Social Media Perils: Attempted Impeachment By Blog Post?

Well, it finally happened.

We have long suspected that someday it would happen, but recently, it finally did happen.

Of course, we are referring to the possibility that an opponent in litigation might cite to our blog in an effort to defeat our argument in a motion hearing.

We’ve been blogging here at Abnormal Use for more than four and a half years, and it has finally come to be.

The scene was thus: I arrived at a county courthouse relatively early, as I like to have a few moments to myself before court convenes to review my notes and any case authority once more before the hearing begins. Lawyers were beginning to enter the courtroom, although the judge had not yet arrived. I was there to argue a motion which was opposed by counsel for the plaintiff as well as other parties in the litigation. As fate might have it, the issue was being litigated that day was a relatively novel one, and there was not a wealth of authority on the particular common law issue in dispute. Counsel for one of the non-movants came into the courtroom, and as we had not previously met in person, we introduced ourselves and exchanged the customary pleasantries. We even chuckled about a few events in the case, as lawyers sometimes do before a hearing, and we then sat down – apart from each other, of course, so that we could finalize our preparations for the imminent hearing. Put another way, we had to get into character.

A few moments later, counsel for the non-movant looked back and raised a packet of notes in the air. Atop the stack was a color printout of a blog post from this website.

The conversation began.

“I guess I am supposed to show you this,” counsel for the non-movant said.

“What’s that?” I replied, not yet seeing what my opponent held before me.

“My associate found this for me. It’s from your blog.”

“Oh?” I asked, now realizing that what the opposing lawyer held was a printout from our blog and seeing several highlighted paragraphs from the post in question.

She read me the title of the post, and I immediately realized that it was not one that I myself had written. Getting a closer look, I saw that the post had run in our blog’s very early days – 2010! – and that the post in question was more in the form of a case summary than an argument on behalf of a legal principle.

“I’ve never had anyone cite my blog against me,” I said. “However, I don’t think that’s one of my posts.”

Looking disappointed, counsel for the non-movant gave the printout a closer look and realized that the author was another attorney.

“Oh, you’re the editor of the blog.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

Counsel for the non-movement seemed a bit crestfallen, as if this particular arrow in the quiver was suddenly less effective or appealing.

Ultimately, the blog post was not used during the hearing.

So, in the end, we suppose that we dodged this particular social media peril. But we knew something like this would happen someday.

Existentialism and Legal Blogging

Recently, I found myself engaged in conversation with a past – and possibly future – legal blogger. The person in question – a lawyer who once regularly maintained a legal blog – had decided to abandon his site, perhaps due to lack of interest, perhaps due to lack of time. However, during the conversation, this former blogger revealed that he ultimately wished to return to the legal blogosphere. He had recently wiped the archives of his former blog from his site, but he wished to start anew with a fresh perspective and approach.

The dilemma: How to do so? And if so, when? It’s hard out there for seasoned blog writers and editors. As we here at Abnormal Use previously noted:

The enthusiasm of a new law blogger is unparalleled.  When a lawyer decides to blog, he or she has much to say and to offer potential readers.  Often, the new legal blogger already has several – perhaps even half a dozen – potential posts in mind.  In fact, it is that initial multitude of post ideas which prompts the desire to create a blog in the first place.  But, inevitably, as days pass, weeks go by, and weeks become months, the initial joy of blogging – like most other things that once made us happy – becomes a chore.  Sadly, the once promising blog evolves from a labor of love to a non-billable business development task, which typically falls to the bottom of the stack.  After all, non-billable work – particularly tasks which do not involve direct contact with actual or potential clients – must come second, third, or even fourth to other such plans.  This is why so many blogs die early deaths and why the legal blogosphere is full of blog graveyards.

As noted above, the issue confronted by this legal blogger is similar to those who wish to start their first blog, as well. The task of creating a site and regularly contributing to it is daunting. We, as lawyers and writers, tend to think of a blog post as a tedious task on our daily checklist; something that we must stop what we are otherwise doing in order to place ourselves in front of the computer, stare at a blank screen, and hope above all things that a topic materializes in our mind. But as we have noted before, it is a much easier task than that.

