Lawyers spend a lot of their time writing. They draft briefs, pleadings, demand letters, opinion letters, settlement agreements, contracts, wills, trusts and other important instruments. But most of them, in my experience, struggle with writing content for social media and for their blogs in particular.
They have learned from marketing experts and some successful rainmaking lawyers that blogging can help to raise their profiles, demonstrate their expertise, drive traffic to their Websites, and introduce them to new prospects and clients.
The challenge for lawyers relates to the foreign and unfamiliar nature of the new medium – blogs – which can broadcast their thinking around the world and engage their readers in dialogue with the potential for viral propagation.
In order to assist those who have struggled with crafting substantive content quickly for their blogs, I have developed a ticker list of “do’s and don’ts” to act as a startup guide. This practical list is derived from my own successful blogging experience on legal matters, which is based on 13 years of professional writing experience and 17 years of legal practice.
1. Think of Yourself as a Publisher. If you have created a blog, you now have a digital megaphone to the world. Despite having this social amplifier, however, you must think like a publisher in order to break through the clutter and be heard. That means you have to put up content that is for the readers you want to reach:
- Informative; and
As a publisher, you must also deliver content that is factually and reliably accurate. The publication of one unchecked story is enough to destroy your credibility as a publisher and a professional.
2. Think of Yourself as the Managing Editor of Your Blog. As someone who manages a global publication, you need to come up with a variety of content to keep readers interested. Consider using the following types of content that professional editors have found to be popular with readers:
- List articles, such as this one, which publish lists of practical tips or tools for readers;
- Anniversary articles, which analyze important historical events on anniversaries (an example is the recent national media attention on what happened in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963);
- Timely news analyses, which can offer a helpful breakdown on what is happening, legally speaking, in cases or legislative initiatives that are currently the focus of traditional or social media attention; and
- Editorials, which can offer unique and informative opinions relative to a controversial topic or one that is just very relevant to readers in their daily lives.
3. Know Your Target Audience. Unless you have a compelling urge to write whatever comes to your mind, you are likely engaged in blogging for a purpose – to raise your profile and ramp up your professional business. So keep in mind that you should be writing for:
- Clients and potential clients;
- Referral sources and potential referral sources; and
- Influencers, such as traditional and social media mavens.
4. Write Regularly. Nobody wants to read, bookmark or favorite a publication that comes out infrequently or undependably on an “if I feel like it” schedule. Also, good writing flows more easily from a brain that is regularly tapped for the richness of its thoughts. Once you get in the habit, it is not so hard to do, and blogging does not have to take a lot of your time.
5. Pick Topics About Which You Care Deeply. If you are going to write regularly, you need to cover topics that are important to you, or you will tire of it. Whether or not you publish your editorial opinions, you can convey to your readers how important a topic is to you and to them. It will pay off for you.
6. Write What Is Relevant to Readers. Lawyers are prone to fascination with subjects that are intellectually complex and obscure, but ordinary readers (such as media members, clients and potential clients) are looking for relevance and simplicity. They have enough complexity in their lives, and they often see the law as a secret buried behind a giant cloak of complexity. Your job as a publisher, editor and writer is to make the complex simple and explain its relevance. If you can demystify complex legal issues, you will demonstrate that you understand them and that you can communicate effectively. Feel free to pick a complex topic, but make sure you explain succinctly why it matters and how. For instance, you could write that “the Jones v. Smith case seems to affect jurisdictional issues that only lawyers care about, but in reality it will prevent many litigants from having their day in court because….”
7. Get to the Point. Lawyers are used to building a case, starting with a foundation, and then introducing evidence that leads to a conclusion. Readers are not judges. They want the headline to scream and they want to know the point of your story right away. So don’t bury the lead. Write your opening in a way that jumps off the page, grabs the reader, and says “here is why you have to read this.”
8. Cover a Topic While It Is Hot. Lawyer bloggers must resist the urge to craft the perfect, epic and definitive story on a timely news topic. In order to get readers to bookmark, like or favorite your blog, you need to cover important topics while they are hot – often the day they hit the headlines. Nobody wants to read your definitive analysis of a legal event that happened months or even weeks ago.
9. Use Bullets,Subheads and Hyper-links. When you write for a blog, you are not writing a textual composition for a law review or a scholarly publication. You are writing for Internet readers. They want to see sentences that are easy to read, with key points that are bulleted, component concepts that are highlighted by subheads, and hyper-links to relevant sources.
10. Include Graphs, Charts and Pictorials. If you have pictorial illustrations that help to convey your point, such as a court-room chalk or a PowerPoint presentation, include a link to those helpful items or embed photos or other visual items (such as charts and graphs) in your blog posting.
1. No Mental Gymnastics. Lawyers sometimes write articles as if they were engaging in mental gymnastics, displaying a variety of intellectual feats as if being scored by a judge. If you catch yourself writing in a way that looks like you are performing for other lawyers, stop. Walk away from the keyboard, loosen up and refocus on the readers. Think about what they want to know from you, and how you can deliver it quickly, easily and clearly.
2. No Hedging. There is an old joke in the C-suites that executives favor one-handed lawyers. They do not want to hear: “On the one hand, this could happen, and on the other hand, that could happen.” Clients, potential clients and media mavens similarly disdain hedging. To them, it sounds cowardly, cloudy, and confusing. Don’t be afraid to reach a conclusion, even if you have to disclaim that you are providing a legal opinion or rendering legal advice. Just provide your practical take informed by your legal experience and explain how it matters to them in court, in their commercial transactions and in their daily lives. If you have to hedge everything you write to avoid any chance whatsoever than anyone could sue you for any bizarre claim, then you really don’t have it in you to be a publisher, editor or writer.
3. No Treatises. We as lawyers have a great strength – the ability to delve deeply into a subject and to work it without tiring. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people have neither the time nor the inclination for “deep diving.” A blog entry should not have chapters and it should not just be a reproduction or reworking of legal documents already published elsewhere. Resist the temptation to publish material that is just too long or too detailed for the vast majority of readers to consume.
4. No “Lawyers Only” Stories. Readers of your blog do not want to feel like they are attending a cocktail party for lawyers where everyone is telling “inside” jokes and making references that only the lawyers understand or find interesting. You might occasionally have a topic you want to cover for your blog that resonates more with lawyers or judges who are your peers, but you can still do the story with an angle and perspective that appeals to a broader audience, providing clarifying explanations and metaphors as necessary.
5. No Legalese. Remember when you fill the blank space on your blog with words that you are not drafting a bullet-proof contract or a string-cite brief for court. As lawyers, we are trained to leave no stone unturned and to use the proper legal buzz words to describe every claim, cause of action, element of a claim or action, damage component and pertinent available remedy, at law or in equity. That long laundry list I recited in the prior sentence, by the way, is an example of legalese. Feel free to edit it as your first exercise in writing for the Web.
John O. Cunningham is a freelance writer and communications consultant who practiced law for nearly 17 years. During nine of those years, he served as V.P. and General Counsel to a publicly held international company and as General Counsel and Secretary to a Fortune 100 subsidiary. He also served as a news editor and reporter for Lawyers Weekly publications for more than four years. As a freelancer, he has written white papers, newsletters, marketing materials and Web site content for trade associations and professional service firms.