Blogging, Scholarship and the Bench and Bar Panel Recap

On Monday, we held a panel discussion on campus entitled “Blogging, Scholarship and the Bench and Bar.” Panelists included Paul Butler, Cindy Cohn, Judge Michael Hawkins, Larry Solum and myself, and the conversation was led by Nancy Rogers and Leigh Jones (a reporter at the National Law Journal). Larry Solum’s brief recap. The conversation covered a number of topics, but the main threads were (1) how can blogs help lawyers and judges do their work?, and (2) how does blogging fit into the activities of law professors? We have posted the video online; see here (this video should be accessible for 30 days).

Before the event, I was given a few questions that I might be asked. The notes I prepared in anticipation of the panel:

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“How much time should a professor spend on blogging? When is it too much?”

• Assuming that a professor chooses to blog…

• Minimum amount of time: enough to ensure that the posts enhance the professor’s reputation.

- This means extra time to clean up first draft writing and, more importantly, doing verification/fact investigation to ensure accuracy

- For example, I don’t blog on a case/statute unless I’ve read the original source material. No way that I would rely on news reports or other bloggers’ characterizations

- Very uncool for bloggers to spread misinformation

- I also do a precedent check to ensure my comments are adding new incremental material rather than rehashing.

- So I rarely post in less than 1 hour; I have spent 10+ hours on some posts

• Maximum amount of time: such that blogging doesn’t interfere with professor’s other duties

- From my perspective, blogging doesn’t displace obligation to produce legal scholarship

- So if blogging is preventing me from contributing to scholarly discourse through more traditional format, then I’m spending too much time on it.

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“How can someone tell the difference between a good blog and a bad blog? How can the reader know if what’s on a blog is accurate and truthful?”

• I try to avoid snap judgments about blogs I’m encountering for the first time

- I look at topical focus, length of time blogging, how regularly the blog is updated and if the posts look like they are adding new incremental material to the discussion.

- I also check external measures of popularity, like Technorati’s link count or Google PageRank

- When I find a topically relevant blog that looks like it has credibility and is being regularly maintained, I often add the blog to my RSS subscription list and “watch it” to see if I get new incremental and useful material from it. This also means that I regularly drop blogs from my RSS list.

• At the moment, I do not subscribe to any pseudonymous blogs.

- This is a matter of personal taste.

- For me, knowing the author’s identity is crucial to assessing the author’s credibility. I’ve also found that pseudonymous blogs tend to flame out quicker

- In many ways, my blog subscription list mirrors my social network—I tend to read blogs of people I’ve met offline and have developed trust in their expertise

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“What suggestions do you have regarding the format of law review articles that are drawn from your blogging experience?”

• Blogs offer quick publication, the ability to easily review cited sources, and often the ability of readers to interact with the author and other readers.

- Law reviews are already experimenting with similar offerings through online complements.

- However, law reviews are still trying to manage the community aspect. I’ve seen many journals with no comments; and others overrun by comment spammers and trolls—neither of which reflect well on the journal or make authors very happy

• The blogosphere’s quick publication cycles mean that new cases and statutes are digested very quickly.

- As a result, I think law reviews should categorically get out of the business of publishing case notes or recent updates unless they operate at blog speed.

- Otherwise, a law review has almost no chance of making any useful substantive contribution to the dialogue 12-18 months after a new case/statute when the blogs have already vetted the issue 12-18 hours after it occurred

• Law reviews also need to learn that publishing articles without additional marketing isn’t that useful for the journals or the authors.

- Therefore, each publication should be an event that sparks dialogue, which may require journals to more actively market new releases.

- Some journals have made limited progress on this front, but law reviews have a lot to learn from blogs about how to engage in bona fide conversations.

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“Law school gossip — who has an offer from what law school, for example — travels quickly on blogs. Has this been a positive or negative development on balance?”

• Blogs help form new communities that couldn’t exist in physical space

- For someone who doesn’t have physical access to information about law schools or law firms, blogs provide much needed access to very useful information

• However, “gossip blogs” can lead to unfortunate socialization

- Obsessing about every detail can lead to lots of efforts to improve relative positioning and make people feel like someone is always getting a better deal

- This can lead people to feel like they should be worrying about these details even if they otherwise wouldn’t care

- This is unfortunate, but it’s also the inevitable consequence of information democratization

• Blogs have also captured gossip that normally was ephemeral, but now this gossip is preserved forever and published to the world. Unfortunately, some of this gossip has had a greater detrimental effect than its off-line equivalent.

- Some of this gossip isn’t good, but it is inevitable, and I hope (over time) people will learn to better wield the power of publication

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I was also on deck to discuss gender disparities among bloggers–a topic I’m happy to defer to others. Cf. Dahlia Lithwick, who wrote that on the subject of the dearth of women opinion writers, men “are terrified to opine on the debate because the inquiry is so fraught with the possibility of career-terminating levels of politically correct blowback—à la Larry Summers—that they deem it better to hold their tongues and wait for the storm to pass.” In that vein, fortunately for me, this topic didn’t arise in the panel discussion.