We, as lawyers, have a myriad potential posts in us. Any anecdote, complaint, legal pet peeve, war story, or off-hand thought on the latest court opinion can itself become a blog post. Any story that we have told at a party, over dinner, or at lunch with colleagues is fodder for a legal blog. Further, one’s immediate – or reasoned – reaction to another’s blog post is, itself, a potential blog post. In fact, it may be that once a lawyer begins to think of all of these things as blog posts that many such topics will come naturally.

Here at Abnormal Use, we have certainly utilized this approach. In addition to covering the latest products liability court opinions, we also discuss the perils of pop culture references at depositions, legal pet peeves, the existential dilemma prompted by one’s temporary loss of an iPad, and Foursquare check-in’s at state and federal courthouses. Of course, we have also written about the state and federal products liability jurisprudence, social media discovery, and the latest recall news. But’s all fair game and good blog fodder.

If You Blog It, They Will Come

An inexplicable coincidence happened some time ago.  I prepared a blog post about a new lawsuit filed in the area and saved the draft on our blogging platform and placed it in the queue for review by our editor. When we learn of interesting complaints in the area, we sometimes write about them, and this is what I did in this case.

The following afternoon, I received a call from a number I did not recognize.  The caller ID indicated that the call was from the corporate offices of the defendant in the lawsuit about which I had just drafted a post.  I assumed that the blog post had gone live and that someone was calling to discuss the post, clarify the facts, tell me to remove the post, etc. To my surprise, the caller was the in-house counsel at the defendant corporation calling to retain our firm in the that very lawsuit.  During the discussion, I checked our blog site and learned that my post had not yet gone live.  We took the case and elected not to run the post.

I have racked my brain in an attempt to understand this coincidence without avail.  Perhaps it was magic.

If anyone needs me, I will be typing a novel about a former litigator who had no choice but to retire at the age of 30 after winning the lottery five times in a row.

Blogs: A New Age of Credible Media (Sometimes)

Saying that the Internet changed media is an understatement worthy of a Nobel Prize. The days of reading the daily newspaper over a cup of coffee have been replaced with scrolling through RSS news feeds on a smart phone in between meetings. While the Internet has made news more accessible, many argue that accessibility doesn’t necessarily make for better news. After all, as the saying goes, “With the Internet, everybody becomes a journalist.” For every well-respected CNN or New York Times website, there is a Wikipedia or some other source of user-generated content which draws the ire of establishment critics. News is only as good as those that create it.

So, where should legal blogs fall into the mix? While none of us here at Abnormal Use are professional journalists, we take great pride in bringing you accurate legal news (with a touch of our own commentary, of course). At the end of the day, however, to many, we are still just a “blog” with whatever connotation that title brings. But, in this new age of media, shouldn’t some blogs be considered something more? We would never suggest that every blog carries the same weight of authority. Nor would we posit that a blog be viewed in the same light as a primary source. Nonetheless, when a blog such as SCOTUSblog, one of the preeminent news sources covering the Supreme Court, lacks official credentials to the Marble Palace, something seems wrong.

As the way we receive our media changes, so, too should the way that we perceive that media. Why shouldn’t a scholarly blog post be afforded the same level of scrutiny as a magazine article? We can verify sources and explore the credibility of the author from either form of media. The only difference between the two being the form in which the material is presented. A news source should be considered a news source regardless of the mechanism of delivery. Again, we would never suggest that Joe Schmo’s personal blog of drunken observations be afforded the same level of credibility as an article published in The New York Times. Nor are we suggesting that you view Abnormal Use in the same light as either. We only encourage you not to discount blogs because they are, well, “blogs.” News is only as good as those that write it. Check your sources. Check your authors. Make your own decision.

Ryan Steans: A Decade of Blogging

Congratulations are in order.  Friend of the blog, Ryan Steans, himself a long-time pop culture blogger, recently celebrated a memorable anniversary: his tenth year as a blogger.  Steans, who blogged first at a site called The League of Melbotis, and then at a sequel blog of sorts named The Signal Watch, deserves much praise for reaching this anniversary.  Long-time bloggers like Steans, and of course, Walter Olson of the Overlawyered legal blog, have dedicated substantial amounts of time to their websites and blogs. To reach ten years, well, that’s a lot of sweat equity.

We here at Abnormal Use, a baby in the legal blogosphere at only three years old, certainly understand the commitment required to maintain such an enterprise.  However, the diligence and discipline needed to maintain a blog for more than ten years – like Steans and Olson have done – is quite a feat, no matter the topic.  Accordingly, we applaud Steans upon reaching this milestone.

