I joined LexBlog in January with the goal of helping it launch a global news and commentary network based on content from legal blogs. In furtherance of that goal, we announced in April that we are opening participation in the network to all legal blogs, without cost and without regard to whether the blog is a LexBlog customer.

Since then, I’ve been wrestling with a thorny question: Are there legal blogs that we should exclude from the network and, if so, what standards should guide us in deciding which to exclude?

There are two sides to this issue.

On one hand, I am a First Amendment purist. I believe that lawyers who blog should have complete editorial freedom and discretion to write about whatever they want. To be clear: LexBlog exerts no editorial control over the content of the posts you read on LexBlog — they are solely the product of the lawyers and firms that publish them. 

On the other hand, we are creating an editorial product that we hope will provide value to readers. To accomplish that, we aspire to adhere to editorial standards befitting our readership. While we would never be involved in the content of specific posts, we can exercise discretion in the selection of blogs that participate in our network. 

To my mind, providing editorial content of value means, among other things, excluding blogs that are primarily spam. Of the blogs that have applied to join our network so far, we have rejected at least two because they struck us as overt spam with no editorial value.

You’ve all seen these kinds of lawyer blogs. They are loaded with SEO keywords about accidents and victims, followed by a call to action to hire an “experienced (fill-in-the-blank) lawyer.”

But I am also noticing a grey area of blogs that walk a fine line between marketing spam and legitimate content.

Editorially, legal blogs are two-headed creatures. They are valuable vehicles for publishing legitimate news and commentary. But they are also, in most cases, marketing tools designed to increase exposure and draw in business.

Whether explicitly or not, almost every blog post written by a lawyer is meant to send the message, “Hire me!” Relatively few legal blog posts cross the line into pure spam, but the majority of them are marketing, even if subliminal.

Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote of obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” As someone who has spent most of my career in publishing and journalism, I can say the same about spam.

But, in fairness to those who submit their blogs to us, can we define an explicit standard to guide our acceptance or rejection? Where do we draw that line?

I asked the editors of the ABA Journal whether they apply any criteria to screen the blogs they include in their Blawg Directory, which lists more than 4,500 law blogs. Sarah Mui, assistant managing editor (Web), said that they do not apply quality criteria. She primarily checks that it is, in fact, a law blog, and that it is active.

The closest they have to “quality” criteria, Mui said, are those that they apply when accepting nominations to their annual Blawg 100:

  • We’re primarily interested in blogs in which the author is recognizable as someone working in a legal field or studying law in the vast majority of his or her posts.
  • The blog should offer insights into the practice of law and be of interest to legal professionals or law students.
  • The majority of the blog’s content should be unique to the blog and not cross-posted or cut and pasted from other publications.
  • We are not interested in blogs that more or less exist to promote the author’s products and services.

That last bullet begs the very question I’m wrestling with. In the end, perhaps the only workable standard is no standard, but rather to rely on the “I know it when I see it” exercise of editorial judgment and discretion.

I would love to hear from you. Should there be an explicit standard for accepting or rejecting law blogs as part of our network? If so, what should it be? When does a blog cross the line from editorial legitimacy to objectionable spam?

In another era, I would be an Excel jockey; instead, my true love is Google Sheets.

As Scott Fennell and I have continued to hammer away at working on the new LexBlog.com, my eyes have gone red staring at more spreadsheets in Google Sheets than I’d care to admit. I’m using these spreadsheets for two reasons:

  • Validate that the shape of the data on our test aggregation site (i.e., the future LexBlog.com) matches the shape of the data on each test source site (i.e., all of the client sites that we manage)
  • Derive some understanding of the organization of things on the current LexBlog.com

The reason I’m using Google Sheets for all this is simple: It’s fast, easy, and requires very little from me to maintain the approach.

Continue Reading How We’re QA’ing The New Aggregation Engine of LexBlog.com

Happy national donuts day! On a day dedicated to donuts, it seems fitting to write my first post in a blog about donuts. To stick with the donut theme, I’ll be dedicating this post to a favorite GIF emoji on the LexBlog team: Donut Parrot.

