Somewhere between fusty law treatises and Twitter lie law blogs, many of them written by the top legal scholars in the country. Just five years ago, the notion of law professors delivering quick and cogent commentary to the masses — with the opportunity for instant feedback, no less — was a novel concept. Today, it is rare for law schools not to have at least two or three professors on faculty who regularly tap away at their blogs, often with their morning cup of coffee or after they’ve put the kids to bed at night.
The National Law Journal has profiled some of the pioneers in law blogging. Their online endeavors keep readers current on topics ranging from Sixth Amendment rights to tax law, from faculty appointments to securities fraud. Their work has given legal scholars a greater voice in the public forum and brought recognition to the schools they represent.
— Leigh Jones
Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
For anyone who thought law blogging was just a hobby for professors with too much time on their hands, Douglas Berman dispelled that notion in the medium’s infancy. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court cited Berman’s blog in U.S. v. Booker, an important precedent governing criminal defendants’ constitutional rights during sentencing.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” said Berman, founder of the blog, Sentencing Law and Policy.
The high court’s reference to Sentencing Law and Policy delivered a major credibility boost for law blogging. “The Booker citation was a recognition of, and catalyst for, law blogs’ influence on courts, the legal profession and legal education,” said Paul Caron, a University of Cincinnati College of Law professor who was one of the earliest, and still among the most active, law bloggers.
Since Booker, there’s been a proliferation of professor-bloggers. Berman’s exact contribution to that growth is hard to measure, but it’s clear that the reference took law blogging to a new level.
Following Booker, Berman appeared on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer to discuss the decision. Hits on his blog skyrocketed to 20,000 on the day that the Court issued the opinion.
The Court’s reference to Sentencing Law and Policy occurred in a footnote to Justice John Paul Stevens’ dissent. The justice referred to a memo written by Christopher Wray, assistant U.S. attorney general at the time, that Berman had posted on his blog. Wray’s memo identified the U.S. Department of Justice’s strategy, in light of recent court decisions, of presenting evidence to juries for sentencing purposes under then-evolving Sixth Amendment law.
“In a sense, I was publishing documents through the blog,” Berman said. He was sent the memo by a source he still won’t disclose, saying only that it was a private attorney who had previously worked as a federal prosecutor.
A professor at Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law, Berman teaches criminal law and sentencing. He graduated in 1993 from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review.
The blog, which usually gets about 3,000 hits per day, is integral to his job, said Berman, who spends about 10 to 15 hours per week on it. He is “joyous about the forum,” he said, adding that it not only forces him to keep current with legal news but is also a source of ideas for scholarly writing.
Since he began the blog in 2004, Berman has learned to rein in his impulse to post fast-and-furious reactions to news and events. “I’m certain I burned some bridges early on because I was excited about saying things that were provocative,” he said. “Over time, I’ve gotten more sensitive to being more mature, to resist the significant urge to go for the quick, sexy, clever comment.” He’s learned to avoid the temptation to fan controversy to get more hits, he said.
Berman also exercises that self-discipline because he wants to serve as a model for his students. The blog, he said, helps him fulfill the three missions of his career: teaching, scholarship and service. — Leigh Jones
University of Cincinnati College of Law
If you ask Paul Caron whether law blogs are an oasis for thoughtful discourse or just more Internet noise, he’ll point to the tax case Murphy v. IRS, which came before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in 2006.
The court issued a controversial ruling that a long-standing provision of the tax code was unconstitutional, and Caron’s Tax Prof Blog quickly became ground zero for analysis, discussion and criticism of the decision. The mainstream media picked up the story and the circuit panel agreed to rehear the case, overturning its decision the following year. Many of the briefs cited blog commentary and newspaper editorials that grew out of the online uproar.
To Caron, Murphy demonstrated the power of the legal blogosphere and its ability to drive the discussion of legal issues in real time. Law professors can weigh in almost instantly, instead of publishing a law review article months or even years after a key ruling.
“Without having inside knowledge, I’ll believe to my dying day that [the court's decision to rehear Murphy] just wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago,” said Caron, a professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
Caron started Tax Prof Blog in 2004 as an outgrowth of a tax law e-mail listserv he maintains. His blog was the first in the now 40-strong Law Prof Blogs network in which professors write about their areas of expertise.
