Reflections On Other People’s Years

Today is my old friend, Carolyn Elefant’s, fourteenth anniversary of her blog, My Shingle. Carolyn started as the voice of solo lawyers in the blawgosphere, unattached to a practice area or substantive law, but advocating for solo lawyers as legitimate professionals rather than inferior “bumbling and harried rubber-soled creature[s] with a cheap briefcase bursting at the seams.”

Certainly I can’t deny that lots of great things have come out of blogging. Blogging has spawned wonderful, genuine friendships with other lawyers all over the country and given me a megaphone to voice my crazy views on the practice of law and our changing profession to a far broader audience than I could have ever accessed through the traditional legal trade press.

But then, fourteen years later little has really changed. Carolyn write sporadically these days, and even her anniversary post is caught up in the fake news fever of the moment, which too shall pass. 

When I started MyShingle and up until recently, I’d viewed the web and blogs and social media as a way to level the playing field; to give solos and small firms a voice that they didn’t have in trade publications like the ABA Journal or ALM Media and a competitive presence that they couldn’t otherwise afford with pricey advertising or exclusionary ratings systems. Over and over and over again, I railed against stupid bar decisions that cracked down on advertising that gave rise to deception that in my view, only the most moronic of consumers could ever believe.  Now, I’m not so sure that’s true—many indeed are gullible . Maybe Greenfield and those other bloggers with bite who criticized the alt.legals and other techno-driven schemes as dangerous to clients were really right all along.

Carolyn approached her positions with integrity; she believed what she advocated. There were curmudgeonly types who kept taking the wind out of her sails, pointing out that the world wasn’t all tech unicorns dancing on digital rainbows. The handful of blogging “thought leaders,” telling lawyers they better hop on the technology train before it passes them by are now largely forgotten and irrelevant.

Those who believed that they could create a fake internet persona and become important had their 15 minutes of fame and then, poof, disappeared from sight. The only people who even noticed their appearance were the cheerleaders who hoped for the same greatness to happen to them. It rarely did. A once-vibrant, if small, group of lawyers online has now become an adorable memory, with transitory silliness, like the ABA Blawg 100, struggling to find some zombie existence.

My old pal Kevin O’Keefe,* whose business, Lexblog, relies on the continued existence of a blawgosphere, took a punch to the gut when the New York Times, ever the trailing indicator of what’s cool, published Georgetown prof Cal Newport’s op-ed telling professionals to get off social media, that it was “the enemy of ‘deep thinking’ which in turn hinders professional development.” Newport never had a social media account, making him the perfect expert for such a conclusion.

Kevin watched the writing on the wall closely, as his bread and butter was at stake.

At law schools, it’s worse. Deans and career development professionals dismiss social media out of hand. Most warn law students to stay away from blogging and social media for fear students will say something that will forever haunt them.

But then John Warner challenged Cal Newport’s assertion.

Take two of Warner’s favorite scholars and professors, Tressie McMillian Cottom and Roxane Gay.

As women of color, history shows us they likely need to be better than “good” in order to receive the recognition that Prof. Newport believes will come if you do what the meritocracy asks. These women had every reason to believe that their being good would indeed be ignored.

And so each in their own way used social media not to tweet memes or fart around, but to advocate for recognition of their (and others’) “goodness.” In addition to their distinguished scholarly and professional work they utilized the tool of social media to become public voices. They made space for themselves that otherwise might not have been available.

It worked. Not only do Professors Cottom and Gay now frequently publish in prestige outlets like The Atlantic or the New York Times, but they also have established platforms independent of those outlets where they may be heard. Prof. Cottom’s essay “Finding Hope in a Loveless Place,” for my money the most profound work of commentary in the wake of the recent election, became a viral read after being posted on her own blog.

Look at those who have achieved so much through blogging and social media on the law.

Instead of a defense of social media, this may be its most misguided condemnation possible. Roxane Gay? This Roxane Gay? This is your paragon of social media virtue? This is the example upon which you hope to sustain your business empire?

If Gay is the best you’ve got, you’re dead.

In a few months, SJ will hit it’s tenth anniversary. Most of my blawgy buddies are gone, at least as regular blawgers. Some turned out to be whores and assholes, but it was too hard to tell at the time because on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog. Eventually, though, you figure it out if you want to. Few really want to. Most readers just want to read someone who can put into words what they want to believe to be true.

Over the past decade, I’ve tried to keep it real. N00bs came here and told me what my motives were, what I was doing, what I was doing right and doing wrong. Some, like Grandma Judith, became my foils for a good laugh. It never mattered to me, as I wasn’t here to sell anybody anything. Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.

But ignoring the flavors of the month, the iToys, the overnight heroes, the vapid and terminally unattractive, hasn’t necessarily served me well. Once great blogs are now empty shells living off legacy eyeballs and clickbait headlines. Monetizing the internet has made a few wealthy, but I never tried to make money off SJ, and was very successful in that regard. There was neither wealth nor prestige to be had, but I did make enemies by calling out ugly babies.

To what end? Lawyers never flocked to the blawgosphere. Some still have pseudoblogs as marketing tools, though they’ve never been sure if they actually worked. Many paid mopes and dopes to create fake news for self-promotion, often at the expense of their integrity (not that anyone gave a damn, as long as it could potentially earn them a quick buck).

