If you are like many lawyers, you have probably thought about writing a book or article on a legal topic. This column will help you maximize practice development from publishing, whether you want to develop prospects, help existing clients, or just build your reputation.
The Typical Way Lawyers Write for Publication
Often, a lawyer who writes an article starts the process by thinking of a topic. You may want to write about a legal issue you have encountered, a recent development in the law, or perhaps expand upon a research memorandum you completed for a client.
If you are like many lawyers, you do some research on the topic, then prepare an article that will help someone thoroughly understand the issue. You start writing, probably between perhaps 3,000 and 10,000 words, with citations and—if you were on law review—ample footnotes.
If fortunate or persistent, you finish your article. (Many lawyer-writers get too busy and never finish.) You are then probably too self-conscious to have anyone you know review your article. They are busy, and you don’t want to take up their time. So you promptly send your writing to the publisher you hope will publish the writing – perhaps a prestigious law review or national publication—and hope they will edit it, cite check it, and publish it.
If published, you trust, your article will bring you recognition, prestige, and perhaps even some clients.
Making Your Writing Great
If you follow the “usual” approach I just described, you made a lot of very basic mistakes that may hurt your ability to maximize return on your writing. Instead of such random acts of publishing, let me offer nine suggestions for how best to build your law practice by publishing on legal issues.
1. Decide why you are writing.
If you want to maximize the practice-building benefits of your writing, planning is critical. And the first step of planning is to choose your objective, to decide what you hope to accomplish with your writing.
The three most common aims for lawyers writing on legal topics are to (1) increase prestige; (2) cultivate potential clients; and (3) provide helpful aids for clients or colleagues in the law. All of these aims can assist the lawyer in developing business.
Increased prestige can help you become a “visible expert,” the marketing buzzword for people recognized and sought out because of their expertise on a particular subject. Cultivating prospects or providing an aid to clients or colleagues, meanwhile, can provide more direct links to receiving more legal business, either from your readers or people they refer to you.
Of course, some lawyers write simply because they have a burning desire to write. If this fire burns in you, you may want to write fiction or perhaps more popular genres of nonfiction rather than legal analysis. This may be a wise choice, because although a (very) small group of lawyers make some or even decent money writing on legal topics, the real money comes from writing more popular content and appealing to the broader public. If your burning desire is to write on arcane legal topics, meanwhile, perhaps you should consider pursuing a position in legal academia.
Rather than becoming distracted by such issues, let me proceed to my second recommendation on writing and publishing for business development.
2. Publish as part of a broader marketing plan.
Now that you have selected your goal, develop a multi-part plan to accomplish that goal. Often publishing articles will only be part of the goal. You may want to develop an industry niche. If this is the case, you may want to publish articles for that industry. But you should also develop a plan to become active in that industry. You can then use your writing to reinforce your overall goal.
To increase your name recognition, it is important to have repeat contact with the people you want to influence. Whether you want to be perceived as an expert or develop business, you will usually get the best results if your readers see your name and connect it to your preferred topic or practice eight or more times.
When writing, therefore, you will generally achieve better results if you publish a series of short, insightful articles instead of one longer article. You also benefit when you publish where people may know you or your firm, so you can benefit from an established reputation.
You also may want to publish where you expect to interact personally with your potential readers. People are more willing to read and remember articles by people they know. If they meet you and find you compelling in person, they are more likely to search out content that you have published.
3. Pick the best forum for your article.
Once you have a goal and a plan, select the best publication or forum to accomplish that goal. This step may involve an internal struggle, because often the most prestigious forum is not the best forum to accomplish your goal. Often the best forum may require you to write far outside your comfort zone, to target people who lack a legal—and possibly even a higher—education.
You should consider many factors when choosing a forum for publishing. They include the reputation and renown of the publication; its circulation size; its content focus; its geographic focus; its audience and demographics of the audience; the speed to publication; and the allocation of post-publication rights.
Your purpose for publishing should influence the weight you assign each factor. If you are seeking prestige, for example, the reputation and renown of the publication may overshadow any other considerations. You should be aware, however, that publishing an article in a prestigious law review will likely bring only prestige: few prospects or referral sources will likely see the article, or read it—even if you send it to the prospect. Also, if a publication is truly prestigious, you may need to develop a track record of publishing to even be considered.
If you want to cultivate prospects, meanwhile, you will likely want to concentrate on publication’s content focus, audience demographics, and geographic location. A lawyer who wants retention on construction litigation matters, for example, should (a) determine who hires construction litigation attorneys and (b) publish articles where those people are likely to see them. If you are seeking construction litigation engagements, your primary prospects would probably not be other lawyers, even construction lawyers. Rather, you probably want to reach construction company executives or perhaps other professionals (such as insurance underwriters or bankers) who service the construction industry. Publish where they will see your writing.
