Rethinking the case law update: Who are you talking to?

Take a moment to consider that staple of law firm newsletters (and now blogs) everywhere: the case law update. You know it well — chances are you’ve written and published at least one during your career.

The purpose of the case law update, I think you’d agree, is to notify readers that a new court decision affects the law in some way relevant to those readers. It follows from that premise that what readers most want to know is how the decision changes the law in ways that affect them, n’est-ce pas? Yet, as we all know, your average case law update spends maybe two paragraphs describing the impact of the ruling and close to 10 or 12 paragraphs setting out the background facts, the arguments by counsel, the findings of the trial judge (with quotes) and the conclusions of any appellate decisions (also with quotes).

If this format sounds awfully familiar, it’s because it’s the same format we’ve all been using since first-year law school. It’s a case summary, and it’s designed to do only one thing: demonstrate how well we understood the situation facing the judge and how the judge disposed of it.  Even the structure dates from law school: state the facts, apply the law, and summarize the result (like the solution to a mystery novel) at the very end. Like most law school assignments, the case summary was meant to train us to be judges someday, and it had no relevance to anyone outside the classroom or courtroom.

If you publish these kinds of summaries in newsletters and blogs today, stop for a moment and ask yourself: why on earth would clients be interested in 90% of what you’ve put in there? Clients are interested in only one thing: how does this affect me and my interests? The facts, the law, the analytical process by which the result was achieved — these are catnip to lawyers, who live and breathe this stuff, but to clients they’re nothing but extraneous detail. Clients care about what’s inside the overnight courier bag; lawyers care about the route taken by the FedEx truck to get it there.

I’ve now spent the better part of 15 years listening to lawyers talk about themselves, in one form or another: interviewing them, writing about them, listening to their speeches, scanning their websites, reading their newsletters and blogs, and on and on. If that experience has left me with one question, it’s this: Who, exactly, are we talking to? The too-frequent answer is: ourselves. Our consistent failure to consider and address our audience before we communicate is one of the biggest impediments to our effectiveness.

It’s difficult to overstate how important this is. Among professionals, lawyers are almost unique in terms of how much we communicate — almost all our work product is delivered verbally or in writing. But the habits we acquired at the start of our careers linger on like a bad cold — we instinctively address our communication to each other, rather than to the people whom we’re serving. There are of course plenty of notable and excellent exceptions, but as a general rule, we compromise our effectiveness as lawyers by forgetting who’s listening to us and why, and we compromise our marketing efforts by failing to consider who it is we hope will listen to us.

Communication — external and internal, deliberate and accidental, in service delivery and in marketing — is something to which we need to pay a lot more attention, and it’s something I’m going to address frequently here at the Law Firm Web Strategy blog in the months to come. For the moment, though, all I’d ask is that the next time you write a case law update for your firm, pause … re-read it … and ask yourself:  who will read this, and why should they care? Answering those two questions, and adapting what you’ve written accordingly, will instantly raise your game ahead of those of many competitors.

Comments

  1. Jason Wilson said:

    Jordan,

    Good observations and advice, but it seems to me that you’re addressing a larger problem, namely, what is the purpose of a firm website or blog. Do firm websites or blogs exist to demonstrate expertise to other lawyers (a possible source of referrals) or to solicit new business? I think both, which suggests two portals, one for lawyers and another for clients, something most firms don’t bother with. Everything just gets filed under “publications, awards, etc.” I agree that the audience must be considered, but I still see great value in case summaries, as a lawyer that is.

    @ 11:58 am
  2. Jason, thanks for your comment. I agree that law firm websites are the next big target for an existential rethink. I’ve heard suggestions that a law firm today doesn’t even need a website — that a comprehensive blog and Twitter strategy would suffice — and it’s not a crazy notion. But that’s for my next post in this series…. Lawyer communication in general leads an unexamined life — traditional, standardized, unconscious, rote — that is, for the most part, not worth living. People like us, of course, are there to examine it. :-)

    The idea of dual portals is interesting. I’d be inclined to say the lawyer portal ought to be a subset of the client portal — or, put differently, a “lawyer room” within a larger “client house.” That “lawyer room” would lend itself most clearly to a firm intranet or wiki, an internal resource — unless the firm were interested in packaging this information to consumers of legal knowledge outside the firm, including other lawyers. Some of the Magic Circle firms have gone a fair distance down this road already.

    @ 12:27 pm
  3. Jason Wilson said:

    I’m going to take exception to something Kevin O’Keefe posted on Twitter today (based on this post) that equated case summary blogs as being of little value. I don’t read that in Jordan’s post, and I think it distorts the message: know who you’re audience is. Not everything a lawyer puts on a web page or blog is geared towards clients, so to say that case summaries on blogs have little value is simply wrong. They do have value, just not to clients.