Is there any point to it all? Has it changed anything? Well, sure, to some extent, but hardly to the extent one might have hoped when it was all shiny and new. On the other hand, the legal profession, and society in general, seems worse off now then it was 14 years ago, or ten years ago. Stupider. Struggling harder. Buried deeper and deeper in extreme and irrational views and confirmation bias.

Since I always wrote for my own amusement (despite the n00bs’ projections of my evil motives), not to sell my wares or for your edification, I can slough off the state of affairs. I had low expectations, and I met them in spades. No mainstream newspaper ever called me to ask if I would consider becoming their crim law columnist.** Not even an online magazine. Whether it’s because I suck as a writer or just don’t have as much to offer as, say, Roxane Gay or, God forbid, Shaun King, I can’t say. Or maybe people just aren’t interested in what I write about. Who knows?

SJ still has readers. A lot more than you would suspect, but not as many as it had a few years ago. I want to believe it’s because blawgs, once considered short-form writing, are now too demanding, too time-consuming, if they try to offer anything remotely resembling thought. Twitter is so much easier and more fun, even though it won’t last too much longer either.

Some day, there may be nothing left but the true fake news of 23-year-olds with 300 word listicles informing us of legal news through their heartbreaking yet exhausting lens. Just as you get the elected officials you deserve, so too are you fed the information you deserve. Ten years is a lifetime in internet years, and SJ is now ancient. Nothing lasts forever.

Happy anniversary, Carolyn. Keep the faith, Kevin. I miss the old days too.

*Most of us old-timers were friends. Even when we disagreed, which was fairly often, we still liked each other as people and respected what we were trying to do. Some couldn’t bear criticism, too fragile to engage in the online give and take that created community, largely because this was all about money and self-aggrandizement. They were furious when someone undermined their desperate self-promotion, their happysphere, by disagreeing. Who they are no longer matters. They no longer matter. They were phonies to begin with, and were buried along with their name.

**In fairness, I’ve been informed by an editor at the New York Times that I should have submitted posts here as op-eds there, and they would definitely have published them. My reply was that, unlike people who seek self-aggrandizement, I don’t solicit publication. If they want me to write something for them, all they need to do is ask. They never have.

20 thoughts on “Reflections On Other People’s Years

  1. Windypundit

    You say no mainstream newspaper ever called you to be a columnist, not even an online magazine. But then you don’t even mention that you started your own online magazine of sorts. You and Lee Pacchia seem to be building something pretty cool at Fault Lines, and I think you can count it as one of the better results of your blogging.

  2. Jim Tyre

    When Carolyn started her blog, her blogging platform of choice was Slash, the code that powers Slashdot (and many others). There was no way that a mere mortal lawyer could set up and properly maintain Slash. I know, because I had a group blog that was powered by Slash. She had help in that department from her late husband, who was an excellent tech, while one of my other group bloggers was one of the Slash developers. It wasn’t until later that more user friendly (less user unfriendly?) blogging platforms were created.

    I’ve no idea whether My Shingle would have started but for the in-house support. But I’m thankful that her blog has been round for a very long time, and yours for almost as long.

  3. John Barleycorn

    Relax bubble boy!

    You can still find a tailor or two with the chops to  fit you into that “look”  Lenny Bruce brought to that album cover of him having a picnic in a graveyard.

    You could probably pull that off too.

    What a “scary” concept…

      1. Michael Lockard

        First, I also miss Lenny Bruce, and I really miss George Carlin

        Second, as a non-lawyer who occasionally gets a word in, I love your writing and wit. Instead of the ol’ physical paper in days of yore, I read your articles every damn day. I don’t understand them all the time, but I thoroughly enjoy how you approach things.

        Congrats on the decade, and thanks for sticking it out

  4. B. McLeod

    Well, hey, being “right all along” ought to be worth something. Also, I have no doubt you would be welcome as a Criminal Law columnist at ATLS (not really a particular honor). I have always wondered about Carolyn, and whether she is related by descent to the great Baroness Nairne of similar name, who was a famous Jacobite poetess and songwriter (the equivalent of “bloggers” in that day).

    1. SHG Post author

      Heh, that and $37 will get me a ride on the subway.

      One of the core difference of opinion Carolyn and I have long had is her belief that watering down certain ethics proscriptions on lawyer advertising doesn’t hurt clients. She maintains that clients aren’t fooled by liars. I maintain clients can tell lying lawyer apart, and the internet has not only been the great equalizer (in good as well as bad respects), but enables younger lawyers to lie through their teeth, which they do with shameless abandon. That’s not my profession, but then, maybe it’s not my profession anymore.

      1. B. McLeod

        Some clients want lawyers who lie. Even commercial business clients. I have always marveled at this, but it does not seem to occur to them that the lawyer with no ethics will turn on them when the moment suits. Of course, for a criminal defendant who is looking for a “one-off,” and not for a longtime counselor or advisor, that’s far less of a consideration anyway. I think that’s one reason why the openly sleazebag ads have the pull they do. “Look, I’m a criminal too” is what a lot of these people are looking for, probably not realizing it does not translate to the best representation in court.

        1. SHG Post author

          An issue addressed here previously many times. But clients want the lawyer to lie for them, not to them, particularly when the lie involves a lawyer’s grossly overstating his competence or concealing his inexperience.

            1. B. McLeod

              If only there were a progressive initiative, to improve the Latin of criminal defendants, how society might be remade!

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