Captains of the legal industry haven’t time for all the petty BS floating around the web. So when they want to know the hot lawyerly topics of the day, they count on the big guns to keep informed. And that’s where The Wall Street Journal Law Blog comes in.
Ashby Jones has been the lead writer of the Law Blog for a year and eight weeks. (As he would say, “Who’s counting, right?”) And whether he’s quoting The Onion or the actual Wall Street Journal, his job is to constantly post an eclectic mix of interesting and provocative legal news in bite-sized chunks that read nothing like a law school casebook.
Is he successful at it? You tell me. No literally—please. Based on the number of commenters, long shelf life and prodigious clout The Wall Street Journal brings with it, it’s obvious the Law Blog gets great traffic. But the actual metrics are so hush-hush that the Journal insists on keeping them proprietary.
Piqued, we cornered Ashby to find out all we can about the man, the myth behind the blog.
Name and current title?
Ashby Jones, law blogger for The Wall Street Journal Law Blog.
Where did you go to law school? Law review?
University of Michigan. No, not on law review. I don’t think I was even close.
It says on your blog that you “worked as a litigator at a large law firm and clerked for a federal judge.” Where did you practice law?
My first gig out of law school was clerking for a senior judge on the [U.S. Court of Appeals for the] Second Circuit, the late J. Edward Lumbard. He was 95 or 96 years old when I clerked for him. It was a little bit of an atypical clerkship.
I then went to go work for Perkins Coie in Seattle. I practiced there two years in litigation. Compared to a summer I spent at a big law firm in New York (that I’d prefer not to name), it was a kinder, gentler place. The people were really great, and I picked up some good experience.
Best moment as a lawyer?
Working on antitrust case for a large client. I stayed up all night writing an emergency motion. I was seething with anger for much of the night, but at about 4 AM something took hold. I felt like I was the only person in the city still awake working, and something about that felt strangely cool. It was probably just exhaustion, but I sort of got into it. Wrote it all by myself, and I was tired and miserable the next day, but we got it filed and won. Everyone was really happy with me. And I felt like I accomplished something in the end. It felt good. It was one of the rare times in my short career as a lawyer that I actually felt confident, like I knew what I was doing.
Worst moment as a lawyer?
It was more of a collection of moments doing document review. Countless hours of flipping through boxes of paper or mouse-clicking through reams and reams of documents. Deciding which documents were privileged and which were not, which were responsive and which were not. Someone’s got to do it, I guess, but it really was awful and there was really no way to make it fun or interesting other than to give yourself little goals like “at the end of every 25 pages, I get to eat another M&M.” It really was just enough to make you want to run screaming.
But the worst was when I was working on a case in which the firm was representing a big accounting firm, and I was staffed on a case where our client had been sued. It was incredibly complicated. I asked as many questions as I could, but I still never knew all the players or the details. It always seemed bewildering, and I felt really removed. I never thought I could get up to speed on this case. It was really frustrating. It was just a big, static-y, dull scene of gray.
What was your epiphany to get out? How did you transition out?
I realized quickly that the practice of law at a big law firm wasn’t for me. While I was there, I just wasn’t enjoying myself too much. I started to think of other things I might like to do.
For a while, I kept telling myself I just had to get into it. After a year, I thought I had a lay of the land. But I still wasn’t like the people who were actually really happy practicing law. Gosh, I knew my personality was never going to change to a degree where I could see myself in those people’s shoes.
There were some young partners and superstar senior associates, and they loved it. Or if they didn’t, they really did a nice job faking it. Their jobs never seemed like work to them. They loved the fight of litigation and dreaming up different types of motions they could file. They were in the office all the time, and they sort of seemed to do it cheerfully.
There was no “moment” for me. I think I just increasingly kept that thought: You can’t fake it for eight, ten, twelve hours a day. You quickly get miserable because you’re there all the time. And if there’s not a part of you that really loves it, whatever you hate about it will get magnified really quickly. The pressure is intense. You have to work weekends. And if you don’t start with at least a baseline of satisfaction, it’s all going to get old fairly quickly.
How did you transition from law to journalism?
I was working at the firm and didn’t have a lot of journalism experience. It was the late ‘90s. And people said there was one of two ways you can go: Head to journalism school and use that as launching pad, or try to freelance and/or go to work for a small paper. The journalism industry smiles on people who start at the bottom and work up. At least I had heard that. So I started at small legal paper in Seattle and worked there for little less than year—just enough time to get some clips and send them around.
What was your mindset after you realized that you quit your job and started a whole new career. Did you freak out?
I loved it from day one. It felt really natural. Calling a bunch of people, taking notes and writing stuff down. Felt like a better fit for me. As I became more accustomed to it, I loved writing, and I never really looked back. I decided it was the right fit for me. At no point did I think I’d go back to a big law firm. Once you leave, you never really look back. Most people who jump from big firms soon find it was the right move.
Following the Seattle paper you got a job in New York working at American Lawyer in 2000. Was it always your intention to work in legal journalism?
Well, the thing was that I knew about law and how it works—even though at time I didn’t know a whole hell of a lot. But I knew more about it than anything else, really. So I used it as a way to market myself because I didn’t have much journalism experience. I like the fact that law touches on so many facets of American society. To say you’re a legal reporter is not putting yourself in a straight jacket. You can write about sports and the law, criminal law, policy issues, politics, etc. I never thought I was narrowing my focus too much by calling myself a legal reporter.
