It’s not often I can derive a blog post from a tweet, but Debbie Weil‘s recent Twitter entry sent me to this thought-provoking post at CopyBlogger, and got me thinking about the purpose of the legal blogosphere. Brian Clark’s entry talks about the phenomenon of “social proof” — people’s tendency to judge the quality of a thing, in the absence of other reliable indicators, by its popularity — in the context of social media. Among other things, social proof is the fatal flaw behind Digg’s claim to be a useful news filter, and to my mind at least, connects up with Jeff Jarvis’s recent admission that editors are necessary after all. (HT to Nick Holmes on that one.)
But as Clark points out, social proof is also dangerous because “[s]ometimes, your message inadvertently convinces people to do or accept the opposite of what you want…. [S]ocial proof tells us it’s okay to do what we already want to do. This isn’t all bad, especially when it involves the acceptance of your message. But it can also result in negative social proof, in that it motivates people to do the opposite of what you want because you’re trying to change behavior already supported by social proof.” He cites examples like littering statistics leading to more litter and suicide coverage leading to more suicides.
This got me thinking about law blogs, particularly those that, like this one, want to encourage positive change in how the legal profession views its role, manages its business and serves its clients. You might have noticed, if you read (or write) these blogs or are familiar with the whole LPM genre, that a common tone in these conversations is frustration, if not exasperation, with the irrationality and immovability of the status quo. More hair has been pulled out over the billable hour, the alienated client and the overworked associate than any of us care to think. I now wonder if we haven’t been part of the problem.
If social proof operates in the legal blogopshere, then we run the risk that by constantly returning to the foibles and failings of traditional lawyer business practices, we actually reinforce them. Your average lawyer who happens upon a blog post railing against the billable hour, and promoting all the competitive benefits that would flow from changing your approach, probably doesn’t think, “Ah! You’re right! There’s a better way to go, and I can profit from following it.” That lawyer probably thinks, “See? Most lawyers, like me, still bill by the hour and keep their clients waiting. I’m not the odd one out, and I’m in no danger of being left behind.”
What can we, who write about these subjects, do to avoid reinforcing what we’d prefer to erase? Our options are admittedly limited: when most lawyers are doing it one way, and human nature is to do what most people do, we’re kind of up against it.
But I think we can refocus our efforts to find examples of lawyers thinking differently and acting innovatively, and to broadcast those examples with sufficient frequency and volume so as to disrupt the notion that “everyone’s doing it the old way.” The Financial Times’ innovative lawyers list is a good example, but I’m especially proud of the College of Law Practice Management’s Innovaction Awards (which I’m chairing this year), which specifically seek out the pioneering innovators in the law and promote their achievements. We need to accentuate the positive, to shake the perception that it’s okay for lawyers to walk the old ways because they have lots of company. We should do all we can to make the traditional road feel a very lonely one.
And this gives me a segue into responding to a meme I received a few days ago (on my birthday, no less) from Mary Abraham at Above and Beyond KM, asking a simple question: “How do you decide how/what/when to blog?” The “How” is: at a keyboard, with coffee, whenever I’ve got a story I need to tell. The “When” is: whenever an opportunity presents itself, which I can tell you is not nearly as often as I’d like.
But the “What” is the most important: I want to write articles that help advance the day when the power of social proof works to benefit lawyers and their clients, not hinder them, because the old ways of doing business have fallen into disuse. I want to write about the legal profession as it should be, as it could be, and as, increasingly, it is.