Jack Goldsmith didn’t plan on building a behemoth. When the Harvard Law professor teamed up with University of Texas at Austin law professor Robert Chesney ’97 and Brookings Institution writer Benjamin Wittes to start the Lawfare blog in 2010, it was launched, he says, with “very modest ambitions and no planning.”
The trio wanted to use the platform as a way to elevate public conversations about national security. From the start, they tackled issues from cybersecurity to the state secrets privilege. It turned out that there was an audience hungry for the blog, which filled the space between slow-moving, rigorously vetted journal articles and one-off op-eds in general interest publications such as The New York Times.
Almost immediately, Lawfare took on a life of its own. “Our readership steadily grew,” Goldsmith says. “It came to include lots of people from government, including Congress, courts and the press.”
More than a half-dozen faculty-linked blogs now attract readers and contributors from the highest levels of their fields.
Readership exploded when Donald Trump was elected. Suddenly Lawfare was attracting not just experts but readers interested in the way the new administration might handle national security issues. Today, a million readers visit the site each month. It’s received feature-article treatment in The New York Times Magazine, it was included in an episode of “This American Life,” and it was name-checked in a tweet by President Trump.
Many posts, including a piece on the Mueller investigation by George Conway—a lawyer and husband of presidential spokesperson Kellyanne Conway—as well as a multi-author piece on the high-profile firing of FBI Director James Comey, have sparked national discussion. There’s no question that Lawfare has become a timely and trusted source of information for practitioners, academics, and policymakers.
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The Lawfare blog is a bright star, and it is also part of a larger constellation of faculty-linked blogs aimed at making an impact in their fields. The first was begun in 2006 by HLS Professor Lucian Bebchuk LL.M. ’80 S.J.D. ’84: The Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation. The blog quickly became the go-to source on corporate governance.
Today at least a half-dozen HLS faculty members have launched blogs in their areas of expertise. They are attracting readers and contributors from the very highest levels of their fields, and they’ve become hubs for discussion, with insightful and quick-moving commentary.
Take, for instance, Professor Matthew Stephenson’s Global Anticorruption Blog. Stephenson ’03 launched the blog—which covers law, social science and policy—in 2014. Nudged along with mentorship from Goldsmith, Stephenson has built a highly respected blog with more than 7,000 email subscribers and more than 10,000 readers in any given month.
Stephenson is proud of the community he’s built. He’s routinely contacted by those in the worlds of policy and practice based on posts that have appeared on the blog. Even more than that, he’s been thrilled by the conversations sparked by the blog, which have led to more nuanced understandings of complex topics.
He recalls, for example, a lively discussion that occurred on his blog and elsewhere about job offers that might be considered bribes, based on the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. A professor at another institution staked out one position on such job offers, while Stephenson offered a second perspective on his blog. “We went back and forth on this,” he says. “In the end, there was some convergence in our positions.”
There is a general collegiality within the confines of the blog, says Stephenson, that leads to robust and meaningful discussion. “We’re all on the same team, in that this is a community of people who are deeply concerned about corruption,” he says. “It’s been a good platform for debating issues on which reasonable people of good faith can disagree.”
Professor Intisar Rabb says that her desire to share diverse viewpoints was a key reason she launched SHARIAsource, a blog she describes as “a SCOTUSblog for Islamic law.” “The SHARIAsource blog offers insight into Islamic law as law, rather than as a purely religious or theological construct,” she says. “The blog allows many perspectives to weigh in on that basic proposition.”
Since launching in 2016, the blog has attracted a global audience of academics and lawyers. It has covered Islamic divorce in India and recently hosted a six-person “online roundtable” to parse a landmark ruling linked to the recognition of Islamic marriages in the United Kingdom. The law and social science scholars discussed social, legal, and anthropological implications of the decision.
Rabb is laser-focused on credibility and accuracy, and posts are accepted from only experts or supervised students. While the blog is still relatively new, Rabb wants it to be recognized as a reliable resource for broader academic, legal and general-interest research in the field.
The idea of becoming a trusted resource was also what drove Professor Benjamin Sachs to launch the On Labor blog in 2013. He was eager to reach an audience of academics, policymakers, decision-makers, and practitioners through his blog, which covers workers, unions, and politics.
Since launching, he has attracted thousands of email subscribers. Thousands more follow the blog’s Twitter account. The numbers, paired with the regular feedback he gets from readers and fellow academics at conferences, have been welcome data points that suggest that he’s achieving his goal.
Sachs adds that reader interest explodes when current news and labor policies collide. Sometimes, that interest is spurred by a presidential tweet. “We’ve done a lot of writing around the NFL anthem policy,” he notes. “That’s a labor issue that intersects with sports, and that dramatically increases our readership.”
Sachs says that there also has been a steady thrum of interest in the divide between employees and independent contractors in the age of the gig economy. He has written numerous posts about Uber drivers, for example. The changing dynamics of what constitutes a specific employment status make the blog the perfect forum for experts in the field to post ideas, questions and concerns.
This type of real-time intellectual processing may be one of the biggest benefits of these platforms. While few would describe any of the blogs as “freewheeling,” there is a stronger culture of risk-taking in blogs than in more traditional venues for publishing scholarship. Several of the faculty members use the blogs as a teaching tool, and students often contribute substantive analytical posts. Students learn from the feedback they get not just from their classmates and professor, but from outside readers as well. While the arguments in blogs may start out less formed than those in a journal article or op-ed, the ensuing discussion can help sharpen salient points, advance conversation and open up alternative points of view.
Stephenson, who courts a mix of practitioners and academics on his Global Anticorruption Blog, adds that blogs are a friendly place for professionals to drop in. “There are a lot of busy professionals working on anti-corruption, whether it’s in government or in an advocacy organization or an international institution,” he says. “They’re smart, but that doesn’t mean they have time to work through a technical 50-page article. What we hope is that they make our blog part of their daily reading routine, in the same way that many people check the Times, the Post, and CNN.”
While all of the faculty are quick to say that their blogs don’t—and won’t—replace their work for law reviews or newspaper op-ed pages, they also say that it’s easy to see the advantages of a forum like blogging. Increasingly, being part of the blogging community, whether leading the charge as a blog founder or contributing to the many specialized blogs in the field, is considered a valuable endeavor in its own right. “Many scholars are interested in doing this type of work now, because the audience and impact per word are large compared to traditional academic work,” says Goldsmith.