Steans is a long-time friend and former college classmate.  His blog typically centers around popular culture and events from his daily life.  His posts are often much longer than those you see here on Abnormal Use, and although he does not post every day, he posts often enough to suggest that it is, indeed, a full-time job for him.

What is interesting about his site is the manner in which he has created a community of readers.  That is quite an accomplishment, as many blogs come and go, live, and then die, without attracting much of a readership.  Steans, in the manner in which he writes his site, offers shout-outs to readers and encourages conversation.  Surprisingly, readers of his site – who had no previous connection to each other – have met and become friends after becoming initially acquainted on Steans’ site.  That sense of community, in part, is what has allowed Ryan’s blog to endure as long as it has.

We here at Abnormal Use have taken several lessons from Ryan and his long-time blogging experience.  We here try to foster a community of readers, both by adopting an informal style of sorts but also by utilizing social media in such a way to prompt interaction with our readers.  We are still working on that, and like any blog, this is still a work in progress, even three years in.

To date, we here at Abnormal Use have authored almost 900 posts.  We look back on that with some level of pride, and occasionally, we will peruse some of our favorites years after they were published.  In his own posts observing his milestone, Ryan remarks that he has authored “around 5,000 posts.”  There is something existential in his account of his site’s first decade, as he pauses to reflect upon some of the lessons he has learned in maintaining the site from his late twenties to his late thirties.

We congratulate him on this milestone.

On The Perils of Replying To Blog Comments

We here at Abnormal Use encourage our readers to comment on our posts. We can be a bit out-spoken at times (even blunt), so reader comments are a means of encouraging healthy conversation about those issues. Unfortunately, we sometimes allow that conversation to remain one-sided. We love reading your comments. Honestly, we do. When living the double life of the lawyer blogger, it is just hard to find the time to respond in the way you deserve. But one day, we promise to reply to each and every remark.

One day, we promise to reply to the 30 comments to our post about the potential biases of Hot Coffee documentary filmmaker Susan Saladoff. Perhaps, we will finally find the time to respond to one reader who asked:

By the way, exactly how much are you being paid for that “obligation”? I’m very interested in that “pesky little detail” of yours.

Sigh. Soon, we will let her know that we do not represent McDonalds, but we would love to do so, if she could get us connected.

Maybe, when we have a spare moment, we will respond to this comment, posted a year and a half after our story:

WHO WAS TELLING US THAT STORY [Stella Liebeck lawsuit]????? Why is it that Nick Farr, and the others who have posted demeaning and insulting comments about Susan Saladoff, did not ask themselves that question? Why is it that these folks did not ask themselves what the motivation was for the people who decided to circulate that total distortation of Stella Leibeck’s case?

When we have time, we will let her know that our goal has always been to put forward as much factual information as is available on the McDonalds case regardless of the “side” it discredits. It would also probably help if we pointed her to our expansive – and objective! – FAQ on the issue.

One day, we swear to finally chime in on the 33 comments to our Hot Coffee review. We need to respond to those comments that cited our jobs as defense lawyers and claimed that we were advocating tort reform via film review. We promise to give each of those the attention it deserves. We especially need to respond to this reader, who writes:

Remember the victim and take your beating like an adult.

We will finally let him know that the writer was a mere 14 years old and was more concerned with the perils of puberty than passing the New Mexico bar exam when the Liebeck verdict was rendered. As such, he takes no credit for the “beating” that occurred in the courtroom in 1994. Unless, the reader was referring to the fraternal order of defense lawyers in which we all share in each others losses. Once we have a moment, we will let him know.

One day.

One day, we will respond. We really will. We appreciate your comments and encourage the continued dialogue. One day, we engage in these debates. Just not today. Back to work.

On Blog Posts and Bumbo Baby Seats

A few months ago, just back from maternity leave, I blogged about how I was feeling so inundated with warning labels.  We had just finished a house renovation, and I’d just had my second child, so the number of warning labels on everything from the new tub to the baby’s carseat were starting to drive me a little batty.  Okay, it could have been the sleep deprivation too, but I did wax poetic on the warning labels issue in that post.

