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.