The Donut Parrot!

When we have a moment to take a break from our ticket queues, many of us at LexBlog like to virtually congregate in our team chat feeds to share jokes, interesting articles, solve problems and of course – send lots of emojis! Since we’ve added Slack as our team chat app, we’ve accumulated a sizable collection of GIF based custom slack emojis. As a company of donut enthusiasts, the donut parrot is one our most frequented emoji choices. Along with donut parrot, a few other parrot emojis have been pretty popular on our slack channels as well.

 

 Meet fiesta parrot.

 

And my favorite, coffee parrot!

 

Apparently we’re not the only ones who appreciate parrot based GIF emojis. Brittany Levine Beckman shared a story in Mashable about how the Cult of the Party Parrot GIFs have taken the internet and tech company Slack channels by storm.

There’s something hypnotizing about the quirky emoji that’s gotten humans to spread his gospel far and wide. He can be found on Slack, Reddit, t-shirts, in programming terminals, in an Android mobile game, and iMessage (there’s an app). You can even turn all the images you see online into party parrots with a Chrome extension – although it’s not a good look.

 

As silly as it may seem to write a post about GIFs and emojis, it’s undeniable that sharing a good GIF can add some humor to someones day and lighten the mood. I’ve definitely appreciated seeing the latest additions to the LexBlog GIF collection. In the spirt of Donut Parrot, have a happy Friday and donut day. Go treat yourself to a good maple bar, or a funny new GIF!

Donuts are such a big deal at LexBlog that we name our products after them. Apple Fritter is not just a sweet sticky treat to us. Heck this post is on donuts.lexblog

An interesting article regarding remote workers found its way into my Facebook feed yesterday about how remote workers outperform office workers.

The argument was made that remote workers were more productive than office workers. Remote workers also make better teammates and have fewer absences.
The article does makes a great case for working remotely and even makes the point that companies may be wasting resources on in-office perks. There is some truth in that but what about the donuts!!!!

When Josh sends out an email announcing the arrival of a sweet dozen from Top Pot everyone takes note and makes a mad dash for his office. Unproductive time or a fun break to get your daily sugar fix and have a brief chat with your fellow coworkers/donut junkies?

I think the jury will be out on working remotely for some time to come. It works well for some individuals and perhaps not so well for others. Some organizations will be able to accommodate employees who wish to work remotely while others may not.

At Lexblog some of our team live out of state, while others work remotely periodically throughout the work week. This kind of flexibility is just one of the things that makes LexBlog a great place to work. Flexibility, great coworkers, great customers and DONUTS!

Last month LexBlog opened its aggregation service to the outside world. This is something we have wanted to do for a while, but it has taken us a while to get to a place where we are comfortable.

Our philosophy behind this was pretty straightforward, a rising tide lifts all boats.

The more publications we have, the greater exposure we can bring to publications on the network. A month in and that seems to be working and more people are contacting us to join.

And the timing is great. Very soon we are going to be launching a new LexBlog, built upon a more solid technical foundation. Everything seems to be coming up LexBlog, but sadly we did not anticipate something. Immediately upon opening the doors, we hit up against an issue we should have considered.

What are out criteria for accepting publications? Do we reject people? If so, how do we do that without sounding like jerks?

At first, we thought, let’s just bring everyone into the fold. This sounds wonderful in theory, but as you might guess, when you try to be truly open you attract a lot of people whose content is at best advertising and at worst, SPAM.

Very quickly we realized we needed to have more strenuous review criteria. This has fallen upon our Publisher & Editor-in-Chief, Bob Ambrogi to figure out.

Throwing humans at this problem is not ideal. If we really want to expand LexBlog, we need a better solution. One that doesn’t need to consider the publication or even the author, but instead reads the actual post. This means machine or deep learning.

So, will future iterations of LexBlog know good content from bad content without human oversight? Is that even possible? I am an optimist and a fan of technology, so I am going to say, “yes.”

