Abnormal Interviews: Ernest Svenson a/k/a Ernie the Attorney

Today, we here at Abnormal Use continue our series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which we conduct brief interviews with law professors, practitioners and other commentators in the field. For this latest installment, we turn to Ernest Svenson of the Svenson Law Firm.  He’s a New Orleans attorney and author of the old school law blog, Ernie the Attorney, which began in 2002. As a longtime legal blogger, he knows quite a bit about legal technology, blogging, and social media, so we thought we would pick his brain about those topics. He was kind enough to agree to an interview.

1. You’ve been a legal blogger since 2002. What is the biggest change you’ve noticed in legal blogs since that time, and is it for the better?

The biggest change in law blogging has been the explosion in the number of law blogs and the topics covered. Definitely a wonderful development, in my view. Lawyers are powerful information processors. We can output and consume prodigious amounts of information, and we can parse information for reliability better than most other professionals. Not all, but most.

When I went to law school law reviews were a staple source of new legal analysis, and I was fortunate enough to be an editor of the law review at my school. I have a very strong appreciation for how intricate the process was to publish a law review, especially how long it took. Word processing tools were complicated and expensive, and distribution wasn’t cheap either. Now a law professor who wants to comment on a new legal development can bang something out in a few days, or even a few hours, and upload it to his or her blog where it’s instantly available to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. To me, this is an amazingly beneficial development.

2. What’s the next big thing in social media that attorneys should be aware of?

Google+ seems to be hot, but I’m not sure that it is of high value to attorneys. At least not yet. Frankly, I think that attorneys are still struggling to assimilate some of the “old things” in social media. Divorce lawyers are probably the most keenly versed in the implications of social media in litigation, especially Facebook. But social media will have implications in many spheres besides just litigation.

Still, if lawyers want something to focus on I’d say “geo-location” tools like Foursquare or Facebook Places. As more people buy and use smartphones with GPS capabilities, we’ll see more social networking platforms that leverage information about where you are. This can be good for users (if they want to find a nearby place to eat or buy gas) or bad users (if they inadvertently reveal where they are when they intended to conceal their location, or lie about it). But, whether you view geo-location as good or bad, you need to pay attention to it because it will inevitably be more prevalent.

3. These days, there are many, many social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and now, Google Plus. How can attorneys maximize their use of social media without becoming overloaded or spreading themselves to thin with so many sites?

Information overload has two components: output and input. Mostly people fret about receiving too much information. I agree with Clay Shirky (the NYU professor and prominent speaker and author) that we don’t have an “information overload” problem so much as we have a “filter failure” problem. We need to find better ways of filtering inbound information. My main tools are: (1) RSS readers, (2) Twitter and (3) trusted agents (which are really just sub-filters that feed into my RSS Reader).

For information that one outputs, again, there are tools. I have three blogs, or four, if you count my law firm website, and just as many Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. If I had to login to each of those places and post stuff I’d never get anything else done. I use a service called SocialOomph that lets me dump things into buckets that then get parsed out on a regular schedule. Discovering this tool was a boon to my workflow and has eased my stress at the same time that it gives the impression of increasing my output.

4. What do you think is the most overlooked social media utility for attorneys? Why is it overlooked?

Twitter. Before Twitter appeared I spent a lot more time with my RSS Reader, constantly tweaking the information stream so that I could get a strong mix of opinions and viewpoints as well as breaking news. Twitter now supplies that to me with virtually no tweaking, and I can gather that same information as easily on my smartphone as I can on a computer.

Lawyers, and others, tend to dismiss Twitter by saying “I have nothing to say on Twitter.” Fine, but many people that you would find interesting do, and you are missing out on an efficient way to tap into those opinions by ignoring Twitter. Sure, you have to curate your Twitter feed to capture useful views and not shallow ones. But that’s not as hard as most people think, and so they stick to gathering news from traditional sources which have filters to be sure, but filters that are preset for mass markets.

5. As the general public increasingly uses the Internet and social media to communicate, how do you predict that state bars will react to the popularity of this social media among attorneys?

State bars are not as behind on social media as many lawyers think. The Louisiana Bar, my state bar, has a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. Other local bar associations have adopted social media as a cheap and yet effective way of communicating with its members. I predict that social media will be embraced by all bar associations eventually. Proprietary communication methods seem useful, until you realize that getting people to adopt a new communication platform is harder than herding cats. Facebook and Twitter may have funny names, but if more than a half a billion people know how to use those tools it makes sense to use them to talk to your constituents.

6. How can smaller firms and solo practitioners utilize social media and legal technology to simulate the advantages of a larger law practice?

Small firms have advantages now that we are only just beginning to become aware of. Larger is not better unless being larger helps tackle and otherwise insurmountable problem. Small firms can market better now because of social media and the internet, and they can collaborate with other practitioners anywhere in the world. That which is digital moves more quickly to more place and can be analyzed more precisely.

A small firm that wants to become paperless can do so much more quickly than a large firm. And at a much lower cost. Large firms have bloated overhead and are more easily trapped into longer term contracts. All of those large costs have to be passed on to clients. Small firms can work smarter and take advantage of innovation faster, thereby lowering their cost and delivering better service to their clients. Obviously, this assumes that the lawyers in both small and large firms are of the same caliber.

I believe that the quality of lawyering is not dependent on how large a firm is, but rather upon how clever the individual lawyers are. Being clever in arguing the law is paramount, but—increasingly—so is knowing how to use technology to gather information better and faster. Technology is increasingly important in how we persuade. An old (but wise) judge recently admonished a group of lawyers in New Orleans that “jurors expect lawyers to present visually compelling evidence,” adding that any lawyer who says “I’m too old to fool with this technology stuff” when addressing a jury is basically saying “I don’t know how to read very well.”

I couldn’t agree more.

BONUS QUESTION:  What is your favorite pop culture depiction of legal technology?

Probably The New Yorker cartoon where a guy with a hood is robbing a bank and the teller informs him politely that “You know, you can do this just as easily online.

BIOGRAPHY: Ernest Svenson graduated from Loyola Law School in 1985 and then spent two years clerking for the Honorable Adrian Duplantier in the Eastern District of Louisiana.  He has practiced commercial litigation since then, first for a well-respected New Orleans law firm, and more recently as a solo practitioner.  He has started several weblogs, including PDFforLawyers.com and DigitalWorkflowCLE.com.  His Ernie the Attorney site (ernietheattorney.net) was chosen by the ABA Journal as one of the top 100 law weblogs two years in a row.  He believes that the practice of law is largely an “information processing business” and tries to help lawyers find more efficient ways to process their information. You can follow him on Twitter at @ernieattorney.

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