What to Do About Comments

"Speech Bubbles" by scottchan on freedigitalphotos.net

“Speech Bubbles” by scottchan on freedigitalphotos.net

If you have been writing your law blog for a while, you’ve probably gotten your share of fake, irate, and legally incorrect comments on your site. But should you turn off comments altogether and lose that conduit for direct dialog with potential clients and referral sources?

A recent article by Tania Lombrozo on NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog examined the problem of comments on authoritative online writing. She noted that two different medical journals had taken opposite approaches to comments on their blog. Lombrozo contrasted the National Center for Biotechnology Information’s recent release of PubMed Commons, which allows registered users to comment on scientific abstracts, to Popular Science‘s choice to disable comments entirely.

While the discussion focused on peer-reviewed scientific journals, its premises are just as valid for the legal blogger. Allowing and responding to comments on your blog is a great way to engage your readers and invite them to learn more through consultations or presentations you offer professionally. Comments can also inspire your readers to engage with each other, creating a dialog on important issues with your article as the framework.

But opening your blog up to comments also exposes you to “spam” (fake or automated comments designed to promote or sell another website), “trolls” (angry or irreverent commenters who harass the author or other commenters), and false information.

Lombrozo notes that the risk of these negative comments increases when you allow anonymous comments. People are less likely to be hurtful if they have to put their name on it. But do non-anonymous comments threaten attorney-client privilege?

This is where self-regulation becomes important. The content of your blog is no more legal advice than a magazine article or book, but by engaging with commenters on a one-to-one level you could accidentally create an attorney-client relationship for all the world to see. As a lawyer, it is important that you remember, no matter how pressing or compelling as an individual’s call for assistance may be, you must encourage them to contact you for a consultation, rather than responding in the public venue of your blog’s comments.

As an overly simplified rule, if you would not respond to a commenter’s inquiry at a cocktail party or networking event, you probably shouldn’t respond in a comment. When you do get a question like this I suggest responding with something like,

“Great question! I’d be happy to discuss this with you in a free initial consultation.”

For added security, if the commenter does become a client you may also want to hide the comment from public view.

Comments shouldn’t be looked at as an annoyance or a confidentiality risk. Instead, they should be seen as a venue to connect with potential clients. Just be careful to screen for spam, trolls, and incorrect information, and always take your consultations offline. If you need help setting up your blog, contact blogging coach and ghost-blogger Lisa Schmidt.

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