Case in point.  Recently, I received a notice by email and in the mail that there has been a recall on Bumbo Baby Seats.  If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a picture of one of these contraptions before the recall:

Now, I know it looks like a medieval torture device.  It’s not.  It’s one of the best baby products ever invented.  You put your not-quite-sitting-up-infant in the seat and WHAMO!  He can sit up!  The seat is light, and babies love it.  One important thing about this seat, or at least I thought, is that the baby is so wedged into the chair that he can’t tip it over, or tip himself out of it.  Both my sons have used the Bumbo, and neither one has ever tipped out of it.

Even before the recall, there were warnings.  Users are told not to use it in the bathtub or on raised surfaces, and there is also a warning to always watch your baby when he’s in it.  Well, it appears that wasn’t enough.  Apparently, some babies more determined than mine did, in fact, succeed in tipping themselves out of the Bumbo.  So, the company has issued a recall, and this is what the seat looks like since the company added a seatbelt:

And, of course, there is a new warning label to be affixed over the old one, something called “repair kit instructions,” and a video about how to properly use the Bumbo.

I know I’m being flippant.  Many infants and children are injured every year when products made for them are misused, or even when they are used properly (thus the recalls).  I’m not trying to trivialize those cases.  I do, however, see this as an example of the common sense filter I talked about in that prior post.

A quick comparison of the warnings included with the Bumbo prove my point.  The warning not to use the Bumbo in the bathtub is quite helpful–the seat resembles another product that is used to help a child sit up in the bathtub, and I can see how someone might confuse the two.  But an instruction not to leave the child unattended?  And a warning not to put a baby in the seat on a raised surface?  Come on folks.  That’s parenting/child care 101.  Those types of warnings are the worst, because they give us an excuse not to think for ourselves.  We get lazy, and believe that we need to be spoon-fed our own common sense.  We should expect–and want–better for ourselves.

Thoughts on the Legal Blogosphere

As we near the end of 2012, the “blogosphere” as we know it is now, depending on your estimate, about ten years old.  Of course, there were precursors to what we now know as blogs, and those proto-blogs, or whatever we want to call them, pre-date what came to be known as the blogosphere.  A few months back, Overlawyered celebrated is thirteenth anniversary, meaning that it began its existence in 1999.

I can remember reading Overlawyered in the law library of Baylor Law School in Waco, Texas way back in 2000.  (Ah, the days of yore and legal studies.). Considering the amount of work involved in perpetuating a blog, it is amazing that the site has endured as long as it has, especially in light of the fact that it is run by just one person: the indefatigable Walter Olson.

2002, though, was the year blogs officially burst onto the scene, and a handful of sites that began that year celebrated their tenth anniversaries this year.

However, many of the blogs that began that year – or in the years that followed – have sunk into the depths of the Internet ether. I recently stumbled across an old folder of Internet bookmarks from the 2000-2002 timeframe, and most, if not all, of those websites are now lost to history.  So too are many, many forgotten legal blogs, which began years ago and failed or died somewhere along the way.  But blogs like Overlawyered and others have long endured, and it’s fascinating to chart their evolution.  One of the joys of a blog’s archives is that a reader can revisit commentary and case law and trace the origin of issues over the past ten years. We can learn legal history from a blog’s archives, just as we could from a collection of a newspaper writer’s collection of editorial columns, and there’s some great value in such a repository of wisdom and commentary.

But, all this got me thinking about the nature of the legal blogosphere and how blogs evolved and what the future has in store for them. Are their efforts to preserve the state and federal legal commentary that has accumulated over the past decade?  Are there really readers who revisit blog archives to ascertain how issues were debated and consensus evolved?  With courts themselves now citing blogs, what efforts are being made to preserve and protect those entries? What use is a court’s citation to a legal blog entry if the blog no longer exists? What can we learn from 10 years of blog posts and accompanying reader commentary?

We here at Abnormal Use do not have answers to these questions.  We’ve only been doing this blogging thing for two and a half years. But they are questions worth asking.

It’s Hard Out There For A Blog Editor – Strategies to Keep Contributors Interested

As we’ve previously mentioned, our editor Jim Dedman is now contributing one monthly post to the North Carolina Law Blog.  Last week, his most recent submission was published at that site.  The topic: “It’s Hard Out There For A Blog Editor – Strategies to Keep Contributors Interested.” That one hits close to home, as we here know all too well about the perils of maintaining a blog.

