What Makes a Law Blog Credible?
The American Bar Association is circulating a survey soliciting the views of law bloggers on numerous topics, including a pair on questions on the credibility of law blogs.
What makes a blog credible to you? Select all that apply.
- Years of experience
- Substantive area of law or practice covered
- Tone of the blog
- Frequency of posts
- Other …
How credible do you find blogs within a law firm’s website?
- More credible than an unaffiliated legal blog
- Less credible than an unaffiliated legal blog
- As credible as an unaffiliated legal blog
The various indicia of credibility suggested by these questions intrigued me, because they’re not factors I would have guessed would influence the credibility of a law blog. I’ll be very interested to see how experienced law bloggers answer these questions when the survey results are released, likely in December when the ABA Blawg 100 List is announced.
Credibility From a Journalist’s Perspective
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, “credible” means “offering reasonable grounds for being believed.”
This is a useful definition because it links credibility to article attributes — e.g., “grounds” — that would reasonably lead the reader to believe the matters asserted in the article.
The definition is empowering as well, because it makes clear that the writer completely controls whether the article (or blog post) will be found credible by the reader.
The following list of credibility-enhancing attributes are drawn many years of writing about legal developments for a news organization. These attributes were baked into company culture — particularly the tight bond between objectivity and credibility. And most of them are Journalism 101.
Modern readers decide for themselves whether material they encounter online is credible or not. Branding matters little, in my opinion, particularly among consumers of law-related information.
Nearly all of the credibility-enhancing attributes listed below are about giving the reader the tools to make an informed judgment about matters asserted in the post. The more of these credibility-enhancing attributes a blog post possesses, the more effective it will be at enhancing the author’s reputation as an expert in his or her field.
Named Author. Having named attorney associated with the content of a post is vastly preferable to publishing a post authored by “admin” or “Blog Editor.” Blogs that sustain themselves with freelancers should identify a partner or associate willing to review work by freelancers and publish those posts under their own names.
Contact Information. Prominently displayed contact information indicates accountability and credibility.
Publication Date. A publication date allows the reader to decide whether the information is fresh and relevant. Because dated posts are the norm, the omission of a publication date is a red flag for a reader.
Bloggers are justifiably worried that older material makes their blog appear dated. The solution is to blog more often — not to remove the date from posts.
Indicia of Access. If you’re on a drafting committee or have inside access to matters asserted in the blog post, be sure to mention these connections. Blog about meetings you’ve attended, or industry conferences related to your practice area. Drop names. It all bolsters your credibility.
Objectivity. If your law practice serves the pornography industry, then you might gain clients by blogging about “jack-booted thugs trampling the First Amendment.” For everybody else, however, objectivity and intellectual rigor will enhance your credibility in the eyes of the reader. Blog in a measured, balanced tone. Remember: Judges read blogs too.
This advice is particularly apt today, when accusations of “fake news” are commonplace and readers have a heightened sensitivity to perceived bias in the materials they encounter online.
Instead of writing that a particular ruling was a “mistake” or “erroneous,” consider using flat, non-judgmental phrases such as:
- “affected industries will be disappointed” or “surprised to learn” about a particular development
- “the ruling will create unanticipated compliance obligations”
- “the ruling is at odds with precedent elsewhere”
- “the court appeared not to credit evidence in the record that …”
Typos and Grammatical Errors. The condition of an airliner’s cabin is irrelevant to whether the plane will safely navigate from Point A to Point B. Nevertheless I feel a lot better when the plane’s interior looks clean and new. Similarly, careless errors drain blog posts of credibility. A typo here casts doubt on an observation over there. Even worse: Readers make adverse judgments about a lawyer’s professional ability if blog posts are carelessly published.
Links to Source Documents. Source documents simultaneously permit writers to anchor their views to an authoritative text and permit readers to assess the credibility of the writer’s analysis.
Direct, Plain English. Two attributes are in play here: clarity of view and clarity of expression.
Regarding clarity of view, writers and lawyers have an obligation to extract meaning from difficult, possibly ambiguous material. A writer that hems and haws and hedges and qualifies is making an enormous demand on the reader’s patience. When blogging, have a point. As Kasper Gutman said in The Maltese Falcon, “Here’s to plain speaking and clear understanding.”
Regarding clarity of expression, needless words and passive, broken-down grammatical structures create an impression in the reader’s mind that the writer doesn’t know what he or she is writing about. A well-edited text is a credible text.