Explaining content and why lawyers struggle with it

In my previous post, I explained how social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and blogs are simply vehicles for the distribution of content, and I showed how these vehicles can be an unusually good fit for lawyers. The problem with vehicles, of course, is that whether you’re driving a beat-up old Civic or a sleek new Lexus is less important than whether you’re a good or a terrible driver.

Likewise, whether you use social media, and which types you employ if you do, is less important than the quality of the content you’re delivering through them. For me, this is the Achilles’ heel of most law firm social media efforts: content is the central feature of social media, and lawyers, as a general rule, aren’t very good at content.

Obviously I don’t mean that lawyers provide poor or mistaken information about the law, which is rarely the case. But “content,” as we use the term in this context, is more than “just the facts,” the bare, need-to-know essentials. The thing about content is that it needs to be read by people. And people read content for more than just the facts.

Take a moment and reflect: why do you read content, personally? What makes you pick up and continue reading a story in a newspaper or magazine or book? Chances are, it’s because the content is:

  • accurate
  • relevant
  • reliable
  • concise
  • well-written
  • engaging
  • enjoyable
  • funny
  • memorable

As you go down that list, the chances that a piece of lawyer-written content will satisfy one of those criteria steadily diminishes. There are two reasons for this. One is that lawyers tend to be painstakingly utilitarian writers — probably because we also tend to be painstakingly utilitarian people.

The other, more important reason is that many lawyers don’t really believe content has much worth beyond its factual value. Lawyers don’t try to write enjoyably or memorably because they don’t see how it matters. Who cares if it’s engaging or not? I’m not paid to be engaging. I’m paid to be right.

Good content has narrative, a story to tell — but lawyers tend to distrust narrative. To lawyers, narrative feels unprofessional, because it’s not stiff and formal and proper enough. Narrative is risky, because it allows for the possibility of interpretation, and lawyers want only one type of interpretation, their own. Most of all, narrative is wasteful: it consumes otherwise billable time in an effort to connect with a reader whose reading experience is not really a priority.

I’m a big supporter of blogging for lawyers, but I’m not a big supporter of a lot of content I see on lawyers’ blogs. I see case summaries that are 90% recitation of the facts and law and 10% general advice to the reader. I see 1,000-word expositions on the evolution of a legal concept that’s irrelevant to a client’s daily life. I see detached and passive writing that goes out of its way to avoid a personal touch. And I still see uncomfortably self-serving copy that seems to have gotten lost on its way to an advertorial. Double all this for content that gets amplified through Twitter and LinkedIn and so forth.

You can see this general disrespect for content in the way law firms budget for content: they don’t. As a rule, I find law firms interesting in direct proportion to the number of non-lawyer professionals they rely upon. Even smaller and midsize firms have a sort of “chief of staff” position; as the firms get bigger, you’ll see technology people and eventually marketing people too. But content professionals? Very few and far between. “Our lawyers can create content,” partners say. And indeed lawyers can. They can type their own correspondence too, but few of them do.

Kevin O’Keefe of LexBlog suggests that one way for law firms to get serious about content is to hire independent journalists — real, actual journalists, not just copywriters — to build up a respected and authoritative body of professionally produced content to enhance the firm’s reputation in its chosen fields. As both a lawyer by training and a former journalist by trade, I love this idea, and I wish that some firms would try it.

But I suspect that very few will. Journalists and lawyers are pretty much Mars and Venus in terms of compatible outlooks. Journalists, for instance, are trained to be fair and to look at both sides of a story; lawyers advocating for their clients’ interests (or their own) have no time for that sort of thing. A journalist at an average law firm would last as long as it takes the journalist to make a complimentary reference about a leading lawyer who happens to be the hated rival of the firm’s top rainmaker.

Law firms that want to successfully connect with their audiences have to get serious about content. They have to respect content as something that needs to be readable, trustworthy, and at least halfway fair for it to be of real value to the reader. There are ways in which they can do this:

Budget for content. I’ve written before about how ghostblogging is a short road to a bad ending, but not all law firm content needs to be lawyer-authored. Non-lawyers can and should produce content under a law firm banner, so long as they’re duly recognized as content professionals supporting the work of the lawyers.