Whatever we do develop to solve this problem, it will be more compelling than having humans do it. More importantly we will learn from it while continuing to make mistakes. Doing so we will sharpen our technical chops and at the same time grant us a deeper understanding of the core nature of legal publications that will enable us to help improve them.

That is why everyone here signed onto do this and so onward we go.

A company’s website can be an amorphous thing. A place that tries to be something to everyone that visits.

Most product-based websites are attempting to sell you something. Whether that’s a dream, a physical object, a service, or a piece of software the goal is to take you from visitor to lead to customer. This process of conversion is well-studied and cottage industries have grown around helping businesses convert website visitors to leads.

For a time, LexBlog’s website tried to act as this funnel using relatively standard techniques. Early iterations had clear calls to action for purchasing something. Later, “more sophisticated”, approaches had landing pages for different personas and extensive product tables.

Today’s version is the closest version to what I’m comfortable with as a LexBlog employee. We’re no longer pushing LexBlog and our products through our website. Instead, we’re shining a light on our customers and the people that want to join us in our mission to broaden the discussion of the law online and make that discussion freely available to anyone that is interested.

This shift has not been without it’s struggles. To get to where we are today, we had to first take the website formerly known as LXBN and put a better dress on it. This included not just updating the design of the site, but bringing it into out platform in a more formal fashion by opening up subscription options to publishers on our platform. We then had to move LXBN to become the new LexBlog.com. We did this almost under the cover of night last winter with our CTO, Joshua Lynch, working his domain magic to get the hardest parts done.

While we’ve come a long way, the version of LexBlog.com that you see today is full of warts and issues. These are things that perhaps only I can see, but that if we’re serious about our mission, everyone will see sooner or later. The tools we use to aggregate our customer’s content are the same ones that we used in 2011 when LXBN.com was launched and I can only describe them as lossy. We can and should do better, which is why the product team at LexBlog has, over the course of the past several months, been working on more advanced and faithful ways to pull content into LexBlog.com and treat it in a way that respects our publisher’s actions on the platform, and provides greater context to readers that come to the site.

In layman’s terms this means better post attribution, better organization by source (i.e., by blog) and by membership (i.e., the organization – be it a law firm or legal company – responsible for publishing), and a foundation for future iterations around search and subscriptions.

In technical terms, this has meant a deep dive into the WordPress REST API by Scott Fennell and Angelo Carosio – LexBlog’s dynamic developer duo – so that we can keep our network of 1000 blogs, 15,000 publishers, and nearly 400,000 posts in synch with LexBlog.com. This has been no easy task, and in many ways, the core WordPress work of building out custom REST endpoints has been the easiest. The real trick has been looking at the tools we’ve layered in (additional profile meta, content reassignment tools, etc) that our publishers have access to, and making sure that when they take an action, it’s reflected over on LexBlog.com.

Practically, this means when a post is updated on Kevin, our CEO’s, blog, a request is sent to LexBlog.com to update the corresponding post there. Or if Bob Ambrogi, LexBlog’s editor-in-chief, posts a new article on a piece of technology he’s interested in on his LawSites blog, that post goes right over to LexBlog.com – in full – and is properly attributed for the audience there to read.

This is all still a work in progress. We’ve only just come to a point in the project where I feel comfortable talking about it out loud instead of in a company Slack channel after getting through some of the more complex bits of debugging that we’ve had to endure at LexBlog. To take this from a project in the LexBlog lab and move it into the light is going to take some serious elbow grease. While we don’t have a set launch date for this project quite yet, I’m continuing to be optimistic that we’ll make significant progress before we’re too deep into the Seattle summer.

But what will the finished product look like? Ultimately, it will be similar to what you see today. A place where we continue to highlight the best legal content on the web and bring together opinions from all over the globe on the shifting landscape of the law. A point of pride for me as a LexBlog employee has always been the level of care we have for our client’s work. The company that we are today is because of them. It feels good to build LexBlog.com as a vehicle for their work, not ours, all in an effort to bring the law online.

As Bob Ambrogi shared this morning, the LexBlog news network is now open to all legitimate law blogs (with a working RSS feed) – in the United States and worldwide.