“The idea is to have a professor who wades through the torrent of stuff that comes out on any given day and picks out the six or eight things they think would be of particular interest,” Caron said.
The blog is a labor of love for Caron, who spends an average of five to six hours a day reading material and writing posts early in the morning and in his evenings at home, often with the Cincinnati Reds playing on the television in the background. Technology such as his RSS feed makes combing through a massive amount of content easier. He estimates that 25% or more of his posts are the result of tips from readers, who span from Internal Revenue Service employees and other government workers to tax attorneys and law students.
Caron has considered enlisting co-bloggers to help carry the load but has always decided to maintain Tax Prof Blog himself. “For now, I’m kind of too possessive of the voice and presentation on the blog,” he said. “For better or for worse, Tax Prof has a distinctive approach and distinctive voice. It’s 100% Paul Caron.”
The benefits of the blog have crossed over into the classroom, where Caron routinely uses examples of the real-world tax issues he writes about to keep students engaged — such as the property tax implications of the popular television show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
It’s his blog, moreover, that has made him a recognized figure in the tax community. “I joke that I know what the lead on my obituary will be,” Caron said. “This is my contribution to the business, I guess. It fees like the blog unites a lot of folks in the field who check it every day.” — Karen Sloan
University of Illinois College of Law
Christine Hurt learned the hard way that starting a blog can be a tricky endeavor. In 2004, the University of Illinois College of Law professor persuaded a group of about a dozen female corporate law professors to start BizFemsSpeak — a title she readily admits was ill-conceived because it proved difficult to say and spell.
A bad name wasn’t the only problem. Only one other blogger besides Hurt posted with any consistency.
“To get started blogging takes a big jump,” she said. “It takes a leap of faith for people who are used to vetting their writing and having people read it before publishing. The thought of throwing something up on the computer scene for the whole world to read in five minutes doesn’t resonate with a lot of people.”
BizFemsSpeak petered out just a few months after its premiere.
Out of that rocky start, however, a new blog was born. Hurt teamed up with Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School professor Gordon Smith, who already had his own blog, to form The Conglomerate in November 2004. The Glom, as it is known to readers, now boasts six writers. The blog centers on business law issues, though Hurt notes that it includes plenty of off-topic posts on subjects such as movies and football.
“I get a lot of comments from people who say, ‘I’m not that interested in corporate law, but I’ll always read when you blog about movies,” she said.
The Conglomerate has a devoted, although not overly large, readership compared to some other law professor blogs. It averages about 1,000 unique Web site visits a day with an additional 2,000 who read the blog via an RSS feed.
That’s just fine with Hurt, who said that obsessing over blog traffic is “so 2006.”
“I think there are some pluses to having a established readership,” she said. “Commenters tend to know us. When I write something, I think our regular readers know when I’m tongue-in-cheek and when I’m in good faith.”
Hurt is among the relatively small group of female law professors with high-profile blogs. The most obvious example is Ann Althouse, a University of Wisconsin Law School professor who has cultivated a big following for her blog, simply called Althouse. It mixes politics, popular culture and constitutional law.
Hurt has grown weary of contemplating the reasons why women seem to lag behind men in the blogosphere, but she is familiar with the prevailing theories. They include everything from women being too sensitive for the rough-and-tumble Internet to not having enough time to blog because of family commitments.
Hurt is reluctant to ascribe to any of these theories without empirical data about how many female law professors are actually blogging, and whether they enter and leave the blogosphere at different rates than their male counterparts.
For Hurt, who has three children, The Conglomerate has been key to developing her career without relying too heavily on traveling to conferences and workshops. It has also helped her stay up-to-date on legal issues that she can write about and discuss in class.
“I believe that blogging is amazing for women,” she said. “It has been a great way for me to use my time.” — Karen Sloan
University of Chicago Law School
Brian Leiter insists that he’s misunderstood. “I have a strange sense of humor,” the legal blogger said. “I think I’m humorous, but sometimes people don’t pick that up.”
With a healthy dose of sarcasm and plenty of professor job news available nowhere else, Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports has become one of the most popular blogs among legal academics.
His criticism of U.S. News & World Report‘s law school rankings and their effect on law school operations has been scathing. His posts on politics and trends in academics can be barbed. Recent headlines on his blog include, “Does President Obama Have a Backbone?,” “So-Called Legal Empirical Studies” and “More Nonsense about the Supposed Disadvantage that ‘Conservatives’ Face in the Legal Academy.”
