Five ways to fine tune your legal copywriting

iStock_517156138_1200px_wide.jpgAs a lawyer, you were trained to draft a formal agreement in your subject area, but you might also find yourself tasked with drafting a blog post for your company website or an article for a newsletter.  

Technically, this type of writing is called ‘copywriting’ and a helpful definition is that it is ‘the process of writing words intended to prompt a specific action by the reader’.  If you have been asked to write something as part of your law firm’s marketing approach, then the desired action will usually be for a client to contact the firm to seek legal advice.

If you are writing for an external publication, then it is highly likely that your words will be amended by an editor whose role it is to ensure a consistent style across all the material which they publish. This might be the editor of a magazine or journal, or even a book with chapters contributed by different experts. 

Apart from the sketch-writers who need to have their own personal style, when you read a newspaper, you generally cannot tell who has written the main news articles as they write to a common style. 

It can be rather demoralising to receive your carefully drafted article returned to you with copious red edits and comments. Some lawyers find being edited very difficult, while others don’t take things personally and recognise that different media require different writing styles.

It is worth remembering that the easier you make things for an editor, the more likely they are to commission you to write for them again.

‘I have known lawyers to complain and refuse suggested edits, and while the editor complied with their wishes, the lawyer was never called upon again by that editor,’ says Sue Bramall.

Five ways to improve your legal copywriting

Good legal copywriting faces the challenge of balancing legal accuracy with plain English and commerciality.

Here are five ways in which you might be able to fine tune your legal copywriting, to ensure you become an editor’s go-to expert.

1. Clarify the objective

The most important factor for successful copywriting is identifying who exactly you are trying to reach and why. Copywriting is essentially providing information with a specific purpose. Different types of content have different audiences: are you speaking to fellow businesses, or individuals looking for help?

If you are not sure who the target audience is, then clarify this with the editor. This will help guide your content: what is a prospective client interested in? Why do they need to know about this?

Remember that the objective is to prompt an action.  Do you remember when the cookie laws came in? For some reason, this topic was picked up by thousands of budding legal authors keen to blog on the topic.  But law firms were not providing advice on this at that time – the only people making money from the introduction of cookie notices were website agencies.  An article on shareholder agreements (while not a hot topic) is likely to have had much greater profit potential.

Why should a reader choose your law firm over another? Generally, potential clients will be looking for an approachable expert that they can trust - not seeking to understand the law themselves.  

This can be conveyed easily in your online presence by imagining yourself in their shoes and adjusting your tone and approach accordingly. 

2. Agree a synopsis

Spending a few minutes drafting a synopsis before you start, and agreeing this with the editor, will also help to ensure that you cover the key issues that they think are important for their readers.

For example, if you wish to write about eviction notices, should you direct the article to landlords or tenants? It will make a big difference to your writing. 

You should definitely not attempt to write for both sides of the issue, as you will simply alienate both readers. If your firm acts for landlords and tenants, then write one side of the story now, and then come back and edit it to create an alternative version a few months later for the other side.

Alongside human readers, marketing managers and editors will be conscious of the power of internet search.  Google is thought to process approximately 63,000 search queries every second. It may be that there are certain questions that need to be answered in the body of the article, and you can get an idea of these when you search for your topic on Google.

For example, if we search “shareholder agreement”, these four questions also come up:

3. Connect with your readers

In most cases, your copywriting will not be directed at other lawyers.  Even if you are writing for other lawyers, once an article is uploaded to your website it could be found by anyone.

One of the most important questions that a reader asks when they see a title and start reading is – does this affect me?  Consider how the newspapers make the Budget understandable by creating pen portraits of different family types and calculating how the headlines affect them in practice financially.  Remember that (sadly) the average reading age in the UK is only 9 years old!

How can you make a dry legal issue interesting?  A fictitious example or a case study is a great way of illustrating a point and can bring an article to life.

One of a lawyer’s most valuable skills is the ability to condense masses of technical legal jargon into an easily understandable summary for clients. Copywriting is no different, although you may need to take things to a new level.

It is easy to lose the reader if your article goes over their head.  On the other hand, as Leonardo da Vinci said “The noblest pleasure is the joy of understanding” and readers really appreciate plain English explanations.

4. Respect the reader’s time

Every word counts in copywriting. Having clear, direct, and purposeful content means ruthlessly editing out what does not need to be there. As you are writing for the reader, try to focus on and speak to them, using direct speech: “If you have an employee on long-term sick leave …” is more engaging than “Employers with employees on long-term sick leave”.

Generally speaking, the client reader does not need to know about the history of legislation or case law.  If an employer has concerns about long-term sickness absence, they want to know how the current law stands.

They may be interested in forthcoming legislation, but they will be more likely to make the time to read about it when there is clarity over the implications.  Readers got pretty fed up with all the initial puff around GDPR, and many had almost lost interest by the time the details had been clarified.

5. Practice makes perfect

The former politician-turned novelist Geoffrey Archer recently bemoaned how the publishing industry rarely gave new authors a three-book deal anymore, such as he had benefited from.  He described how it takes time to develop your style and hone your craft, and it was his third novel Kane and Abel that was his first big success.

Working closely with an editor to get to grips with their house-style will really help you to develop a more journalistic tone of voice in your writing.

Simply putting pen to paper, without thinking about it too much, is a great way to get over perfection paralysis – see our article ‘Does ‘perfection paralysis’ hinder lawyer marketing

You might also look for opportunities to practice and develop your writing outside work, whether that is blogging for a local charity or turning your hand to your own novel, this will help you to flex your creative juices. The anonymous ‘Secret Barrister’ achieved every blogger’s dream with a major book deal after five publishers bid for the first book.

On the other hand

On the other hand, maybe you prefer to get involved in marketing in other ways, such as public speaking, networking or formal pitches. Maybe you do enough writing in your working day, and wish you could hand the blogging over to someone else.

If that is the case, then why not contact us about our specialist ghost-writing services for lawyers and law firms. Either way, we are glad to help.

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