JD Bliss (JDB): Youíve been a successful commercial litigator for almost 20 years, and have a highly visible weblog as ďErnie the Attorney.Ē Can you summarize the path youíve taken to get where you are today in your legal career?
Svenson: My father was a psychoanalyst, and perhaps thatís one reason why Iíve always been interested in communication Ė verbal and written Ė and in the concept of change. I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate at Tulane in New Orleans, and saw the law as a more practical way to make a living with that kind of training. After some post-graduate experience working as a waiter in a fine New Orleans restaurant I attended Loyola Law School, where I got my J.D. in 1985. I enjoyed law school, and after graduation had the opportunity to enjoy clerking for a federal judge -- Judge Adrian Duplantier of the Eastern District of Louisiana -- who was a very outside-the-box thinker. Then I entered practice at the firm where Iím a partner today, Gordon Arata McCollam Duplantis & Eagan.
JDB: You say on your blog that you ďmay have chosen the wrong profession.Ē Why?
Svenson: I found Ė and still find Ė commercial litigation in areas like franchise law, intellectual property and product liability to be interesting and intriguing. But Iím a lawyer who enjoys change in a profession that resists change, and thatís where Iíve had the disconnect in my career. To a certain extent the lawís resistance to change is inescapable; if the legal system changed overnight, no one would know their rights or responsibilities. But the general inertia and resistance to doing things better that are prevalent throughout the profession Ė particularly involving the use of electronic technology to communicate better with clients and work more efficiently Ė are what I find frustrating.
JDB: What about your own interest in technology as a tool for change Ė how did that start?
Svenson: Iíve always been interested in computers, and at Tulane I took as many computer programming courses as they would allow for a philosophy major. At law school it wasnít until my senior year that we were able to use computers more in class, but it was obvious to me that electronic technology would pay huge dividends in all the labor intensive aspects of document processing that make up so much of legal practice. Once I started with my current firm I tried to be a force for using technology to make our practice more efficient, and we have done a good job of adapting to it. I was always impressed with the impact of the Internet as a force for change, but my involvement in blogging marked my real immersion in that regard.
JDB: When and how did your involvement in blogging come about?
Svenson: There really was a lot of serendipity involved. I was an avid user of Casemap, an electronic case management system, and got involved in an online discussion group of users to share ideas about it. A member of the group recommended a program called ActiveWords, and I downloaded the 60-day free trial copy. The CEO of ActiveWords, Buzz Bruggeman (who is an attorney in Orlando) contacted me and personally sent me an email to thank me and ask my input. I had never encountered that level of customer concern from any company and I responded positively to him. We began exchanging messages, and it turned out that he had even more frustration about the legal systemís resistance to change than I had. He had developed a weblog as a vehicle to express his opinions, and when he introduced me to the concept I was absolutely blown away. To me the biggest impediment of new technology is the learning curve, and blogging has none Ė itís as easy and simple as writing an email. And writing for a blog is much different and more enjoyable than the kind of legal writing I typically do. I started my own blog in March of 2002 under the name ďErnie the Attorney,Ē which a judge had hung on me years before. And now itís grown to the point that I average about 1,000 visitors a day.
JDB: Has blogging been important to you as a means to address some of the frustration you feel with the legal system?
Svenson: There is a lot of hype now about blogs. My view is that blogs matter because they represent a new way of communicating that is in its infancy, but one that is clearly growing at a rapid pace. When I first got involved in blogging it was completely refreshing to me. It got me in touch with a lot of lawyers who felt as I did, and was like going to a specialized bar association meeting of like-minded colleagues. I have to admit that, after almost three years, there are times when keeping my blog fresh Ė which takes several hours each week Ė seems like more work than it should be. Overall it is completely rewarding and thatís why I continue doing it.
But the real strength of blogs is that they still arenít mainstream, so the opinion of recognized bloggers carries real weight. For example I was recently among a group of ďsavvy blawgersĒ who were asked by Bruce MacEwanís ďAdam Smith, Esq.Ē blog to give opinions on how the most sophisticated law firms will be managed five or ten years in the future. That kind of opportunity really can help change the legal system to better serve clients, and it shows why blogging is very much worthwhile for me.
JDB: How has blogging affected the relationships you have in your practice with clients and with your colleagues in the firm?
Svenson: Iíve never tried to make my blog a marketing tool. It has been a source of some new clients to me, and maybe has generated a couple of opportunities for larger cases that I might not otherwise have had. A major advantage of my blog is that it lets my clients keep in touch with me and what Iím doing without the bother of a phone call. Sometimes I hear from people who are almost sheepish about commenting on what Iíve posted, as though theyíve intruded into my privacy. But Iím not threatened about what I post, because I donít feel like Iím revealing too much of myself, and what I find most satisfying are the online relationships Iím able to form with people I might not otherwise have ďmet.Ē Within my firm, which has 55 attorneys, other people know I have a blog and are generally positive about it, but itís not a major issue. I choose not to focus attention on myself, and donít really discuss it except to answer questions.
JDB: One significant aspect of your blog is that you get to discuss your other diverse interests beyond technology and the law. How do they fit into the personal satisfaction mix for you?
Svenson: There was a phase in my life when I was very interested in photography and all the related gadgets. Iíve sold most of them off and now just concentrated on digital photography, and post some of my favorites on the blog. Over the years Iíve trained myself to play the guitar and touch on that in the blog as a creative outlet and a way to interact with friends. I just approach these in a way that Iím comfortable with; I donít think anything creative should involve ďyou-have-to-do-it-this-wayĒ rules.
JDB: How do all these creative outlets play a role in your satisfaction as a lawyer?
Svenson: Most effective trial lawyers are people who understand human nature, and Iíve come to better understand myself as someone with all these interests who happens to be a lawyer. The more interests and perspectives you have, the better off your practice and you yourself will be. Lacking that dimension, and just seeing the law as a task at hand that you have to discipline yourself to do, is what I think creates dissatisfaction in many lawyers.
JDB: Do you think that what has worked for you can help other lawyers who feel like they might be in the wrong profession?Svenson: Blogging has helped me, and can help anyone, from the standpoint of putting you in touch with other lawyers who think as you do. Before the development of such interactive technology, about all there was to develop this kind of community of interests was the bar associations, with all their structure, rules and regulations. Too many lawyers are dissatisfied with putting in 2,500 billable lawyers a year and not seeing their families, but they keep at it because they donít explore the alternatives. Getting in touch with other lawyers who share similar frustrations can encourage you to break out of that rut, or at least give you an outlet to vent about it, and that often is the path to more personal satisfaction.