An intro to Twitter for lawyers on the fence about trying it

I started using Twitter the day the CA3blog site crashed.

In September of last year, I wrote something provocative here about a book by Judge Posner (“batshit crazy”)  that got a bazillion hits from readers on Twitter, enough hits to bring down the blog’s website. Until that day I’d been a proud Twitter hold-out, but crashing my humble blog got my attention.

Fourteen months, 2,466 tweets, and 1,093 followers later, I’ve learned a thing or two about Twitter. And though I’m very far from a Twitter guru, I thought it might be useful to share what I’ve learned for others—especially appellate lawyers like me—who don’t use Twitter and wonder if they should.

Twitter can be useful, and it can also be god-awful.

The useful:

  • it’s good for breaking news;
  • it’s hard to be beat for legal news that isn’t sexy enough for media coverage (like judicial-nominations developments and analysis, for example);
  • there’s a vibrant, welcoming online community of appellate lawyers who post there;
  • it’s a decent way to expand your professional network, especially if you’re lousy at cocktail-party banter; and
  • it’s a way to participate in the conversation on things you care about.

For myself, I’ve had some wonderful experiences on Twitter, interactions that I’d never have had any other way. Geeking out with a top conservative academic about circuit nominees, for example, or trading ideas about how to get better at oral argument. And through Twitter I’ve become friends with a slew of smart, decent women and men I’d never have run into otherwise. At its best, Twitter is glorious.

The god-awful:

  • it’s an addictive-by-design time-suck;
  • chances are it won’t get you one single case;
  • it brings out the worst in many of us; and
  • it makes it wonderfully easy for you to say something spectacularly stupid for the whole world to see.

Twitter is how I imagine cocaine: exhilarating at times, and an effective dopamine jolt, but in the long run, the more you try to get from it, the more it sucks from you.

So, can you enjoy useful Twitter while avoiding the god-awful? Maybe. Many do. But, honestly, I bet many regular Twitter users would say “probably not.”

Appellate types, Twitter will try to claw you in. You’re a professional arguer for god’s sake, so when someone you’ve heard of takes a jab at you, you’re going to want to swing back and show your stuff. And chances are you’re goal-oriented and competitive, so before you know it you’re eying your follower count and spending Saturday evenings trying to craft 280 characters of devastating wit. Ugh.

So, on that jolly note, here are a few thoughts on how to get started with Twitter, should you decide you want to.

Setting up your account. Use your real name unless you plan to just lurk or blow off steam. Anonymous accounts tend to get ignored. Compose your profile-page blurb with some care—other viewers will see it anytime they hover their mouse arrow over anything you post, so it’s the main thing many users will know about you.

Deciding who to follow. This part may seem daunting at first, but it’s actually the easiest part. Search for people you respect. You’ll find lots of lawyers, scads of law professors, and more or less every journalist and politician.

To get you started, nationally prominent appellate lawyers active on Twitter include George Conway, Walter Dellinger, John Elwood, Deepak Gupta, Neal Katyal, Kannon Shanmugam, and Laurence Tribe. A few others who’ve earned broad followings include Jonathan Adler, Howard Bashman, Adam Feldman, Susan Hennessey, Carissa Hessick, Orin Kerr, Leah Litman, Sean Marotta, Raffi Melkonian, Jaime Santos, and Ken White (@Popehat).

But, most of all: me.

Getting followers. Step one, follow the people you want to follow you, and many will follow you back. Find users like you, look at their followers (click on their name, and then on their profile page click on “followers” near the top), and go nuts. Step two, interact with some appellate-oriented folks who tweet a lot and have a lot of followers. Respond to their tweets, say something nice, disagree intelligently, whatever. Step three—and this is the one that actually matters—be helpful and interesting. If you add value, people will find you.

Avoiding professional self-immolation. Twitter is public, dummy. After you’ve drafted a tweet but before you hit the tweet button, ask yourself, “Would I be cool with this being quoted in the Washington Post?” And, “Could this be the basis for a bar complaint?” Try not to post when you’re angry, or enjoying a delicious double IPA. Don’t aim to humiliate anyone, especially if they’re less powerful than you. Err on the side of concealing your inner dumbass.

Bottom line, do I think you should start using Twitter? No, I don’t. It’s absolutely not necessary for your career, and it could well hurt more than it helps. You almost certainly stare at your phone too much as it is, for heaven’s sake.

But if you’re inclined to try it anyway, by all means join the fun.