    @ 8:16 am
  4. Chad Ruback said:

    I wholeheartedly agree that the traditional case law update is outdated. Most people, whether lawyers or business professionals, don’t care to spend the time reading about background facts, etc. If people wanted to read such a long piece, they would be reading the case itself. On the other hand, my appellate clients have told me that they do want to know if there is a new appellate holding that will impact trial court practice. . . or if there is a new case re-affirming case law that hadn’t been addressed for some time. Every week, I post this information about cases handed-down by Dallas court of appeals. My clients (and other Dallas trial lawyers) have indicated that they appreciate being able to spend 2 minutes every week reading my posts to determine whether any of the new cases merit review.

    @ 10:50 am
  5. OK, I’ll chime in now. Jason, the distinction I make here is that it’s not just that lawyers must ‘know your audience’, but that they must also write to that audience. Case law summaries can help the legal consumer understand possible problems for their business or industry. But, if lawyers continue to over-detail fact scenarios, they lose the reader. IMO, it’s the lack of packaging – catchy titles, a clear early message of the impact, etc – that kills the biz dev value for case law summaries. Not the summary itself.

    Second point. Law firm websites are critical to defining a firm’s commercial offering. Firms should write to their clients, and yes I prefer exclusively, on the firm website. It’s a place of business in my view. There are so many places for academic or professional commentary, why shouldn’t lawyers have one clear place to define what their business does?

    Keeping the commercial message cornered on your business website also makes ALL of your other web properties *less* commercial. This is important for balance. When you define your sales proposition in one place, it then frees you to converse, network and convey expertise (without soliciting) everywhere else.

    @ 10:50 am
  6. Jason Wilson said:

    I see a couple of different conversations emerging here.

    One concerning the value of the traditional case summary. And while I agree that I prefer shorter synopses, if the summary is written by someone I know to be smart and informed, the facts he or she chooses to focus on helps me as well. With most good summaries, you get author analysis as well. That is not to say that the form of case summaries is closed for debate because it isn’t. It’s just another response to know who you’re writing for. And on that subject, when I see a firm send out a traditional case summary under the title “Client Advisory” or “Client Alert,” I will readily acknowledge that they’ve done it wrong.

    Second is the idea that a law firm website is exclusively commercial. I don’t necessarily agree, which is why Jordan’s comment on a lawyer house being included within a client house intrigues me. Having to manage multiple properties seems overly cumbersome to me. The property is ABCFirm.com. Good UI and UX design can ensure commercial traffic is directed to the right areas and noncommercial, networking, etc. traffic is directed to other areas. I think the firm should brand all of its properties (directories, lawyer blogs, SM, client alerts, etc.) under the same banner and provide a consistent user experience. With the amount of content firms are generating these days, they are quickly becoming a form of a news agency for both fellow bar members and current and prospective clients.

    @ 11:55 am
  7. Greg Lambert said:

    Are there any examples of firms or individual lawyers that do a good job at case law updates?

    I’m also wondering about those, somehow still popular, email alerts that are sent out to a client list. There’s little doubt in those that the attorney knows who the audience is (since they are directly emailing them). However, I doubt that they write the summaries any differently in this format than they would if it were on the website under a “Client Alert” heading. I’ve been waiting for these email alerts to die off, but lawyers (at least the ones that send them out) love the ‘push’ technology that email brings. Whether the recipients feel the same way is another question.

    @ 12:29 pm
  8. Jason Wilson said:

    Greg,

    On the issue of “Client Alerts,” I think MoFo is exactly one of those offenders Jordan is directing his post to. The case updates don’t get to the point quickly, that is, why should I be interested in this? They read fairly well, but are really more for attorneys than clients.

    @ 1:03 pm
  9. Rather than address the larger premise, simy want to note my personal opinion that, as an Internet researcher, I am thrilled that blawgers post case summaries – they provide another source of free legal research to mine. Particularly good ones encourage my return and increase the chance that I will remember and maybe follow the drafter.

    @ 1:22 pm
  10. Great post, Jordan. Everything should start with the target or audience. Warren Buffet once said that he wrote his famous (and extremely well-received) newsletter with his two sisters in mind, both very smart women but not financial professionals. I always think it helps to write for someone specific who is representative of your target audience.

    @ 2:05 pm
  11. I think Greg’s point regarding clients’ view of these updates is salient. A few years ago, the then-president of the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association was speaking to a roomful of law firm lawyers and mentioned, in passing, how little attention she paid to law firm newsletters. Unless, she said, the subject of the article happened to deal directly with an issue that was on her desk right at that moment, she just swept it into the nearest recycling bin, electronic or otherwise. She simply didn’t have the time or the inclination to read through all these updates on the off-chance something interesting might emerge.

    Law firms could learn a lot from that, not least the reminder that the updates and newsletters they send to clients are just part of a flood of such items, largely indistinguishable from each other, that clients receive every week. Firms provide these updates on the assumption that they’re the only ones doing so; clients would beg to differ. They’d probably beg to be left off many of those mailing lists, too.

