To Grow Your Audience, Know Your Audience

MP900385558Before you write your first word as a blogger you should know exactly who your audience is. Are you a legal malpractice attorney trying to reach other lawyers? Are you a business consultant speaking to entrepreneurs or established CEOs? Or are you a solo practitioner who works directly with the public?

How you answer this question will dictate the tone of your writing. If you are a plaintiff’s lawyer who writes a highly technical blog on the definition of malfeasance you are not likely to attract as many direct clients, but you may attract good referral sources like other attorneys or doctors.

The difficulty for the the lawyer representing the public is that you have been trained extensively in the art of legal writing. Your law school career was filled with opportunities to show your intellect. Now when writing your legal briefs you try to be persuasive and compelling, using every argument at your disposal.

The best legal writing is not just writing that is clear, concise, and engaging; rather, what characterizes great legal writing is a separate, aesthetic quality, which I call elegance.

– Mark K. Osbeck, What is “Good Legal Writing” and Why Does it Matter?

But the public lawyer’s online audience is not the judge, it’s the client. Public-focused online content should be easy to read, straightforward, and concise. The online audience does not have a legal education. It also does not have a long attention span. To reach the public, it is important to K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, stupid).

The lesson: Presentation is important. If they can’t read it, they won’t.

The New Legal Writer

Writing for a legal blog is entirely different than writing a legal brief. If you don’t walk in knowing exactly who your audience is, you will use the wrong tone and lose potential followers, and clients.

Good Grammar, Good Image

In aCheezeburgern era of ever-proliferating memes and text-based abbreviations, some may question the need for meticulous proofreading, but for businesses, and particularly for lawyers, good grammar is an essential part of crafting a professional appearance online.

You would never dream of filing a motion with the court or sending a letter to a client using the kind of grammar found on the Cheezeburger websites, but these linguistic liberties often pop up on professionals’ Facebook pages or Twitter accounts. It is important that you remain ever vigilant. As Brad Hoover, of the Harvard Business Review, recently reminded his readers,

good grammar is instrumental in conveying ideas with clarity, professionalism, and precision.

As compelling as it may be to substitute “u” for “you” or “prez” for “president” when trying to squeeze into Twitter’s 140 character limit, doing so does far more harm than good to your online image. Internet customers are looking to see if you are professional and have a good reputation. Using these kinds of shortcuts will make you seem uneducated, hasty, and sloppy. They can negate all of your professional credentials and careful branding choices.

Rather than relying on text-speak, work on tightening your language. Don’t use 5 words when 2 will do. Avoid phrases like “the idea of” or “it has been said,” which add weight without substance. Remove unnecessary, superfluous, and redundant adjectives (like these).

With practice, you will find it much easier to slip in under the character count without compromising your professional integrity. You may even find that your legal writing improves too.

Break Away from the Forms

SignatureThe ABA Journal recently published an article criticizing modern lawyers’ ability to write. Author Bryan A. Garner blames law schools. What’s worse, he claims that most lawyers don’t know they’re bad writers and that somehow the industry is under the collective delusion that legalese is the mark of good writing.

Mr. Garner is certainly not entirely wrong. Law school grading policies definitely contribute to the downplaying of literary aptitude.

They inundate students with poorly written, legalese-riddled opinions that read like over-the-top Marx Brothers parodies of stiffness and hyperformality. And they offer law students little if any feedback (on substance, much less style) from professors on exams and writing assignments.

Traditional law school exams focus on speed over quality, resulting in a kind of brain dump that does nothing to teach future lawyers to become masters of their craft. These exams are a far cry from the well-developed legal brief appellate courts expect or the nuanced fact-intensive motions that most trial courts require.

While law schools play a role, wordsmiths among attorneys also get caught up in “the way it’s always done.” Mr. Garner points out that this tendency to unwittingly write poorly is particularly noticeable among transactional attorneys. This is most likely because transactional attorneys work from forms far more often than litigants. Changing those forms is time-intensive and therefore costly, so instead the old legalese traditions live on, even if the authors know better.

The same can also be said for new lawyers. When an experienced litigant writes a motion, he can start from scratch because he is well versed in what needs to be included.  When the freshly admitted lawyer goes to write the same motion, she has to seek out an example, either from an online formbank or her firm’s senior partner, to make sure she covers all the issues. Her lack of confidence will often stop her from updating the form’s language because she assumes it is there for a reason.

There is also tremendous pressure to turn work out quickly. Associates don’t feel free to take time updating the language of a form, motion, or brief. Instead they work as quickly as they can to turn out passable work for the partners’ approval. Quantity and not quality is the primary concern.

As long as these tendencies remain, our industry will continue to be the butt of many jokes. Top partners and solo practitioners need to lead the way, improving the standard of filed pleadings and transactional forms. Similarly, judges must hold poor writers accountable for their errors so they will improve. If we in the industry want to be better legal scribes, we need to be willing to buck the trends and be innovative in our writing.