.google.com), currently available as a beta version, doesn’t yet have a form for manual submission of blogs, but it does automatically ping Weblogs.com for new listings.

Job Security by Obscurity?

Other issues that the wise would-be blogger should consider before posting that first blog are the potential unintended consequences of the subject matter or content of your blog — particularly with respect to your job. In other words, can you get fired for something that you post on a blog (your own or even someone else’s)? The increasingly frequent news of bloggers being fired for exercising their free speech rights via a blog suggests that it’s a good idea to find out beforehand whether your firm or company has a blogging policy, and whether it affects both private and firm blogging.

According to the blog, “Your Guide to Corporate Blogging,” by Fredrik Wackå of Sweden (www.corporateblogging.info), “Corporate bloggers are personally responsible and they should abide by existing rules, keep secrets and be nice. Those principles are the core of today’s corporate blogging rules.” At the very least, a blogger should establish some self-imposed editorial guidelines and stick to them if for no other reason than job security. Of course, there always is the option to blog anonymously.

The Adventures of Legal Blogging

Law firms, lawyers and legal professionals use blogs for a number of worthy reasons, including staying abreast of legal trends, law practice management and technology, and keeping clients up-to-date on changes in the law and other information that traditionally has been the fodder of newsletters (print or e-mail). Above all, blawgers blog as part of an overall marketing strategy. A well-written blog, kept up-to-date with current information, quickly can establish a blawger as an expert in a given legal field, leading to new business referrals and connections — the ultimate model of successful networking.

Some law firms use blogs as an adjunct to their traditional Web sites, with links to articles by category. Somewhere, there probably is a law firm that has set up a firm blog with staff-restricted access areas that serve as a firm-wide knowledge management system with links to firm news, policies, forms and information. The sky is the limit when it comes to possible applications for blogs in the modern law office.

As a paralegal, you can benefit from maintaining your own blog by posting useful information and resources, such as links to commonly referenced statutes, rules and tools, and obscure but useful bits of knowledge that the everyday paralegal runs across on any given day. Whether you participate in the blawging community as a blogger or reader, there truly is a goldmine of information available to the blawg-savvy legal professional. Remarkably, however, there is a huge vacuum in the paralegal blawg realm. My search revealed less than a handful of paralegal blogs after exhaustive Internet searches. Could this be your call to arms?

Before deciding whether to give life to your own blawg, here are a few pros and cons to consider.

First, the pros. Blogs are fantastic outlets for those who long to unleash their inner authors. Oh what a feeling — instant author, editor and publisher. In the short time that I kept up my first blog (roughly six months), I learned more about Internet resources and computing, met more great people (blawgers), and had more doors opened to me than I ever could have imagined. In fact, writing this article today is a direct result of my original blog.

But like most things in life, there are downsides to blogging, and first and foremost is the time demand authoring and maintaining a blog can place on already too-busy legal professionals. For example, news-type posts have an extremely short shelf life. To remain effective, these blogs must be updated frequently. Coming up with story ideas worthy of publishing to the entire world and being able to articulate them well on a consistent basis can be quite challenging. Also, if you don’t have a thick skin, blogging might not be right for you. As a whole, bloggers are super-sharp people with an incredible amount of collective knowledge. They will call you on even the slightest error or inaccuracy in a post, freely expressing their opinions via comments to your blog.

Blogging has an addictive and all-consuming attraction, which I learned first-hand can distract from or otherwise negatively affect your life or job if you let it. In my case, working as a full-time litigation paralegal and blogging into the wee hours most nights had a negative impact on my personal and professional life. I always was holed up researching or writing my blog, and then was less than sharp in the morning when it was time to go to work at my real job. Ultimately, I put the blog on hiatus, and am presently in the process of trying to resurrect it. In the final analysis, I have concluded that maintaining a blog is an extremely worthy and rewarding effort as long as you control it and don’t allow it to control you.

Is a blog right for you? Only you can answer that question. But you might want to keep in mind the gaping void in the blogosphere where paralegal blawgs should be. The blog world awaits, and inevitably will see the emergence of a pioneer to pave a path for a strong network of paralegals who share resources, tips, tricks, shortcuts and other helpful information. If you start a blog today, that pioneer could be you.  

 


 

Kim Plonsky is a paralegal with more than 25 years experience. She works for Craig A. Davis, a solo practitioner in Lafayette, La., who specializes in litigation of all types.

 

 

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