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Caveat Emptor & The Benefits of Blogging

Caveat emptor is Latin for “Buyer, beware!” Because of the history behind the phrase, it really means a bit more than that, which is one reason I used the Latin instead of just saying it in English the first time.

It means more in this post, too, because it aims both at lawyers seeking to grow their practices and people in trouble who might read a lawyer’s blog. Among other things, I want to explain why I blog, what I hope to accomplish with my blog and, maybe, how that can help a few others out there avoid the money-traps set by snake-oil salesmen.

For starters, there’s more than one reason I blog; there’s more than one thing I hope to accomplish.

First off, let’s get one thing clear. The primary reason I blog is that I can’t not blog. I’ve been blogging about one thing or another since before it was called blogging; since before there was blogging software. I maintain several blogs. I also keep a private journal. Writing is just something I have to do, the way other people (well, actually, me, too!) have to breathe.

But that’s not the only reason I blog. I also blog because I’ve learned that it’s a good way for people to learn a little bit about me. I blog here (i.e., on a law blog) because it gives people a chance to think about what kind of lawyer I might be. Folks can learn a little bit about my philosophy, my attitude, my approach — and they might get the idea that I know a thing or two about what I’m doing.

That surely couldn’t hurt.

This is where it starts to shade into what I hope to accomplish by blogging. In a way, what I want to accomplish, while not exactly identical to why I blog, is closely related, like the flip side of the coin, so to speak. You can’t have heads without tails; while the designs on each side may be different, it’s still one coin.

What I hope primarily to accomplish is to get the monkey off my back. As I said, I have to write. Already I chafe at the fact that doing my job, being a criminal defense lawyer in Fresno, California, keeps me from writing as often as I’d like.

I’d also like to engage people — both attorneys and non-attorneys — so that I can learn from their input, although I’ve been somewhat less successful at that. When I’m incredibly lucky, one of my posts will inspire someone else to blog, but I’ve yet to stimulate much discussion on my own blogs the way some of the better bloggers, like Scott Greenfield, do.

Continuing the “other side of the coin” motif, I hope to help others learn, when they’re trying to find a lawyer, whether I seem to be the lawyer for them. Many people are regular readers of my blog, but most people here find me by googling “Fresno criminal lawyer” or “Fresno criminal attorney,” or some similar phrase. They’re seeking an attorney to help with a specific problem.

That’s why I — unabashedly — occasionally include phrases in some of my posts, like I did in the last paragraph, that I hope will help people seeking a criminal defense attorney find me. Because one of the things I hope to accomplish by blogging is to attract potential clients. It’s not the only thing; it’s not the primary thing; it’s one of the things. As I said, I’d blog even if that didn’t happen, but I don’t ignore the fact that people coming to my office frequently tell me they found me because of my blog and because after reading a few articles on my blog, I seemed like the kind of attorney they wanted fighting for them.

Something else I should say about the blogging for clients thing: If you blog primarily for clients, you’re less likely to get them. It’s like the old adage “do what you love, the money will follow.” If your goal is to get rich, you usually don’t achieve it just by trying to get rich; you do something you can be committed to doing. Your commitment is what pays off.

This is just another version of the message that Scott Greenfield, Brian Tannebaum, and myriad other blogging and Twitter-using lawyers try to communicate. Blogging won’t make you a better lawyer. (There’s an argument that can help you to be a better lawyer, but I’m not going to make it here. And to the extent it helps, it only does so in a minor way; certainly not enough to justify blogging if being a better lawyer is your only goal.) Anyone who thinks it will already has more problems than this article is going to fix.

So why did I include “caveat emptor” in the title of this post? Because — not surprisingly to anyone who knows me — I found inspiration for this article while reading some other blogs. Jamison Koehler wrote a post about how he was “Disenchanted with Avvo.” And Michael Matlock, writing on The Matlock Blog, wrote a sad commentary on so-called “superlawyers” in his article, “This Is What It Means To Be Super?”

Both articles discuss lawyer advertising. Koehler does it directly, by talking about how Avvo convinces lawyers to buy its advertising services and what that brings (or doesn’t) in terms of building a practice. Matlock tells about the proliferation of “awards,” noting that “some, it seems, have become no more than a marketing ploy.”

I, too, have been down that road (well, the first one, anyway: to date I don’ think anyone has tried to give me an award). The first year I spent lawyering I probably spent half my income on advertising. I bought yellow pages; I bought radio; I bought flyers to hand out at events. None of these things brought me clients. Despite the promises of yellow pages companies, one ad, which cost me $8000, brought me one — yes, one! — phone call the entire year it was out: from someone looking for a job.

Each of the last two years, I’ve begun to learn my lesson and I’ve cut back on advertising. Today, there are two places left that I advertise and I intend to cancel one of those as soon as the contract expires.

Today, although I didn’t plan it that way, blogging is my primary “paid advertising.” I pay my hosting company about $250 per year for it. Even there, it’s not necessarily the number one draw for clients: It will come as no surprise to Scott, Brian, or any of the others to know that the number one way I get clients is by referral from other clients (past and present). A close second source is my blogging.

As Michael Matlock’s article makes abundantly clear, advertising does nothing to inform potential clients that the lawyer whose advertising they’re reading is the best lawyer for them. Nor does the occasional article — even one declaring them to be “superlawyers” — in a newspaper or magazine, or on some lawyer-oriented website like Avvo. These days, there’s no way of knowing why the website, magazine/newspaper article lauds the attorney; it could just be part of the advertising package, or it could just be because the lawyer has a high-volume, but not necessarily a high-quality, law practice.

A lawyer’s blog can help here. If you don’t know someone who can provide a good referral, if you don’t know a good lawyer yourself, you can learn a little bit about the attorneys you find on the Internet by reading what they write. Don’t read one or two articles; read a few. The more the lawyer has written and the more you read, the more you can learn before choosing a lawyer. Some law blogs exist only as marketing tools. If you read enough, you can figure this out.

The bottom line here is this: blogging provides an outlet for lawyers like me who can’t not write about the things we see, the things we believe and how we think things should be. Thus it also provides a means for potential clients to get to know us; it can separate us from the thousands of other attorneys out there with websites, but no blogs.

Caveat emptor, after all, doesn’t just mean “beware”; it alerts the buyer to check things out before buying.