Is blogging a useful business development tool?
The folks who sell blogging platforms to lawyers say that blogging is the route to riches. But bloggers themselves are far less certain whether blogging actually generates business. What’s the truth?
Let me start with my personal experience; I’ll conclude with a thesis. The personal experience is just the facts — what I did as a blogger, how successful the blog was, and how, if at all, I profited from the experience. (I’ve previously recited parts of this story in both the print media and elsewhere. I’ll try to add a few new thoughts here.)
What did I do as a blogger? For three years — from October 2006 through December 2009 — while I was a partner at Jones Day, I co-hosted the Drug and Device Law Blog with Jim Beck, of Dechert. We wrote almost exclusively about the defense of pharmaceutical and medical device product liability cases. We affirmatively chose to have the blog co-hosted by partners at two different firms, for two reasons….
The first reason was mutual respect: Jim and I had both practiced in the field for a long time, had worked together in the past, and had published a fair amount in traditional media on related topics. We trusted each other to produce the volume of stuff needed to fuel a blog.
The second reason for having two competing firms co-host the blog was to maintain plausible deniability. We figured that, if we typed enough words, we’d eventually say something that would come back to haunt one of us (or our firms). If the blog was co-hosted by people at different firms, each blogger had plausible deniability — “I didn’t write the crazy stuff! That clown Beck did!”
We originally planned to publish only two posts per week (one apiece). We soon realized, however, that we would attract more readers if we added new content to the blog daily. Thus, for nearly three years, I wrote three or four blog posts per week, and Jim wrote one or two. (This arrangement was actually more equitable than it sounds: He wrote the long, smart posts that required legal research; I did the easy stuff.)
How successful was the blog? By the time I left the Drug and Device Law Blog (and the private practice of law) in December 2009, the blog’s readership had grown to something north of 30,000 pageviews in a typical month. (That’s quite good by “niche blog” standards, but abysmal for a blog aimed at a more general audience. Above the Law, for example, can get 30,000 pageviews in a single business hour on a typical weekday.) Drug and Device Law’s readership, so far as we could tell, consisted of (1) other lawyers at large firms who defended pharmaceutical product liability cases, (2) plaintiffs’ lawyers who labored on the opposite side of that “v.,” (3) in-house lawyers at drug and device companies, (4) government officials interested in our field (we received, for example, occasional hits from the FDA and Congressional offices), and (5) other publications, including folks who wrote both at blogs and in traditional media.
We received a fair amount of attention for a niche blog. The ABA Journal repeatedly recognized us as one of the “Top 100″ legal blogs. Other blogs linked to us regularly. We were mentioned in the mainstream media occasionally, including most notably one day when the New York Times did not simply quote us, but actually published our url in the print edition. For a little blog, we did okay.
How, if at all, did I profit from the blogging experience? Let me start with a disclaimer and then count the ways. First, the disclaimer: It’s awfully hard work to fuel a good blog. If you publish one post a week, announcing “truk acident on I-95! Hire me!,” your experience may not resemble ours. That’s it for the disclaimer; now let me count the ways in which we profited from blogging:
1. I became a better lawyer. To fuel the blog, I had to analyze new decisions (and, heaven help me, law review articles) as they were published. I had to think about those subjects and then write articles commenting on them. This is more professional reading than a sane person would choose to undertake, but it does make you a better lawyer.
2. We influenced the law. Most prominently, we proposed an idea for a new FDA regulation in our blog and saw that regulation enacted within two years. We later heard an FDA official mention in a speech that the idea for the regulation had come from our blog. We also influenced the public debate on legal issues in our little sandbox, as other blogs, law review articles, and the popular media addressed issues that we raised. And we may well have improved the quality of advocacy in our specialized field of law, because we freely shared with other defense lawyers new ideas, arguments, and best practices for defending pharmaceutical products cases.
3. We became unbelievably plugged in to events in our area of law. As our readership grew, people came to view us as an important presence in the drug and device field. Our readers would send us, for example, new decisions within minutes after they were handed down, briefs that made interesting arguments, information about grants of certiorari and other breaking news in the field, and so on. Our blog, by its mere existence, suggested that we were near the center of the drug and device universe, and over time that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
4. We dramatically raised both our personal profiles and our firms’ collective profiles in this particular field of law. Within our niche, we became startlingly well-known. When we attended conferences, strangers would say, “You do the blog?! I’m delighted to meet you.” The General Counsel of Merck actually asked a mutual acquaintance to introduce the GC to me. If you’re trolling for business in the drug and device field, that’s a triple. (It would be a home run if the guy actually retained you.) And the mainstream media noticed the blog, too. As a result of our blogging, we appeared on CNBC and Bloomberg TV. We were quoted in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and countless regional publications across the country.
