Write an Article that isn’t terrible

write an articleVery quickly in your legal career you will likely be asked to help write an article for distribution to clients or contacts of the firm.

I’ve had to write an article for a lot of people on a lot of occasions in the last decade, so this is a matter close to my heart.  I have written articles that were terrible, and others that were much better.  Some were dull as anything, and others had enough interest to hold a reader’s attention.

Shortly after you are asked to write an article, you will be back sitting at your desk wondering how you are going to go about preparing it.  It is at this point that the difference between writing for study and real world legal writing should be highlighted for you, if it has not been already.

Legal Writing is Different

Specifically – in legal writing (even articles) if you write something that even vaguely resembles a university assignment, then you will have failed.  University assignments had set goals and set criteria.  Here, there are often no criteria and your goals are likely very different.  The layout, composition and language used in University assignments has little, if any, place in legal article writing.

The task of writing an article is taken by many to be a humdrum component of your legal career.  It is, however, an essential part of legal writing which you will have to become comfortable with, because you’ve got a lot of articles to write ahead.  If you’re good at it, you will be providing a valuable addition to your team beyond your legal knowledge.

Here are my tips for you to write an article for distribution to your firm’s marketing database that will have you thinking about the right issues:

  1. Understand the audience.  Depending who is on the distribution list, all aspects of legal writing will take on a different tone and have different assumptions about existing knowledge.  Is the audience sophisticated?  Are they professionals, individuals, corporations, other lawyers?  Is this topic likely to be new to them or is it a widely known subject matter about which you can assume they already have some underlying knowledge?  These answers will direct the broad strokes of your pen (ok – it’s probably a keyboard) as you put together the framework for the article.
  2. Don’t skimp on the research.  If you are going to write an article, then whoever is signing off on it presumes that your background information is 100% correct.  Do not assume that your supervisor will check your sources – they probably won’t (and they shouldn’t have to). If you put a quote in from a case, then check the case itself.  DO NOT rely on third party material for assertions you make, but rather go to the source.  A number of complex topics have found themselves in a quagmire of misinformation simply because a series of article writers all copied the first, who as it turns out got the information wrong.  Don’t fall into this trap.  You might use other articles to assist your search for topics of interest, but do not use them for content.
  3. Keep it succinct.  The chances that your article will be read in full by the audience is fairly slim, but it is even slimmer if it appears long and unwieldy from the beginning.  Short, pointed sentences conveying the necessary information are fine.
  4. Make sure you know the point of any legal writing that you do.  Is it to fill in space in a newsletter, get the logo “out there”, inform on a specific topic of recent interest, demonstrate expertise in an area, terrify people of doing “X” without your firm’s legal advice, give a “timely reminder” about an age old issue, or something else entirely?  You can’t write an article that achieves its purpose without knowing what that purpose is.
  5. Have a good title.  Anybody who knows me will roll their eyes at this point, given how often I express dismay at the series of boring and unstimulating titles out there.  You need something that grabs people’s attention and holds it long enough to get them engaged on the content.  Don’t write an article with a boring title.
  6. Show some personality.  I say this cautiously, because too much personality will take a legal article quickly into the realms of a comedy act.  However, a bit of flavour here and there shows that you, a lawyer, are in fact a real person with a sense of humour (or whatever it is that you have a sense of).

Those are my tips for today.  Rarely do articles rise or fall on their content alone – after all, every lawyer in the country can read the same cases as you and write a case note about them.  The question is how you go about distinguishing your work from those of your many peers.  Keep these tips in mind when you write an article and you will be well down the right path.

At the end of the day, practice makes perfect – so keep working on it (read why in this article on recurrent writing)

Happy lawyering!

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