Meet the author of “The Lawyer’s Guide to Social Networking”

December 22, 2010

Trial attorney John G. Browning is the author of a new West title, “The Lawyer’s Guide to Social Networking: Understanding Social Media’s Impact on the Law.”  In addition to his work as a lawyer, Mr. Browning is a legal journalist whose work has appeared in newspapers and magazines in his home state of Texas and across the country. His writing has earned numerous journalism honors, as well as the prestigious Burton Award for Distinguished Achievement in Legal Writing for 2009 and 2010. He recently spoke to us from his office in Dallas.

How did you get into the legal world?

There really aren’t any lawyers in my immediate family. My undergraduate degrees were in history and comparative literature – which is sort of like saying, “destined to go to law school.” I always enjoyed research and writing, and I was always interested in legal history. I did my undergraduate thesis on Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.

How did you become an author?

I always had an interest in writing. I wrote a nonfiction book when I was younger, and I also wrote fiction and poetry as an undergraduate at Rutgers. Of course, I put all of that aside when I took up the drudgery of law school.

Then, six years ago, I got the opportunity to write a column for a local newspaper, which has since become syndicated. [You can see it here.] Writing is how I stave off lawyer burnout.

Before this book, I was a contributing author to three other law-related books – one on arbitration, one on legal advice for physicians (I represent a lot of physicians in my practice), and one on Texas employment law.

Where did the idea for your new book come from?

The idea came as an outgrowth of what I was doing in my law practice. As a litigator, I’m always on the lookout for any edge that I can gain on behalf of my clients, especially when it comes to finding information that could be damaging to the other side.

With the advent of Facebook, I realized that there was some good stuff here. I started using it for my own cases, and I said, gee, more lawyers should know about this. And then I began giving speeches and CLE courses on everything from using social media for discovery to jurors going online and looking things up and causing mistrials.

So I was finding a lot of different subjects that relate under the umbrella of social networking, and that led me to start writing and speaking about it, and that led to the book.

How did you go about getting your book to become a West publication?

Actually, Bryan Garner is a good friend of mine; I was his first research assistant when he was a professor at the University of Texas School of Law. It’s kind of like if you’re an aspiring artist – if someone offers you the job of cleaning Michelangelo’s paint brushes, you take it. It was a great opportunity for me to learn from a master, so to speak.

I was attending a function at Bryan’s office – Justice Scalia [who co-authored another West book with Garner] was there as well – and Bryan encouraged me to talk to some folks at West about possibly publishing a book.

Do you have any advice for others who might want to become West authors?

If you’re trying to juggle a practice and writing, look before you leap. I carried a full caseload as a partner in the firm, and most of my writing endeavors have been a nights-and-weekends labor of love. And while I was writing the book, I continued my other writing gigs – my newspaper column never skipped a beat, a magazine column I was writing never skipped a beat, and I wrote a few freelance articles during the same time. It was quite a juggling act.

If you weren’t the author of this book, why would you buy it?

Oh, I can give you 500 million reasons why – that’s the number of users on Facebook. This is not a fad; social media is here to stay. Yesterday’s announcement that Mark Zuckerberg was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2010 just underscores this huge shift in how we communicate. The legal profession simply can’t ignore that – not trial attorneys, not criminal defense attorneys, not law students.

The Florida state bar recently became the first one to say that as part of your bar review, we’re going to look at social media sites to see if you’re fit to practice before the bar in this state. So it’s especially important for young lawyers getting into the field to understand how this is will affect them.

Who is another person in the legal world you’d like to meet?

One person is Joe Jamail [the Texas attorney who won one of the largest settlements in history in Pennzoil v. Texaco]. He is the consummate trial attorney. I really admire his skills and also the way he gave back to his alma mater, the University of Texas.

Another person I’d like to meet is Justice Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit. I’ve written about judges using humor in their opinions to make them more accessible to the public, and Justice Kozinski is one of those people known for doing that. Not only is he a towering intellect, he’s someone with a genuine sense of humor. I think if I were ever to be a judge, I’d try to be a judge in that mold.

What’s your favorite law-related movie?

“My Cousin Vinnie” is a perennial favorite, because it’s incredibly funny and very well done. Justice Scalia is actually a fan of the movie as well – I think he has a bit of a crush on Marisa Tomei.

Of the more serious movies, I’ll give you a slightly obscure one: “Breaker Morant,” which is based on a true story about three Australian soldiers who were court-martialed for murder during the Boer War. It shows a defense attorney who – a lot like the Atticus Finch character in “To Kill a Mockingbird’ – has the difficult task of defending these unpopular soldiers. Their fate is preordained, and it’s very much a kangaroo court, but yet this lawyer perseveres. It’s just a fascinating film, very well acted and well worth a rental.

When you were studying for your bar exam, what was your favorite snack?

My buddies and I had a routine where after BarBri we’d head out and play some beach volleyball and drink some beer and blow off some steam. So as bad as it sounds, I think I’d have to say, my favorite snack was beer.

What was the first concert you ever went to?

Oh, gosh, I’m old enough to have a hard time remembering that. I can tell you the best concert experience I’ve had. For my birthday in 2009, it just so happened that Springsteen and Bon Jovi were in town on back-to-back nights. For a kid from New Jersey, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Which NFL team is your favorite?

That’s easy – the Giants. I was born and raised in New Jersey, and they wait until I leave the state to win the Super Bowl. Even though I’ve lived over half my life in Dallas, I can tell you I’m not a Dallas Cowboys fan, but I did the next best thing: I married a Dallas Cowboys fan.