With so much practice, why is it that lawyers are so terrible at writing articles? Are we just lazy, selfish, myopic? I don’t think so – I just think nobody’s ever told you how to actually write an article that will get read.
So lawyers get to write a lot of articles. It’s a pretty safe bet that you either have, or will soon, have to do an article (or many) where you need to summarise a case, propose a point, explain a concept or some other useful kind of publication to go into your firm’s resources for its clients.
As a general rule, these articles take hours to produce. You often need to research a point, read a long case, understand and articulate the core issues, produce a draft, get feedback and amend it, then finalise the draft and submit it for publication. The process differs, but the fact is the same – writing an article costs lots of money.
Audience for your Legal Article
Before you even finalise your topic, you need to consider your audience. Who are they, what do they know.
The best way to do this is to create a person in your head, which many writers call an avatar. Here’s an example: Jane is a 34 year old mother of two, she works full time and her kids stay with her parents during the day. Her husband is away often working for a mining company. Jane doesn’t have a lot of spare time, but needs to stay up to date to ensure she manages her business well.
See how detailed it is? You can go further if you want. In fact, the more detailed the better.
Of course, this won’t be representative of everyone your article goes to, but it is instrumental in helping you find the right voice in your article. You’re not then writing in a void – you’re writing TO someone.
Once you accept the reality that you are writing to someone, rather than AT someone, a lot of the issues facing many legal articles will immediately dissolve out of your writing. Your language will automatically be more appropriate, you will chose a headline and image and style that are more appropriate and personal – in all, if you only do one of these things – do this.
Legal articles should be engaging, arresting, informative, and succinct. Anything else isn’t good enough.
Your Article’s Headline
Your headline should tell me why I care about your article. It should be about ME, not you.
Things like “Franchising Update” or “Insolvency News” are boring as hell and don’t tell me anything. I’m not going to click them unless my mouse slips or they come from a source that I particularly love reading.
Avoid headlines that are too clever. It’s tempting to get all fancy with your headlines, but it’s got to be immediately meaningful – if I can’t figure out what it’s about, then I’m probably not going to click on it.
In short – actually turn your attention to your headline, and ensure that your marketing team does the same. If it’s boring to you, do you really think anyone else will click on it?
The Extract of the Article
Your extract serves 1 major purpose – it articulates to a person whose attention has been grabbed by your headline a little more about your article. It needs to be pithy, catching, and explanatory – and short.
Lots of extracts I see are simply the first few sentences of the article – this is just lazy. Normally it’s too long, gets cut off mid-sentence, and isn’t as informative as it needs to be.
Good use of extracts can include:
- asking a question;
- making a statement;
- offering a benefit.
Opening Sentences Matter
If you’ve convinced me to click on your article, then you also need to convince me to read it.
Ever wondered how many people actually make it to the bottom of your article? I have – and so I started measuring it. Answer: most people don’t.
Your opening sentence MUST align with your headline and your extract – they need to tell the same story, but not in the same way. The opening sentence should offer enough about the article that the person wants to read the rest. If should not contain the answer to the question, the benefit you offered, or anything else that means there is no need to read the rest of the article.
Don’t mention case names, legislation, or anything else that will put your reader into a coma. Remember the overarching rule – it’s about ME, not you.
Images – They need to Exist, and be Relevant
Ah, images. As soon as you finish reading this, head over to your LinkedIn feed and find a few law firms – then tell me what their image was.
I’ll bet that the majority are:
- no image at all;
- a logo;
- a picture of the author.
Do you know why? It’s because nobody has bothered to upload a relevant, eye catching image. Instead, LinkedIn is just picking up the default, which is normally the first picture it finds – for law firms, this seems to be a logo or the author in the bio at the end.
It’s lazy. it’s boring. It’s not going to capture the attention of the fast scrolling reader on social media – so why do it?
For the sake of 5 minutes you can find an image that is 1000% better. If not you, then your marketing team.
Your Legal Writing Style
So, you’ve convinced your reader to get into the article and they are working their way through – how do you keep their attention?
There are a few tips that can at least have people scroll to the end, even if it’s quick:
- short sentences and paragraphs are better than long ones
- break up your text with headings, images or extracted quotes
- larger fonts are better than smaller ones (if you can influence this) – and read better on mobile
Language – Is Legalese OK?
I’m sure you know this intuitively, but do you practice it? Your language should be appropriate to your audience.
If in doubt, then simple language is better than complex language.
Avoid jargon at all costs – if it’s absolutely necessary then you’ll need to explain it, and that has a tendency to break up the flow of your article pretty badly.
If your article reads like an assignment, or a case note for Uni – then you’ve failed and need to start again.
Here’s a simple test: would your grandparents read the article, know what it was about, and have the stamina to get to the end? If so – you’re on the right track.
Length – How Long should a Legal Article Be?
An article, as with every piece of legal writing, should have as many words as it needs – no more, no less.
So in your next legal article, how about using this list as a checklist? Do you know somebody who needs a refresher or is prone to boring articles that make you cry? Well then – send this to them, and hope for the best!