    Chad’s point is an important one: clients want to know whether and to what degree the law affecting their business and their interests has changed recently. The trouble, though, is that even a concise case law update, a thing of beautiful brevity, is still a mass-market offering: everyone gets the same message. If you want to know how much value mass-market information has these days, go to Google News and notice how there are 2,751 “similar stories” on WikiLeaks or Lindsay Lohan. Notice that all these stories are free.

    If law firms really want to break through in this field, they need to take a breathtaking step: provide regular customized legal updates for every client. Every single one. Tell each client “whether and to what degree the law affecting their business and their interests has changed recently,” specifically tailored to that client’s circumstances. That requires two things: in-depth, intimate knowledge of a client’s situation and issues, and a very sophisticated knowledge distribution system. Firms should have the former anyway, and the latter is neither impossible nor unaffordable. This is something that large firms in particular can afford to do and that could instantly render every competing firm’s “newsletters,” “alerts” and “case law updates” irrelevant. I’d love to see someone try it.

    @ 2:17 pm
  12. Dan Michaluk said:

    Thanks Jordan.

    Although, I’ve pumped out over 350 case summaries on my blog over the last three years I can accept your point, which I understand about writing things that are relevant as opposed to interesting.

    I’ve always viewed my blog as self-centered and lawyer-centered. That’s okay though, because it’s still consistent with my objectives, which are primarily about creative expression, continuous learning and community service. Though I’ve used profiling as justification for the time cost and have certainly experienced a positive collateral benefit to my profile, creating a profile is not my objective. In fact, I question whether blogging is the right tool for those who would view it as a means to a better profile either inside or outside of the legal community.

    Let me try to address your ideas, though, with two of my own.

    Idea 1: Most cases don’t have anything more than news value. Probably one out of every 20 cases I summarize has a significant practical impact on the clients I serve. If you put them together, though, they have news value. If I understand that they’re news and communicate them as news (reliably, in a timely manner, with brevity and with a pithy headline), then I just might be delivering value to my client base.

    Idea 2: Why would I ever use the web to address clients’ “pain points” anyway? As you suggest in your last comment, if I’m smart, I take the one of twenty cases I’ve published to the world and call ten clients that it affects. Maybe I follow up with a confidential letter.

    The web is not a great medium for the delivery of client communications that are not newsworthy because it is a mass medium. And if you take away the case summary, you’ve got not much left to talk about.

    Thanks again!

    Dan

    @ 4:59 pm
  13. Who Are You Talking To?…

    Got a great question, or set of questions, this morning on a recent post. My answer got so long, I decided it’s a post of its own. Jim Caruso asked about whether he should start……

    @ 8:11 am
  14. Toby Brown said:

    A couple of years back I co-presented with a GC from a Fortune 100 company. When the topic of email case summaries came he, he became very animated. And then he turned to me – to make sure as a large firm rep I would get his points. They were:

    1 – Stop carpet bombing in-house depts with emails. The tax people don’t need to see employment law updates.

    2 – Case summaries have some value – but not much for him. He actually reads the news too. What he said would have value for him is some practical advice related to new law. The example he gave, although a bit dated, was a great illustration. He said when SoX was passed, he rec’d 50+ summaries from his various outside counsel. All of them pretty much said the same thing. Here’s where his point comes him. He stated that NONE of these summaries gave any practical advice related to the new law. If he had rec’d one of these, not only would he have seen the value in it, he would have shared it through-out his organization. Imagine having in-house counsel send your marketing e-mail through-out his company. That’s good marketing!

    Jordan’s main point is right on. Know your audience. Know their pain-points and address them. Stop talking about yourself and start talking about your clients and their needs.

    PS – I just saw a case summary e-mail … with footnotes. Clueless.

    @ 8:23 am
  15. Toby, this says it perfectly — thanks! I’m going to use that story and the phrase “carpet-bombing” in all future discussions of this subject, with attribution. :-)

    @ 10:50 am
  16. Bryan said:

    I know I’m a little late to this party, but I wanted to chime in just for a moment. When I write a case summary for my blog, I do hope that someone else will find value in it. However, writing such a summary has another very important purpose: it keeps me current on the law and helps me understand and synthesize the rules applied, as well as noting the precedents to which my court of choice regularly turns.

    Regarding “who are you writing to,” I don’t think it’s so easy to say that the “client” will not necessarily find your 80/20 summary/opinion of little or no value. My client may, indeed, be a faceless corporate behemoth, but the person on the other end of my phone is a talented, extremely busy lawyer. The client, as a faceless entity, doesn’t care about IRAC, but that lawyer often wants the short case summary that I’ve written, with just my two cents regarding its impact. If it’s sufficiently interesting/important, I’ll either spend more time explaining, or my counterpart will read it him or herself. That in-house counsel is then the one who makes the application to the business’s interests; he or she has a much better grasp regarding what the C-level employees need or want to hear.

    @ 5:12 pm
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