Similarly, if you want to represent people going through divorce, you probably want to reach married people who live near your office—and who are likely to have the type of divorce you want to handle (and who can pay their bills).
When you are trying to identify publications that may reach your targets, one shortcut is to ask targets—perhaps existing clients or, if you rely heavily on referrals, referral sources—what publications or websites they read on a regular basis.
Finally, if you hope to publish a helpful aid to clients or colleagues, content flexibility and reach may be major concerns. You will want to publish the aid you think will be most helpful, and get it in the hands of the people it can help. For this reason, post-publication rights may be very important. Many publishers will allow you to retain the rights to your publication, or sell you a reprint that you may distribute largely without limit.
4. Investigate what your forum publishes.
Once you have selected a forum for publication, you should review what that publication actually publishes. This inquiry usually takes two forms. First, you should see if the publication has author guidelines. These guidelines may specify length, content, use of citations and footnotes, and the like. Sending a publication something that does not comply with the publication’s express requirement severely reduces your chance of being published.
Many bar publications, for example, will not publish articles that exceed 1,000 or 1,500 words. Other publications want 2,500-word manuscripts, while many law reviews prefer articles exceeding 5,000 words. I often write single-page columns, which must be fewer than 650 words. Article length can be critical: if you write something 4,000 words long, or 12,000 words long, it may be very difficult to place.
Second, you should review several copies of the publication to see what the publication actually does publish. If your article looks nothing like anything the publication has ever published before, there is a pretty good chance the publication will not publish it.
5. Explore post-publication rights.
Before you submit to a publication, learn what you will be permitted to do with your article after it is published. Some publications will require authors to sign away most of their intellectual property rights. Then you may need to purchase a reprint or receive special permission before you can circulate your published article. In other instances, you may retain full rights, and be permitted to create your own paper or digital reprint of the article.
Similarly, if you are publishing a book, some publishers give authors a significant number of extra copies, or allow authors to publish copies of their book at a significant discount. Other publishers may provide only one or two copies to an author, and charge significant amounts for extra copies.
Restrictions on the ability to repurchase and repurpose your work may be quite important if you hope to use your published piece as a firm newsletter, or to otherwise reach prospects or reward clients. Moreover, it is best to learn the limitations before you publish—and to have them set forth in an agreement with the publication. Otherwise, you may find you have far less latitude in how you use your published work after the fact.
6. Write what best advances your goal.
Having determined where to publish and what to publish, it is now time to write. Make sure that your prior planning and the publication you intend to use shape your writing. Write with the proper tone and for the proper audience. Avoid or explain technical language and jargon that may confuse your intended audience.
Also, make sure your content is truly original. I am aware of situations where lawyer-authors tried to pass off another’s content as original. Plagiarism will damage rather than enhance the purported author’s reputation. In addition, in some instances it has resulted in disciplinary sanctions.
7. Have someone else proof your writing.
You should spell-check and grammar-check your writing before submission. But, more important, you should always have someone review what you have written before you submit it for publication. Many publications rush their review, or provide only light editing. If you want to publish an article that will make you proud, you generally need to ensure that you were proud of the writing when you submitted it.
Often I have an intelligent, detail-oriented non-lawyer and non-specialist review my writing, even when the articles are intended for lawyers or specialists. These readers provide a good test that all the writing is reasonably coherent. In fact, I even convinced a non-lawyer to proof my 280-page book before the American Bar Association edited and published it. (Thanks, Mom.)
8. Cooperate with your intended publisher.
Now that you have an article, you want to work well with your publisher. If you have a deadline, try to meet the deadline. If you have a word limit, stay within it. If the publisher sends you a proof to review, review the proof within the time allowed. Also, when reviewing a proof, try to avoid the temptation to rewrite your article completely, or do anything else that may impair timely publication of your writing.
Finally, if you are having a bad experience with a publisher, your best bet is likely to never use that publisher again. Trying to fight with them during the publishing process is not worth your time and energy—or theirs.
9. Consider re-using or republishing your writing.
Once you have published your article, you may want to consider republishing it or distributing it to gain further benefits. Many publications will only publish original content, but some are willing to publish something that has been published before in another setting. Also, as discussed earlier, publications vary regarding what rights you might have to re-use a publication after publication. Finally, some publications will post the article online, while others will not, and they may or may not allow you to be the article’s first Iweb publisher. Publishing original content online helps with search engine optimization .
If you would like to publish your writing in a second publication, you may want to learn restrictions before you select your first forum for publication. After all, you may be surprised to learn when a forum might publish an article that has previously been published elsewhere.
About the Author
Michael Downey is a legal ethics lawyer at Downey Law Group LLC, a law firm devoted to legal ethics, law firm risk management, lawyer discipline defense, and the law of lawyering. He can be reached at (866) 961-6644 or firstname.lastname@example.org.