Glenn Greenwald – Lawyer turned partisan blogger

The story of Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald), civil liberties litigator turned blogger, has a lot to teach the modern lawyer and a law profession going through a an identity crisis. And when I say this I say it with his politics aside. (This is a politics neutral analysis.) I’m talking about his super-detailed legal craft blended with an irrepressible and insatiable appetite to innovate and be at the very end of the envelope – on matters of law, policy and technology. He does what he does now because he “perceived [a] need.”

“There aren’t very many people articulating [privacy’s] value or defending it from erosion and I just perceived this need in defence of this value I consider to be one of the most important.”

That’s a nose not only for a deal but a nose for success. It’s about doing something new and something different. Perceiving a need, then meeting that need. It’s what I said here, that “there are many areas where the legal industry can be improved, leaving the door wide open for those who can spot an opportunity and provide a meaningful solution.”

And while Glenn Greenwald may have been a blogger with the Guardian, Salon and other legacy media platforms like the New York Times, his revolutionary journey enjoyed a modest beginning – Starting in 2005 with Google blogger/blogspot. A blog software tool that is fantastically accesible and easy to use. He explained here how he made his first moves into the world of blogging:

“I was actually reading blogs throughout 2003 and 2004 and found that the level of political discussion there was higher there certainly than what was taking place within our establishment media venues. Essentially I began the blog without any plan to become a journalist or writer, but simply to participate as a citizen in that conversation about what I thought and still think is the radicalism that had been consuming the country. The advent of the internet is such that citizens can simply start writing and find a large audience fairly quickly without having to rely upon or go through the large corporations that own our media outlets and it’s really diversified the types of views that are now routinely heard.”

Glenn Greenwald then explained here how he make the jump into being a blogger:

“The way I entered the public discourse was a fairly untraditional route. I did not get my own column in the New York Times, I created my own blog on Blogspot.”

Jessica Testa gave us some more context on Buzzfeed here:

“One day in October 2005, “sort of spontaneously,” Greenwald started a blog. A few weeks later, news broke that President Bush had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans following Sept. 11. Greenwald learned everything he possibly could about the case and then wrote about it. By the end of that year,Slate was citing Greenwald’s blog. He became a columnist for Salon in 2007, then was hired by the Guardian in 2012.”

This is the story of legal blogging we’re becoming more and more alert and wake to. The legal blog and the legal blogger is over-taking and usurping the traditional legacy outlets such as law journals and magazines. Here’s Adam Wagner getting cited by Lord Neuberger after writing a blog in the Guardian. Utterly incomprehensible, never-mind unimaginable even a few years ago.

David Allen Green (@JackOfKent) is the UK’s leading legal blogger. In some small way, the UK’s answer to Glenn Greenwald without the global controversy. At the very least his story is almost identical to that of Glenn Greenwald’s. He too started on Google blogger/blogspot – with a blog called Jack of Kent – in 2007. He explained here:

“Jack of Kent is hosted on a straightforward and easy to use blog host website called “Blogger”. I have no idea where the servers of Blogger are located. Anyone with internet access is able to create such a blog. The other main site for blogs is provided by “WordPress”. Most bloggers who have not built their own website or blog on a commercial or group site tend to use either Blogger or WordPress.”

Not long later he was short-listed for the Orwell Prize. He then moved his writing onto The News Statesman and in 2013 began his role as legal blogger with the Financial Times. I wrote about that here. A move that I said was a landmark and a signal that lawyers needed to change. David Allen Green gave his pick of the UK legal bloggers here. Lucy Reed’s blog was cited in a High Court judgement (see here). I looked at David Allen Green and Adam Wagner and the great depth and reach of legal blogging in an earlier Defero blog post here.

Moving back to Glenn Greenwald.

By blending his skills as a litigator with online writing, Glenn has been able to produce a special product that is unique to the online blogosphere. Andrew Sullivan (@sullydish) described Greenwald’s blogging:

“It bristles with his energy, fanaticism, mastery of the hyper-link, and gob-smacking attention to detail.”

I looked at Andrew Sullivan the political blogger, alongside David Allen Green and Adam Wagner, in the context of legal blogging here. I also looked at the lessons to be learnt from Harper Reed, CTO for Obama 2012 here.

Take a few minutes to read Greenwald’s work and you see his legal mind, grasp of evidence and the due process pulse through every line. And what’s extra special is that while he writes like a lawyer at the peak, he avoids cryptic legalise and renders his compositions universally readable, utterly compellling.

And to bring everything together, here’s an overview of his legal practice history. Glenn Greenwald began in 1994 at Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz, one of the most brutal legal houses in New York, with a junior associate position. He spent the following 18 months representing investment bankers and Goldman Sachs.

In 1995, aged 28, Greenwald left Wachtell Lipton and started his own firm – Greenwald Christoph & Holland (later renamed Greenwald Christoph PC). Greenwald the litigator made US constitutional law and civil rights his diet. Jessica Testa explained his move from “shitty” to “fulfilling” work:

“Greenwald helped win a $1.8 million settlement for Wendy Norville, a nurse at Staten Island University Hospital who, at age 54, injured her back while trying to keep a patient from falling off his bed. Norville, a Caribbean immigrant who put herself through nursing school, was fired from the hospital after nearly two decades for “incompetency”.”

Greenwald is probably most well known as a litigator for his pro-bono representation of white supremacist Matthew F. Hale and neo-nazis in a series of First Amendment speech cases. He explained:

“I almost always did it pro bono. I was interested in defending political principles that I believed in. I didn’t even care about making money anymore.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone he said:

“To me, it’s a heroic attribute to be so committed to a principle that you apply it not when it’s easy… not when it supports your position, not when it protects people you like, but when it defends and protects people that you hate.”

By 2000, Greenwald was practicing full-time in his three-man firm. His associate attorney Elbaum explained the firm’s ethos and workrate:

“We were constantly underestimated by big firms. But they had no idea who they were up against. We worked our asses off. We worked every Sunday, and then hit the ground running on Monday … These distinguished gray-hair litigation partner types underestimated [Greenwald] and then grew to loathe him. We’d see them in court just losing their shit.”

Mona Holland, a lawyer who worked with Greenwald in the late ’90s shared her experience:

“He decreed that during the week, even if we didn’t have to appear in court, we would be ‘suited up.’ He felt it promoted a proper work ethic.”

By 2002 he grew bored with being a litigator and started a consulting company, Master Notions LLC, with his best friend Jason Buchtel. Greenwald mainly concerned himself with legal matters and contracts. Two years into this project he was bought out of the company and took his now infamous trip to Brazil, where of course he met his partner David Miranda.

Not long after he began his blog. Greenwald’s life is punctuated by iterative steps and developments and leaps forward. He was constantly evolving and adapting to a changing world. Typified most elegantly by his move onto the blogosphere in 2003/2004 when most in the legal profession has barely heard of email.

While Greenwald may not remain a lawyer in the strict sense of the word, he plainly is a lawyer who happens to blog professionally. He has managed to blend the skills of a ruthless litigator with the art of a civil liberties and privacy writer. And he’s done it in a way that meets a gaping demand. By that he’s a visionary who has cut a premium by his scarcity.

And this is the lesson lawyers and law firms need to understand and replicate. As John Grimley said:

“Law firms composed of visionaries have the ability to rise to become leaders of a new industry.”