A professor at University of Chicago Law School, Leiter began his blog in 2003 as part of a consortium of blogs spearheaded by Paul Caron, professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. Leiter was teaching at the University of Texas School of Law at the time. In addition to Law School Reports, he writes Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog. That blog is billed as “news and views about philosophy, the academic profession, academic freedom, intellectual culture…and a bit of poetry.”
But it’s Law School Reports that is the big attraction for law school professors and administrators. It gets about 2,300 hits per day during the school year. He posts information about professor salaries, visiting professor positions, diversity among faculty, accreditation standards and new legal scholarship. He closely follows deanship appointments and the movement of professors from one law school to another. But besides the ribbing — or drubbing — that he inflicts on fellow academics and public figures, his posts can be poignant. He includes academics’ obituaries, for example.
One of Leiter’s most notable series of posts was about the firing (and rehiring) of Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of University of California, Irvine School of Law. Leiter credits himself with breaking the story about Chemerinsky’s appointment as dean to the school that started in 2008 and his firing just days later because of his liberal views. Amid an outcry from fellow academics and Chemerinsky admirers, the university rehired him a few days after firing him. Leiter’s blog tracked every move.
“I helped Erwin get his job back,” Leiter said.
Chemerinsky, a noted constitutional law scholar who went to Irvine from Duke Law School, said Leiter is “enormously influential in the law school world.” He added that Leiter is one of the country’s top scholars in law and philosophy.
Leiter spends up to three hours each week writing the Law School Reports blog. He does it, he said, as a service to the legal academic profession. Although it may have raised Leiter’s profile, Leiter said the blog played no role in his 2008 move from the University of Texas to the University of Chicago. He does credit his blog with directing more traffic to his scholarly work. His scholarship focuses on the intersection of law and philosophy. Leiter has a law degree and a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Michigan. He’s written and edited books about Nietzsche, law and morals, and the future of philosophy. — Leigh Jones
University of California at Los Angeles School of Law
Eugene Volokh was skeptical about the Internet’s potential for mass communication back during the 1980s, when he was a computer programmer.
“I didn’t see the explosion of the Internet outside the world of techies,” said Volokh, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law. “I thought, ‘Come on! How many people are going to read what someone has to say on the computer?’ ”
As it turns out, a lot of people.
The blog he started in 2002 — The Volokh Conspiracy — now averages between 25,000 and 30,000 unique visitors a day. Volokh became a blog-believer after getting hooked on Instapundit, the popular blog written by University of Tennessee College of Law professor Glenn Reynolds. After inundating Reynolds with ideas for posts, Volokh took Reynolds’ advice and started his own blog with the help of his brother, Sasha, then a law student.
The Volokh Conspiracy‘s stable of writers has since grown to about 20; they supply a daily stream of content that focuses primarily on the intersection of the law and public policy. Volokh serves as the blog’s curator, recruiting one or two colleagues per year whose work he finds interesting.
Although he controls who blogs on the site, Volokh takes a hands-off approach and encourages contributors to post whatever they find interesting — be it an analysis of a legal issue or a photo of bears. Recent posts included dissections of court decisions, the controversy concerning the release of military records by Wikileaks and the Proposition 8 same-sex marriage court case.
“One of the advantages of having a group blog is that one can be part of a joint project with people you like and admire with a minimum of the overhead and hassle that has historically been associated with group projects,” Volokh said.
The blog has cultivated a hefty contingent of commenters, and it’s not unusual for a post to generate upward of 100 comments. Policing for inappropriate or offensive comments can be a pain, but the interactivity is an important feature, Volokh said.
“Some of our comments are superb, and we get some very interesting and eye-opening feedback,” he said. “My sense is that having comments increases the readership of the blog.”
Volokh teaches free speech law, criminal law, tort law, religious freedom law and church-state relations law. Before going to UCLA, he clerked for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and for Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.
It’s not totally clear what effect the blog has had on Volokh’s career. Writing posts takes time away from his scholarship but also exposes him to new ideas and promotes his research and articles.
“It seems to me very likely that my blog leads many more students, and some measure of lawyers, judges and reporters, to know my name and pay attention to things I say,” he said. “It’s all about eyeballs, and the blog gives you eyeballs.” — Karen Sloan