Why do you read content? Yes, you, on the other side of this screen. What makes you pick up and continue reading a story in a newspaper or magazine, or listening to a podcast, or watching a video?
If you’re like most people, chances are the content you consume from start to finish features some of the following characteristics:
The best lawyer-written content satisfies many, and sometimes all, of these criteria. But often, for a variety of reasons, lawyers produce content that ticks off only the first two or three boxes.
Most lawyer content is created and channeled through the legal system, at a price, exclusively for paying clients. Research memos, client advisories, correspondence with the opposing party, cease-and-desist letters, merger documentation, motions to dismiss, and on and on: this is the work product of the modern lawyer. It’s directed towards people such as opposing counsel, arbitrators and judges.
This content tends to be painstakingly utilitarian—recite the facts, state the law, and deliver the argument or conclusion. Perhaps not surprisingly, these characteristics also surface in the other content lawyers produce: public-facing, promotional, educational content, meant for marketing or publishing purposes. Unfortunately, it too is heavy on the steak, but light on the sizzle.
This does not immediately present a problem for the typical lawyer. It’s most important, this lawyer reasons, to write something that’s correct and gets the job done: “I’m not paid to be interesting and engaging. I’m paid to be right.” Everything else is mere frippery, as the saying goes.
In fact, however, good content—content that gets read, remembered and acted upon—is engaging. It takes the reader on an interesting journey through an understandable narrative to a useful destination. And despite what some lawyers might assume, lawyer-produced content can be accurate and engaging.
More importantly, it’s also increasingly necessary. If you want a client or potential client to read your content and recognize your expertise, it must offer more than just the facts, the law, and the conclusion. The reader has to want to keep reading. Dry recitations of what the judge said or what the law requires aren’t going to inspire that desire.
The Key to Great Content
The most effective way for a lawyer to engage an audience through content is to focus on the audience’s interests and priorities. Write about something the reader is likely to care about, something that matters right now, and do it in a manner and style that the reader finds appealing. Too much lawyer-produced content today, unfortunately, is pointed in exactly the opposite direction: toward the lawyer himself or herself.
Many articles, updates, and blog posts rolling out from law firms worldwide are focused on issues that interest the lawyer more than the reader, offer insufficient practical guidance for the reader, or are delivered in a detached and passive voice. If it’s marketing material, it’s usually all about the lawyer, all the time. It’s disconnected from the reader’s interests and priorities.
What clients want to read, and what lawyers feel inclined to write, sometimes are two very different things.
Yes, this is a great challenge for you, the lawyer or law firm, as you attempt to write and publish your own legal content. Refocusing lawyers away from their own interests and toward their clients is perhaps the biggest challenge in lawyer management, and it extends well beyond content production. If it’s your job to help lawyers write client-first content, rather than lawyer-first content, then you have your work cut out for you.
But this challenge also represents a great opportunity, if you get it right. If you can consistently produce engaging, client-focused content, you’ll stand out from the bulk of your competition. In a wide, grey sea of lawyer content, you can create and support vibrant island oases that leap out of the horizon and draw visitors from all over. You just need to ensure you’re following three key principles.
- Remember the audience. A successful law firm publishing effort will always maintain a razor-sharp appreciation of who the audience is and what they care about. This is why you should base your firm’s publishing strategy on the firm’s business development strategy. Both rely heavily on a deep understanding of the interests and priorities of clients in the firm’s markets. If your firm knows a market well enough to sell legal services to clients within it, the firm can customize its publishing efforts to engage those clients as well.
- Be practical. It sometimes seems that most law firm newsletters are devoted to case comments and legislative updates in a specified area of law. However important this might be, it’s not the actionable knowledge that most clients are seeking. Practical guidelines, implementable checklists, and real-life experiences all help clients navigate unfamiliar or difficult territory, and accordingly rank higher on their priority list. Sure, pure “legal” updates and analyses have a place, especially if you run an appellate litigation practice. But otherwise, focus on practical content that clients can use today.
- Be concise. Lawyers have so much knowledge and insight that they sometimes generate too much content. A typical case comment, for example, might devote many paragraphs to a restatement of the facts and a summary of the court’s reasoning. While that might be interesting to lawyers, who have never lost their fascination with law school case studies, it holds much less value for most clients. When writing and revising public content, a lawyer should periodically ask: “Does the reader really need to know this part?”
Good content is targeted to a type of client and is customized to that client’s interests. It provides solutions and recommendations rather than mere commentary or observation. It emphasizes recognition and prevention of legal risks and issues, rather than post-mortems of legal situations that went wrong Most of all, it tells a good story worth knowing.
This article is excerpted from Creating An Online Publishing Strategy, by Steve Matthews and Jordan Furlong, published by the ABA’s Law Practice Division. More information is available here.
About the Authors
Jordan Furlong (left) is a lawyer and legal journalist, commentator, and analyst. He blogs at www.Law21.ca and is on Twitter @jordan_law21. Steve Matthews (right) is the founder and president of Stem Legal Web Enterprises, and is a frequent speaker and writer on trends in the legal profession. Follow him on Twitter @stevematthews.