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.

Per an Economic Impact Report out from WeWork last week, small businesses are thriving as a result of locating in WeWork, not just because of the concept of “offices as service,” but because of the networking being done by their employees.

And small businesses are not alone. Twenty-two percent of the Fortune 500 are WeWork members because of the opportunity to secure top talent combined with the entrepreneurial environment and culture.

This Thursday WeWork is having a networking happy hour here at Holyhoke.

LexBlog team members should give some thought to taking part. Personal networking can be tougher than online when you’ve already met folks via WeWork’s chat, blogging, Twitter, Facebook and the like, but obviously it can be done – especially here, where people in entrepreneurial companies are wired to network.

  • Where are from originally?
  • Who do you work with here?
  • What does the company do?
  • What do you do?
  • How long have you been there?
  • What do you like most about it.”

LexBlog is here at WeWork, in part because of the networking opportunities that serve you, personally, and our company. As a company founder and CEO, it is my responsibility to help you grow as people, and professionally. And the way you grow is in large part based on who you meet, know and perhaps mentor with.

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.

OK, now that we’ve completed the Support Center redesign, it’s time for some fun. (Look, a blog named “Donuts” can’t be too serious all the time.)

I spend a lot of time thinking about how users work with our products. Sure, I know the layout and organization of our software, but some of our users don’t. When writing support articles or revising the microcopy in our user interface (UI), I put myself in the mindset of users who don’t spend as much time in the software as we LexBloggers do.

But I recently applied that thinking to another kind of user: the rogues and scoundrels who show up to my occasional game nights.

 

Different game, same rules

Every month or so I throw a game night (house favorites: Jackbox Party Pack and Cards Against Humanity) or bad movie night (past screenings: The Room and Miami Connection).

Sure, I know the layout and organization of my apartment, but some guests don’t. When people come over, I try to set things up to make the evening enjoyable and relaxing. Recently, this involves labeling the unique aspects of my home that a visitor wouldn’t understand without an explanation.

Many of the concepts that go into creating a good web UI can also apply to creating a seamless game night. Here are some of the UI rules that I’ve applied to my apartment:

 

Anticipate user needs

When showing up at the front door, some people will (politely) knock and then wait for an inebriated guest inside to yell, “It’s open!” With a note on the door (“Come In”), visitors can skip the unnecessary wait and walk right in.

 

Explain stuff new users won’t understand

Fitting with Seattle’s mandatory Socialist, Communist, Anarchist-vegan values, household waste gets sorted into recycling, compost, and landfill. My identical landfill and recycling bins sit side-by-side, so guests would often ask which is which. With a simple label placed on each bin, they know where to chuck the empty bottles of organic locally crafted gluten-free IPAs.

Confession: I stole an idea from an ex. The (L)andfill bin sits on the left. (R)ecycling is on the right.

 

Don’t make users search for stuff

“Where are the glasses?”

“Where are the plates?”

“Where are the titanium sporks?”

This grew out of a problem I faced when standing in other people’s kitchens: I don’t know where the hell anything is. And I don’t like rummaging through other people’s cabinets while they’re still in the house. So I often have to ask where every utensil or dish lives.

At my game nights, everything you need for enjoying tasty snacks sits out on the counters.

Pro tip: coffee mugs make great drink containers because they’re harder to spill than wine or pint glasses.

 

Put tools where people need them

If organic locally crafted gluten-free IPAs go in the fridge, bottle openers should be really close to that fridge.

 

Be lazy

OK, being lazy isn’t a rule for crafting user interfaces. But it gets to an idea that’s lost on many organizations: If you manually answer the same question over and over and over again, you’re doing something wrong.

Take this common game night scenario: at some point one or more guests will ask for the WiFi credentials. So I would have to walk over to the router and read off the key. Sometimes this would happen more than once a night.

The solution: notes with the WiFi information sitting on the game table.

 

Less thinking, more playing

OK, yes, some of these ideas are silly. But I’m a nerd who overthinks how people interact with stuff. And in the AirBnB age, labeling your home for guests does make some sense.

On game night, hopefully my guests spend less time figuring out how my apartment works, and more time eating tasty snacks, playing games, or sharing the best music videos.

Like web UIs, the goal here is the same. Less thinking, more playing.

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.

The other day, when coming up with ideas for a new blog, a client asked about another blog, which unfortunately no longer exists. I quickly suggested they use the site WayBack Machine, an online archive which allows access to archived digital content.

If you want to see what the New York Times or ESPN homepage looked like 10-15 years ago, go check it out on Wayback. ESPN has been archived over 37,000 and the NYtimes over 170,000. Like Newseum, you can spend hours getting lost in the content.

ESPN.com in November, 2000

Which brings us to the history of LexBlog.com, which has been revamped countless times. Our support team spent  25 minutes last week going through the years, as all of us made sure to notice a young Jared on the homepage in 2013.

THE original LexBlog.com, 2004

By going through separate pages, I was able to read about past new features, past employees, and see pictures of old offices. And of course, give a hard time about past marketing slogans like “Do you like us, Do you really like us?”

At one time we even offered a 10% “LexPremium” discount. Nowadays, we (employees and family) tend to joke around about Lex-phrase/object/thing… LexSkiing, LexBrewing, LexBall. You name it, we’ve probably said it. Of course, all in good nature.

By the time, we finished reviewing past LexBlog sites, it made us think, there is a reason none of those pages exist anymore. They sure didn’t help our clients, they may have made a few folks feel special by having their own profile on LexBlog.com, or may have helped us when reviewing features. But I know our ultimate goal is to help “make legal news, information and analysis more easily and intuitively accessible to legal professionals and the public,” which we are now one step closer to doing with LexBlog.com.

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!

Yesterday Michigan State University College of Law hosted “Building a Better Lawyer: Design Thinking, Training, and Study.” It was a workshop put on by MSU Law professor Dan Linna and his Legal RnD team, and co-led by Margaret Hagan, the founder of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School. Margaret and Dan are two of the top figures within legal tech innovation, and they spent hours leading large and small group discussions about facilitating innovation, and how to build better lawyers. Lansing, Michigan is 2,289 miles away from Seattle but, thanks to Stephen Embry’s phenomenal post about the workshop, I, too, was able to learn from Margaret and Dan’s expertise.

The Oxford Dictionary defines citizen journalism quite simply as “The collection, dissemination, and analysis of news and information by the general public, especially by means of the internet.” I prefer NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen’s take on the definition:

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism.

The internet is an indelible part of our lives today and, though that may at times be problematic, it has also thrown open the doors and allowed us to access information at an unprecedented rate. Through blogging and social media anyone with an internet connection can become a journalist; sometimes it’s silly, like the people on Instagram who report on their meals by sharing pictures of their food, other times it’s tragically important, like the interviews that student journalist David Hogg conducted with his classmates during the Parkland shooting.

LexBlog has always run on citizen journalism, and it’s become even more important as we’ve opened our own doors and begun pushing towards our goal of becoming the world’s largest legal news network. We want to hear from you, because your voice matters. We want to read about your thoughts on proposed legislation changes, workshops or learning events you’ve attended, and anything and everything in between (okay, we don’t really need to hear about what you ate for lunch). As Jared Sulzdorf, our Director of Project Development, pointed out at our all-hands meeting, “The law is all about opinions, and writing helps you shape your opinions.”