Starting Friday evening I began emailing law firm marketing leaders attending the Annual Legal Marketing Association Conference in New Orleans whose large firms blogged, but not on the LexBlog platform. By last night I reached thirty-plus firms.

My purpose in emailing was to let them know LexBlog was open to their blogs, to introduce them to Bob, who is spearheading things as our editor in chief, and to offer to meet with them in New Orleans to answer questions and introduce them to Bob.

The response from these folks via email and text has been very favorable. Bob, David and I will be In discussions with quite a few starting tonight and continuing into Tuesday and Wednesday.

Our “opening” of the LexBlog news network is line with our January discussion/LexBlog team meeting where we communicated our goal to become the world’s largest and most comprehensive legal news and information network by curating the valuable insight and commentary of bloggers world-wide.

As Bob explained when he joined LexBlog, the most vibrant legal commentary today was coming from bloggers. LexBlog, having brought blogging en masse to the law beginning fifteen years ago, and with undying passion for blogging and the law should and will lead in taking legal blogging to the next level.

The next level means, among other things:

  • Framing and building a community of citizen journalists and commentators on the law
  • Open and free access to legal news, insight and commentary
  • Email and RSS subscriptions by blog, area of law and search
  • Free visibility of legal commentary published on law blogs – on the LexBlog network, third party sites, email newsletter/subscriptions and social media
  • Feeds of legal blog posts into legal research services, including FastCase
  • Forthcoming profiles of bloggers and organizations and their contributions
  • Forthcoming use of AI to identify relevant content for users

Just. because a blog or law firm joins LexBlog does not mean they become a customer or licensee of our digital design and publishing platform. We’ll certainly talk with new contributors about our platform, but the use is not free – except for law schools and certain non-profits.

For our valuable customers, which have taken us to this level, opening LexBlog makes being a LexBlog customer more valuable. Beyond design, a highly performing publishing platform, strategy, SEO and support, our customers will see an increase in visibility and influence as their contributions are discovered and seen.

LexBlog, as a news network, is still in its early days. Our tech and product teams are working hard on changes to the interface to make LexBlog more of a publication, an aggregation engine for customer blogs, an RSS syndication tool for a more effective means of aggregating non-customer blogs and more.

As a success team member, you may receive questions from clients. Share what you know and call on Garry and Isabelle for questions. Same goes for Bob, David and I. Communication, communication and communication.

As with all climbs and jumps when aspiring to do more to serve others, there will probably be a few speed bumps. Know that you are making a tremendous contribution to the law, the profession and to the people our profession serves. Thanks.

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, LexBlog used Get Satisfaction to manage our knowledge base and community portal (then named “Reach”). The implementation was clunky, requiring users to create dual user profiles on their sites and inside this other application. Moreover, there were no ties between the content in the knowledge base and the people that were helping clients find answers to questions, so there was little incentive as an employee to know or contribute to the content.

As I’ve mentioned in my past few posts, a huge reason LexBlog moved to using Zendesk’s suite of products was the consolidation of systems and processes. Instead of having three products from different companies that don’t talk to each other to manage one thing (support and project management) we now have a variety of integrated tools. A benefit to being in the Zendesk ecosystem is that these tools are fairly technically advanced, allowing us to tie a WordPress user to a Zendesk profile and supporting single sign-on into LexBlog’s support center where you can see all of your submitted tickets and interactions with our team since we’ve been using Zendesk’s ticketing system. For our support team this also means that all of the content from support center is at their fingertips each time they answer a question from a customer, and a new question can easily turn into a support center article.

While this has significantly streamlined our support processes from the Get Satisfaction days to today, we took things a step further when redesigning the support center. While the content has been available to anyone with a link to the support center for several years now, we had not allowed search engines to index anything. As a part of continuing to open LexBlog’s doors to all legal bloggers, we thought it was about time to take that step so that now anyone can search for the content on the web and find their way to the LexBlog support center. Community posts, profiles, and other private information will remain that way, but all articles written by LexBlog will be indexed by search engines from here on out.