5. We received invitations that further raised our profiles in the field. People who sponsored conferences about drug and device issues were keen to have us participate — in part because we might know something about the subject, but more because, if we were speaking at a conference, we could be counted on to mention the conference on the blog and link to the conference registration materials. There’s nothing like providing free advertising to make you a popular speaker. We were also solicited to write articles for publications large and small. The most notable invitations that came my way resulted in my publishing bylined articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune.
6. We got our book deal. Oxford University Press contacted us about writing a treatise on defending drug and device cases. Beck had already written a book in that field, so he declined. But I accepted, recruited a co-author, and then wrote my chapters. The co-author is now finishing his piece, and we expect the treatise to be published in 2011. (That would have been a coup, I think, if I were still in private practice. Fat lot of good it does me now — from a business development perspective, anyway — given that I’m in-house.)
7. We had fun. Blogging is terribly hard work, but it’s very rewarding, in a weird sort of way. That’s worth something.
But now the grand finale: dollars and cents. Did the blog bring in business?
Here’s the bottom-line truth: As a result of the blog, I was retained to write one amicus curiae brief in an appeal, which we agreed to do for a flat fee. I agreed to write another amicus curiae brief in a different appellate case free of charge, in part because the party that asked for help was a drug company, and the assignment offered a chance to create a new relationship. And I was contacted about endless other stuff — such as representing plaintiffs (not my business), writing other pro bono briefs, and so on — that didn’t come to anything.
So, is blogging worthwhile?
It depends on what you want. A law firm will pay a lot of money to run advertisements to raise awareness of a firm’s name. Our blog resulted in “earned media” exposure — newspapers voluntarily choosing to quote us — that would have been worth a ton if you had been forced to buy the same exposure with advertising dollars. We also “touched” clients and potential clients regularly, because those folks read our posts (and heard our on-line voices) regularly. Ultimately, that exposure and those touches are worth something — maybe a great deal — but you may not be able to tie a particular retention to your blogging work.
Ultimately, however, our (or at least my — I don’t know about Jim’s) actual, dollars and cents, return on investment was pretty thin: One flat-fee appellate brief was the monetary payoff for maybe ten hours of work every week for three years. I shoulda flipped burgers at McDonalds.
Finally, my thesis: Whether blogging makes sense as a business development tool depends on your particular situation. Firms specializing in personal bankruptcy buy advertising space on billboards and time on television. Maybe a good personal bankruptcy blog would be a business magnet. So, too, for plaintiffs’ personal injury work, which seems analogous from a business development perspective. Eric Turkewitz, for example, writes a solid blog in the personal injury field; maybe he can tell us if it’s landed him any business.
For other fields? It depends. I didn’t land any pharmaceutical mass torts from my blogging, but who would pick a mass tort defense lawyer based on blog posts anyway? And Jones Day is probably sufficiently high-profile in the mass tort field that its successes in that area wouldn’t be affected by my “poor power to add or detract.” I similarly suspect that a hot-shot international M&A lawyer at Cravath wouldn’t cause the phone to start ringing off the hook if she started blogging about international M&A deals. If you work at at a big firm that’s already prominent in some field of law, then your firm already has the connections, and the blog just won’t tip the scales.
(In that regard, I’d be curious to hear from Russell Jackson, at Skadden. He writes the very nice Consumer Class Actions & Mass Torts blog. If a big firm blog can bring in business, that one oughtta do the trick. I know that Russell thinks his blog makes him a better lawyer, raises his profile, and is a hoot to write. He’s surely correct on those scores. But what about bucks, Russell? Is your experience the same as Beck’s and mine? I suspect that it is — essentially no new business — although of course I don’t know for sure.)
What about other firms or other situations? I can only guess. But it wouldn’t surprise me if a medium-sized firm in Wilmington could attract a retention or two as local counsel if it blogged about some aspect of Delaware corporate law. Both corporate clients and lawyers at other firms might follow that blog, and they might think of you for a lawsuit in Delaware. Similarly, you might build a perfectly nice niche practice if you staked out and dominated a particular field in the blogosphere. (So far as I can tell, “Escheat Audits in Colorado” is wide open, and that might be the sort of thing that works. Go for it!)
(I just realized that blogging yielded one other (arguable) benefit for me: I’m not sure that Lat and Mystal would have asked me to write this column if they hadn’t been familiar with my previous work in the blogosphere. So blogging yields more opportunities to blog, just like first prize in the pie-eating contest.)
Think hard about what you want to achieve, and whether you have a chance of achieving it, before you start the long, terribly difficult project of fueling a blog many times each week. Blogging can be very rewarding in many different ways, but it will create only a very few (if any) serious rainmakers.
Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law.
You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.