The enthusiasm of a new law blogger is unparalleled.  When a lawyer decides to blog, he or she has much to say and to offer potential readers.  Often, the new legal blogger already has several – perhaps even half a dozen – potential posts in mind.  In fact, it is that initial multitude of post ideas which prompts the desire to create a blog in the first place.  But, inevitably, as days pass, weeks go by, and weeks become months, the initial joy of blogging – like most other things that once made us happy – becomes a chore.  Sadly, the once promising blog evolves from a labor of love to a non-billable business development task, which typically falls to the bottom of the stack.  After all, non-billable work – particularly tasks which do not involve direct contact with actual or potential clients – must come second, third, or even fourth to other such plans.  This is why so many blogs die early deaths and why the legal blogosphere is full of blog graveyards.

There’s lot’s more, so click here to read the rest, which includes some suggestions on how to keep writers interested.

Another Note on Civility – Legal Blogging Edition

We here at Abnormal Use have been doing this blogging thing for about two years now, and we still love it.  One thing we love in particular are comments from our dear readers.  Without you, we would not enjoy this enterprise nearly as much (and, without you, of course, there would be no reason to do it).  We also enjoy good-natured debates with those with whom we disagree.  One of our fondest memories from our college days is getting together with intelligent people with differing views and backgrounds and debating the issues of the day, whether they be political, legal, or social.  You can learn something when you engage in constructive debate with someone who disagrees with you.

Certainly, one of our frequent topics of discussion is the infamous and controversial Stella Liebeck McDonald’s Hot Coffee case.  Our posts on that topic have generated much debate.  Our review of Plaintiff’s attorney Susan Saladoff’s Hot Coffee documentary earned 30 comments, while our initial preview of the film and highlighting of Ms. Saladoff’s background as a trial lawyer received 25 comments.  Our objective FAQ file, which we assembled using the original pleadings, motions, and contemporary news coverage of the case, drew seven comments.  Even the post we authored calling for Ms. Liebeck’s attorney Reed Morgan produce the trial transcript of the case merited 11 comments.

And there’s more.  Even though some of these posts are months old, or even a year old, they continue to receive comments to this day.  Even our post commenting upon Ms. Saladoff’s appearance on “The Colbert Report” still gets a comment or two months later.  One such comment to that post, submitted by a Houston lawyer in late January, is as follows:

I’m amazed at the extent to which your law firm, years later, continues to cheer for a team that lost at the expense of public faith in a justice system that worked — whether you agree that it worked, or whether it serves you in particular, or not. There are salient facts on both sides of this issue. Yes, the coffee was very hot. Yes, she sat in it for 90 seconds. Yes, people should know coffee is hot. And yet, McDonald’s knew its coffee was dangerously hot and callously treated the risk to Ms. Liebeck as a mere cost of business. All of this evidence was heard by the factfinders, the jury. What matters now is that the factfinders heard the evidence — from both sides — and made a decision based on the evidence and the law it was charged to apply. As a member of the bar who has taken the same oath that (I presume) the attorneys in your firm have also taken, I think your continued biased commentary is irresponsible. I’m not saying that you don’t have a constitutional right to say it (questions regarding attorney ethics rules notwithstanding); you probably do. But I think you’re doing more harm than good to our legal system by doing so, and it’s ethically and morally irresponsible to continue to cry about how this jury was wrong and our system is broken simply because they dared to conclude differently than you would have them conclude. I would expect your biased editorialism from a college newspaper, not accomplished members of the bar.

Gee whiz.  For one, if every jury verdict is sacrosanct and immune from criticism of any kind, that’s going to put a lot of appellate lawyers out of business. Sure, we expect criticism and disagreement; that’s part of putting ourselves out there in the legal blogosphere. But our analysis and commentary on an infamous jury verdict is “irresponsible”?   Possibly unethical? Really? Can we no longer analyze and have some fun re-litigating a case which appears to have been misrepresented in the media by those from varying backgrounds, and before our acquisition of the pleadings and motions, discussed for years without reference to the original underlying documents? It’s harmful to our legal system to look back at reevaluate some of the decisions made by the lawyers, the trial court, and the jurors and gauge whether they were right or wrong? Must we consider those jurors infallible?

Sigh. I guess that’s what we get for engaging in this blogging thing. (And by the way, “biased editorialism”? Is there any other kind?)

Or, maybe we just hit a nerve and our making some points that those who have a vested financial interest in the jackpot justice system would prefer that we not make.