In this instalment of Words that Bite, I examine how law firms can improve their online publications.
There is little doubt that one of the most important marketing tools for a law firm is its website. In recent years, websites have become the main instrument through which firms present their brands to the world. Unlike the old-fashioned printed brochure, a website is a delightfully flexible creature that can easily be updated and modified. Basically, it is a living brochure. If it is linked with social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, it can also enable law firms to engage directly with their clients.
However, one of the most important pages is the ‘Publications’ page, where firms post their short legal updates. I am not talking here about material that appears in the media section of a website. Instead, I am referring to a law firm’s legal updates, which can include blog posts.
Legal updates are important because they can:
It is interesting, despite the importance of the ‘publications’ or ‘updates’ page on law firm websites, how little ‘love’ they receive from their owners. Specifically, I am referring to how little effort seems to go into these online publications.
More often than not, it feels as though the lawyers have thrown an online publication together when things are quiet, tossed it onto the webpage and hoped that it might help them bag a client.
When these updates fail to attract much attention, the firm decides that the publications section is of marginal value and puts even less effort into it. When times are tough and law firms look to make cuts, it is often the staff in publications (the people who, among other things, polish a firm’s updates) that find themselves out of a job.
In short, in-house publishing in law firms often ends up being a vicious circle. Clients don’t read the publications because they are not presented in a form that is easily digestible for them; when the lawyers discover their publications are not being read, they put even fewer resources into them.
One of the most difficult decisions regarding online publications is how to organise the material so clients can actually find the material that is relevant to them. While this is not such an issue for boutique firms practising in a specialist area, such as intellectual property or family law, it can be difficult for law firms that practise in a broad range of fields.
Most large firms need to spend more time thinking about their website architecture. In fact, the website architecture is probably one of the most challenging aspects of publishing updates on a website:
In Australia, in-house publishing has never been easy for the large national firms. However, with the internationalisation of the legal market, the situation has become more complicated than ever.
Again, this is where it becomes particularly important for law firms to spend time thinking about their website architecture.
Another problem with updates on law firm websites is that they rarely seem to be written with a particular audience in mind. Most of the time, they resemble the case notes students prepare at law school. Unfortunately, this is not ideal, because a case note is a particularly dry academic document, so an update that resembles one is going to be difficult for clients to digest.
Lawyers seem to forget that clients are as pressed for time as they are. When a client is considering whether a legal update is relevant to their particular industry, it is helpful if the update contains a brief overview of how the issue discussed may affect their particular business. This involves thinking about who you are writing the update for.
In short, it is helpful to specify how the particular legal development might affect clients and display this prominently.
More often than not, law firm updates lack a unified house style. Yet, style is one of the most important aspects of any piece of writing.
The style in which a legal update is written says something important about your brand and how your firm communicates with its clients.
If you present a client with an update that is full of dense, incomprehensible prose, what does this say about your firm? What does this say about the way your lawyers communicate with their clients?
A unified style for your firm’s legal updates is also helpful because it enables clients to become familiar with that style and then know where to go to determine whether or not an article is relevant to them.
However, questions of style can become a problem when you are dealing with a large number of authors. After all, everyone has his or her distinct writing style.
Personally, I believe the answer is to come up with a general house style that is client-friendly while also allowing each lawyer to retain his or her voice. Yes, it is a balancing exercise and sometimes it is difficult to get that balance right.
Ideally, the house style adopted should reflect your law firm’s brand. For example, if your firm is hip and groovy, then the writing style can afford to be a bit livelier. If you are a large firm that is very much the ‘solid citizen’, the writing style will probably be more traditional and conservative.
Aside from the style of the writing, house style also refers to consistency in such matters as when numbers should be in figures or spelled out, and whether names and other words should be abbreviated. Consistency in, what may seem to be, minor things like this can make the difference in whether your legal update looks professional.
No matter what style you choose for your firm, updates should be easy to read and clear.
Despite the shift towards plain English within legal writing over the last decade or so, there is still too much legalese in the legal updates that appear on law firm websites. I suspect that this is because most lawyers write articles in the same way that they write legal advices.
It is important for any lawyer who writes a legal article to remember that it is serving a different purpose from an advice. As a result, the style should be more informal and, ideally, punchy.
One of the biggest problems with law firm updates is that they tend not to present the material in a form that is easily digestible for clients.
Here are some of the most common vices:
Basically, lawyers should ensure they do everything they can to make the issue being discussed as easy as possible for clients to grasp.
Due to a lack of resources, most law firms tend to post material that has not been professionally edited. This means that there is no consistency and typographical errors may creep in to the text. Lawyers should never underestimate how much a copyeditor can improve a piece of writing, especially legal writing; a copyeditor can help make a piece easy for non-lawyers to understand. A proofreader is also a very valuable creature; there is nothing like having a proofreader if you want to keep typographical errors to a minimum.
If your law firm has a publications section where you post legal updates, make sure you make it as easy as possible to navigate and that the content is easy to comprehend. Basically, you need to:
Are you a law firm that needs advice on your online publications? Do you need to outsource the copyediting for your legal updates and ePublications? The Pink Rottweiler offers a freelance editorial service for law firms. If you are interested, call the Pink Rottweiler on +61 (0)409 609 903 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.