Recruit lawyers for content. Law firms maintain “research lawyers” whose job is partly to practise law but primarily to provide compelling legal research. There’s no reason firms can’t similarly identify lawyers whose strengths lie with the written word more than with making rain. Lawyers who write well are rare, but demand for this asset is rarer still.

Stand up for content. The more distinctive and engaging the content, the more risk attends its circulation. Inevitably, sooner rather than later, a firm that concentrates on an innovative, differentiated approach to content will stumble and make a mistake, maybe a big one. The firm needs to be unstinting in support of the content provider, lawyer or otherwise, or it will revert to its bad old habits.

Remember the reader of content. Any serious law firm effort to leverage content has to start with understanding who the firm’s audience is and what they care about. Smart law firms will quickly figure out that their audience is diverse and its preferences even more so; but if massive international media companies can gauge all their specific mini-audiences, I’m pretty sure a law firm can do the same. And here’s a hint in advance: your clients want to read well-written, enjoyable copy.

Invest wisely in good content, and it will reward your firm in a host of ways. High-quality, engaging, memorable law firm content is a very scarce resource right now; see what you can do about cornering this market at your firm.

Comments

  1. Fantastic post, Jordan. Near and dear to my heart.

    Traditionally the legal process has trained ‘memorability’ out of legal writers. Memorability comes from having a unique take on a topic (in general). This is at odds with the nature of precedent-based legal training.

    Lawyers aren’t there to invent the law – they’re to apply it!

    And it’s even at odds with traditions like law firm naming, that have always trended towards the expected surname format.

    But the purely factual process isn’t really suited to the new knowledge economy. With more and more people publishing content in all fields, the harder it is to actually interest someone with stale content.

    Clients don’t just read legal websites, and stale legal content will seem increasingly out of touch when compared with other websites that clients visit.

    It can be difficult to avoid the ‘advertorial’ issue. On one hand it’s a safe bet that anyone who gets through a 1,000 word legal blog post is enthralled, and it shouldn’t be too hard to include a basic call to action at the end. On the other hand you don’t want to betray that trust with constant pitches.

    On the risk issue… yes it’s a big one. I think all content producers should have at least some training in defamation law, and content should never be done for shock value.

    I’ll approach the issue with an attitude of “Can I support this with a clear example?”. If I can only tell something, then it doesn’t get published.

    At the end of the day… it’s going to be a task to promote engaging legal content. A clear case of ‘moving the market’ rather than serving an existing, compelling need. But this just means that the early adopters get higher rewards… if they can pull it off.

    The last great frontier in the content marketing niche the rest of the world got on two years ago.

    @ 10:22 pm
  2. “not just copywriters”

    Sorry to burst your bubble but copywriting is much more difficult than journalism at the highest levels of the game — Reggie Jackson in October. Journalism requires accuracy and storytelling. Copywriting requires those two components plus persuasion.

    @ 10:03 pm
  3. Jordan,

    How did I miss this post? It’s great. And you hit the nail on the head — “content is the central feature of social media, and lawyers, as a general rule, aren’t very good at content.”

    It’s true. And what you and Kevin O’Keefe propose about hiring journalists is spot on. In a blog post we wrote entitled “Introducing the Law Firm Editor-In-Chief” http://me.lt/9vU0k we suggest firms hire an editorial professional to help attorneys craft informative and interesting content.

    At this moment in time and well into the foreseeable future, content is too important to do poorly.

    A firm that does create compelling content regularly will catapult themselves above the fray.

    @ 11:10 am
  4. […] Firm Web Strategy blogger Jordan Furlong, a former journalist, has identified several reasons why lawyers struggle with content: “Lawyers tend to be painstakingly utilitarian writers—probably because we also tend to be […]

    @ 6:22 am
  5. […] Firm Web Strategy blogger Jordan Furlong, a former journalist, has identified several reasons why lawyers struggle with content: “Lawyers tend to be painstakingly utilitarian writers—probably because we also tend to be […]

    @ 8:42 am
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