So how did The Wall Street Journal Law Blog start?
I came to the Journal in 2005 after working for a year at The Deal. Originally, I was hired to edit a new online section devoted to law. Part of that was the blog, which started just after the first of the year in 2006 and was, at first, being written by Peter Lattman. So I was editing him and coordinating stuff for online, writing some for the paper, writing some for the blog.
The Law Blog was the first blog The Wall Street Journal had. At the time, we didn’t have a law bureau, so it was good way to provide legal coverage in a way that would serve our readership and could test a new medium. It was a farsighted view to launch it as a blog, and we could cover a lot and get a lot out to our readers with a relatively small staff.
The Law Blog was successful and pretty well read from the get-go, which ultimately helped lead to the decision to create a stand-alone law bureau. Lots of other bureaus now have blogs at the Journal.
What’s your average day like?
The day starts early. Usually in the 7:00 range. I immediately scour the news and try to have a post up by 9:00. Then I try to churn out posts over the course of the morning. I aim to get original news in there too—like a Q&A or stand-alone story—but those pieces take more time and thought, and I don’t do those every day. But it’s sort of a mix of news aggregation and reported pieces. I also do some editing and writing for the paper.
Do you enjoy it?
It’s an exhilarating job. It’s incredibly busy and most days, really fun. But it can be exhausting. Blogging is not for everyone. You just gotta get up and do it every single day. There are no down days, no days when you can say, “Ah, well, I did a good job yesterday, I think I’m going to take a long lunch and get a haircut,” or whatever. It’s relentless and every day is really busy. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tired at the end of the day. Some days are really great, and other days you want to curl under your desk and go to sleep.
Is there more pressure being a lawyer or a blog editor?
That’s a good question. So I’m going to play like a lawyer and give a ‘one-hand-this, one-hand-that’ answer.
The pressure can be intense as both. The pressures to bill hours and do good work over years and years are not easy as a lawyer. The pressures in journalism tend to be more of daily deadlines, ‘What are you doing right now?’ urgent pressures.
But when I go home now, I don’t have stuff hanging over me and can wake up starting anew. At a law firm, you can be on a case for months and months and months, and a lot of pressure can build in that way.
Do you find it challenging to balance journalism and blogging since blogging generally includes a biased bent and lots of opinions?
I’m conscious about making my posts reflect both sides. I really try to be fair and give people a chance to comment. The Wall Street Journal standards don’t go out the door because you’re on a blog. You still have standards to uphold. I write about controversial stuff that people feel strongly about—Gitmo detainee treatment, the next Supreme Court justice, the constitutionality of the death penalty—they are very charged issues, and I want readers to see them in cleanest light. I don’t think it would be fair or respectful to our readers to put in a snarky comment that gives away how I might feel personally about a subject. Frankly, I feel I’ve done my job if the comments stick to the topic and not to any perceived take that I had on the topic.
Do you view other legal blogs as competitors or collaborators?
Both. I do feel competitive with the blogs I admire a lot. You want to be as good as the ones you admire. If they have an idea you didn’t think of, it pushes you to work harder. At the same time, [the existence of competing blogs] gives you more to go on. More to blog on.
It isn’t one big happy family—and there is a sense of competition—but there’s an ethic of knowing that if you do the right thing and give props where they’re deserved by linking to someone’s story and commenting on something they said that was clever or insightful, they’ll do the same for you. It all evens out.
Have law firms evolved as a result of law blogs?
Firms have always been behind the curve in terms of media relations and dealing with the outside world and press. But in the last five years, predominately because of the ascent of [law] blogs and their coverage, they’ve gotten much better. Their PR departments are much better than they used to be.
But lawyers at big firms can be tricky. They tend to think they don’t want or need to have anything to do with the press because they’re cynical and skeptical and paid to keep clients out of public eye. For that reason, they can be reticent. On the other hand, some think everything they touch should be on the front page. You see both types at law firms. They either think that everything is a great achievement or the less they deal with press the better. From where I sit, neither is ideal.
But they’re all starting to realize that the press can be trusted and talked to. I’ve seen a lot of changes over the last ten years. Firms have hired people to come in their halls and encourage people to talk to press. Basically, it’s an ever-evolving situation; they’re still not as good as they could be, but they’ve gotten a lot better.
Does legal blogging need oppression of the industry to survive? Is it necessary for law firms to have hard times for a blog to be successful?
Oh, no, I don’t think so. There will always be an appetite to know what’s going on in law firms. They’re filled with influential people who work on interesting stuff. There’s always going to be an appetite to read about them. Even in the 2006 gangbuster days of law, they were interesting places. The frenzied nature of layoffs might dissipate, but interest in the industry won’t go away.
So, in your opinion, what’s the future of blogging? Will the medium sustain itself?
We’ve already seen that there’s a future. The Law Blog and other blogs have proven we have staying power. Readership is there. People are drawn. We get clicks. We get eyeballs. And a lot of them.
But The Wall Street Journal can pay a salary for someone to blog and along the way use all the WSJ resources. A start-up blogger has it a lot harder. Don’t know how they’re going to get their bills paid.
What’s your future? Are you headed off to write a novel anytime soon?
No. For now, I like my job and what I do. It’s going to sound cheesy as hell, but I’m lucky to have it. I’m really happy.