A lot of the content now is there to aid in making our customers successful in using our software, but as we expand that content to include more information on blogging and social media, others that are starting up a legal blog may find it a useful resource. A key challenge for LexBlog (one among many!) is helping to raise the level of discourse on the web for lawyers and law firms – regardless of whether or not you publish with LexBlog – and this is one small step of many in doing just that.

Maintaining a network of over 1,000 blogs can sometimes feel a bit like digital farming. Much of my time is spent identifying bugs to squash in various repositories, managing projects along to completion, and reviewing platform statistics in preparation for the next round of customer interviews (the “weeding”, “shepherding”, and “flock tending” of product management). Every so often, however, harvest comes and there is some revelry in the launch of a major update.

Yesterday was one such day as the new design of LexBlog’s support center was launched early in the morning; the culmination of several weeks of work between Ted Cox, Brian Biddle, and myself. The old design (pictured below) was a fast bit of work, with the primary focus on moving a rather large body of content from Get Satisfaction to Zendesk’s Guide product without losing anything in that migration.

 

 

 

While the move was a positive one, and the updated design better than the one implemented in Get Satisfaction’s ecosystem, there was still a lot of room for improvement. As with any design, the longer it was up, the more obvious it became that something was off. The three “call to action” boxes seen in the image above, seemed arbitrarily placed, the search form’s placement moved around depending on what page template you were on, if you scrolled lower you saw a list of categories without any explanation of what the contents of those categories were; the list of UX and UI flaws goes on and on.

With Ted moving from his role as a Technical Support Specialist to LexBlog’s full time Technical Writer, the time seemed ripe for a major overhaul of not just the design, but the organization and focus of the support center. Ted spent days reorganizing content, and more time reviewing everything to make sure that things were as up to date as could be expected, all while adding a series of documents on new (and old) LexBlog platform features. While that happened, Brian worked on building out a design that was both more in line with LexBlog’s design standards, and focused on the paths that a customer may take as they looked for content.

The result was a fully responsive (the last version had a mobile version) work of art that everyone at the company is (more) proud to stand behind.

 

 

There’s greater consistency throughout the design, and the list of popular articles at the top of the homepage is managed by Ted and reflects the most viewed pieces of documentation within the support center. The interior pages are where I think the design really shines, with each article containing clear navigation to other articles in the same section of documentation, making it easy to follow from article to article and find what you need:

 

 

Overall a pretty fun project to work on, and a good crop to harvest.

I’ve been a big proponent of Zendesk after using their product(s) for several years at LexBlog. Like all businesses, LexBlog has gone through a variety of systems and processes cycles, and how we manage inbound requests is no exception. As I mentioned in my last post, a huge push over the last several years has been the shift from the cycle of inbox to development/design requests back to inbox to a more distributed approach through the use of Zendesk’s ticketing system. Not only was the old approach to communication causing headaches for all project members (have you ever played the telephone game?), it created silos where only a single account/project manager could manage the projects they were responsible for. If for some reason, that person was sick for a week, their projects may go untended or be utterly confusing for someone to step in and address.

Something that we’ve worked hard to do in recent years is choose software that we can easily work with outside of the box. It’s rare that we find something that fits what we need without customization, and having the ability to extend the core product is vital.

In that regard, I can’t say enough good things about working with Zendesk. The content in our contextual support bubble is dynamically populated if opened on a page where there is support documentation that may be helpful – this is powered by the Web Widget API. The support center in each site’s administrative area is powered by the Core API. And much of my work over the last several weeks has been with Zendesk’s Help Center templates, which are a mixture of HTML, CSS, JS, and Handlebars.

I also had the chance to extend LexBlog’s visual regression testing application to be more of a dashboard application for managing all things related to LexBlog’s systems by working with the Help Center API to provide Ted Cox, our technical writer, with the tools needed to better manage the content inside our support center through a variety of API calls and new React components (as a brief aside, if you have a React application and ever need to take the results of an API call and jam them into a CSV, I love this package).

Overall, a lot of good things to say about Zendesk, and probably even more as we’re starting to wrap up our work on redesigning LexBlog’s support center!