Thought Leadership for Law Students: An Interview with Online Law Journal Editor Sarah Eli Mattern

The scarcity of strong law student voices in legal social media is conspicuous, so when I encountered the online law journal The Student Appeal on Twitter, I was immediately interested to learn more. Comprised of articles, op-ed pieces and a blog, The Student Appeal serves as a beacon and “town square” for thoughtful content and discussion that might not otherwise be available or relevant to law students.

In this conversation, The Student Appeal co-founder and editor Sarah Eli Mattern discusses her vision and mission for the journal, and her insights on content curation, online community building and thought leadership marketing for law students.

Q: The mission statement on your website begins “We founded The Student Appeal to give law students a professional way to get their names and writing noticed.” What’s the background for that choice? Did you see a lack of opportunity for law student writers? A lack of professional focus by law students in their social media engagement?

 A: I did see a lack of publishing opportunities for law students. While the majority of law schools require students to write at least one legal article before they graduate, students have limited publishing opportunities for those papers. A student can try to publish with their school’s law journal, many of which will publish a handful of student notes annually. What caught my attention was that if almost every student has to write a paper and the majority of students can’t get published, then the effort and arguments those papers contain largely become nothing more than trash.

Keeping in mind that many students don’t wish to publish their papers and some student’s articles are not quality scholarship, I’ve still found that a large percentage of students didn’t feel like they had publication options.

Q: In addition to bringing legal discourse by law students into higher relief, your approach also seems to have an eye toward personal branding. Is that a fair statement? Do you believe law students can improve their career prospects through content marketing?

A: Absolutely. Personal branding is imperative in today’s job market. Any time students can distinguish themselves from the masses by presenting specialized knowledge or accomplishments, they stand a better chance at getting hired. By publishing articles on a topic of interest to lawyers within a specific area of law, students can demonstrate their hard-earned and well-researched knowledge, while also marketing themselves to those same people who may one day hold their resume.

Q:  How do you describe your target audience(s)?

A: We made The Student Appeal an online journal because we want to give anyone the opportunity to access this information. Almost everyone starts his or her research online when they want to know more about something. We want lawyers, law students, and all who care about law and policy issues to read, submit, and interact on our site.

Q: Generally speaking, blogs have relegated long-form content to the periphery of social media. While your site has a blog component, the emphasis is on articles and op-ed pieces. With so much competition for eyeballs and sustained attention, what’s your strategy for attracting and retaining readers?

We expect to attract and retain readers by publishing the most interesting and timely articles possible.

Traditional law journals publish papers with articles upwards of fifty pages. We decided at our inception to limit the length of even our traditional articles. We definitely try to be cognizant of our readers’ time, so we cut pieces to keep them as short as possible while maintaining their integrity. At the same time, we do appreciate the different nature of longer-form content, and we feel it has an important place in legal conversation. Though not everyone will be interested in all of our 10+ page articles, we hope that the breadth of subject matter, combined with the shorter-form opinion editorials, will present enjoyable reads to scholars of all walks of life. It’s this ability to delve into a subject and explore links to other websites and information that we feel brings the most value to our readers.

Q: While not affiliated with an academic institution, do you follow that editorial model? What’s your submission/review process, and what are your criteria for evaluating submissions?

A: Yes and no. When we receive a submission, three editors preliminarily review the article. Those editors send me a brief write up with their impressions, comments, and recommendation on whether the article is publication worthy or not. Then, if approved for publication, we email the author our publication agreement. After the author formally agrees to publish with us, we complete a full edit on the entire piece and send the article back to the author to review our notes. The publication process varies based on the length of the piece, but full articles usually take around two and a half months.

We accept articles and opinions from all political spectrums and ideologies, on any law-related subjects. In our publishing criteria, we do not care if our editors agree or disagree with what is written, only that what is stated is well-thought-out and clearly articulated. We desire to open our audience to many different viewpoints and allow them to come to their own conclusions. We do not promote any particular agenda and we do not answer to a school board, which really gives us a lot of flexibility in publishing more controversial or non-standard legal articles.

Q:  The site launched in April 2011. How have you approached recruiting potential contributors and building site traffic? Do you use the site’s blog and your Twitter participation as marketing tools?

A: Most of our contributors find out about us by word of mouth, but Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media sites have played a large part in helping us get the word out.

Q: You’re a freshly minted (2011) JD from Florida A&M. What was your inspiration to launch an online law journal? Is publishing your full-time venture, or are you also pursuing a legal career?

A: In the future, I would love nothing more than to work on The Student Appeal full time. Right now though, I want to practice. I know that what I learn from practicing will only help me to grow the site to its full potential.

 Q: Can you share any “Aha” moments you’ve had so far?

 A: On the web side, I have learned a lot about what does and does not work well in a publishing/blog sense. Originally, we wanted to focus more on strictly long-form legal articles. Through our analytics we began to realize that topics covering more current events, and the shorter-form editorials received the most interest. So though we are still committed to publishing full legal articles, we expanded our focus to include shorter-form pieces.

We also originally started the site with a community forum. But after a month or two working in the forum, we decided to replace our forum with a site-wide Facebook-based comment system. This allowed for easier discussion of our popular or more polarized articles, and has helped to create more dialogue between the article author’s and our readers. It’s always humbling to remember that as a publishing site, you are only so great as your authors and readers allow you to be.

Q: Do you have any plans to add other media to your mix (e.g. videos, webinars, conferences)?

A: Nothing definite, but my business partner, Dawson Henry (aka our Web Ninja), and I have discussed it. We would like to see The Student Appeal grow in many directions in the future.

Sarah Eli Mattern is a graduate of Florida A&M University College of Law and a member of the Florida Bar. She co-founded The Student Appeal Law Journal as a way of pursuing her passions, writing and legal research. She currently writes, edits, and manages the online law journal in hopes that it will grow to become a prominent source for legal discourse.

Speak Your Mind

*