General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

A service of the ABA General Practice, Solo & Small Firm Division

Technology eReport

American Bar Association - Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice

MAR 2009

Vol. 8, No. 1

Features

 

Blogging Tips for Small Firms and Solos

Of all the small firms and solos that cater to the public, more and more are publishing blogs to promote their practices. Some of those blogs are very effective: they attract clients. Most do little good at all. And some do more harm than good.

The most effective attorney-authored blogs—the ones that really attract clients—are written for a particular audience. They’re written for people charged with DUI in San Mateo County, or confronted with a personal injury lawsuit filed in Nassau County, getting a divorce in New York, starting a business in Ohio, or wrestling with the IRS. In short, they’re written exclusively for people looking (or who know someone who’s looking) for a particular type of lawyer.

Now, let’s assume you’re an attorney who caters to the public. You already have a blog, or you’re thinking about starting one, and you want it to attract good clients. Then this article is for you. It offers a few things to consider when you write for a broad audience—an audience containing potential clients.

As an attorney, you spend your day dealing with legal matter—complaints, petitions, statutes, and rules, etc. You read and write material of, by, and for attorneys—very formal material containing long, convoluted sentences sprinkled with obscure Latin phrases and hifalutin’ technical terms.

You can’t write that way when your write for your blog—not if you want to attract an audience chock full of potential clients. You have to write for that audience—for people who don’t have law degrees and don’t know obscure Latin phrases and aren’t used to terms like herewith, the aforesaid, and notwithstanding. Write like an attorney writing legal matter, and your blog will be just a waste of your time.

So, if you shouldn’t write like an attorney writing legal matter, how should you write for your blog?

Your blog is a journal, so you should write like a journalist. You want your blog to be read by many, so you need to write for a very broad audience. You have to make sure that people find what you write not only informative, but also easy to read. Fail to do that, and you won’t attract the audience you want.

1.  Write for Your Audience
Before you write anything, imagine someone in your audience—a potential client. Imagine a freelance artist in trouble with the IRS for years of unreported income, a software engineer dealing with a divorce, a contractor being sued by a disgruntled client, or a business executive charged with DUI. Imagine anyone who might come to you for help.

Then, imagine how would you explain something of the law to that person.That’s how you want to write your blog. You want to use familiar language to provide potential clients with interesting information.

Put yourself in the place of your readers. It’s easy to do: just think of something very involved and something you know nothing about, like the physics of a spinning top or a theorem about differential equations. And then suppose you need to learn about it.

How would you want a mathematician or a physicist to explain it to you? You wouldn’t want the explanation to be composed of hifalutin’ technical language, and you wouldn’t want it to refer to concepts or rules you know nothing about, would you?

When you write, imagine you’re the reader. The easier it is to find and fathom, the happier you’ll be. Keep that in mind.

2.  Structure Your Posts
A post that merely announces “the city council voted to allow (or prohibit) this (or that)” doesn’t require much structure, but a post that explains what the council’s vote means for small business owners in the city does.

The longer a post is, and the more it covers, the more it must be well structured for people to read it. A long post (anything over 1,200 words) needs an introduction. If it’s a very long post, the intro might inform the reader how the post is structured.

Long posts are divided into sections. To make it easy for readers to follow the discussion or find specific information, the sections have descriptive headings. (And to make it easy for people to use search engines to find posts of interest, the headings are likely to include certain key words.)

Whenever you write a post (or anything else for that matter), apply the basic elements of composition. Make sure each paragraph covers just one topic, and each sentence focuses on one idea.

Tip: Find your copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and review Section II—“The Elementary Principles of Composition.”

3.  Write in a Concise, Easy-to-Read Style
Legal writing is one thing; writing for the public is much different. In legal writing, others might admire your ability to construct long, complicated sentences. When you’re writing for the public, it’s just the opposite.

In general, readers don’t want to spend any more time, or do any more work, than they have to. The more intricate your writing, the less likely the people you’re trying to attract will read it.

Compared to your legal writing, you want your blog posts to be composed of:

  • Short paragraphs that progress logically from one topic to the next.
  • Fairly short sentences composed of the most common words.
  • The fewest words needed to express any idea.
To attract a broad audience containing potential clients, your posts need to be as clear, as concise, and as consistent as can be.

4.  Use Plain English and Avoid Legalese
Prospective clients aren’t familiar with terms like Letters Testementary, chain of custody, or disparate impact discrimination, nor with cryptic references like C.C.P. 580d or IRC section 67(e). Don’t confront readers with legal terminology unless you have to, and when you need to use an uncommon term, introduce it on its first use.

Don’t use formidable phrases like “including, but not limited to,” or archaic words like herewith and notwithstanding, or obscure Latin phrases like inter alia.

You may be very comfortable with these terms and phrases, but your readers—assuming they’re everyday people with everyday problems—are not. To them, legalese is burdensome. Don’t use it.

Don’t sound formal. As much as you can, use the language of everyday discourse. Look at some of the most popular blogs, and see how their posts are written. If you want your blog to be popular, follow suit.

5.  Edit Each Post Before You Publish It
Paste the copy into a blank Word document. Make sure the following options are checked in the Spelling and Grammar preferences:

  • Check grammar with spelling
  • Show readability statistics
Then, use Word to check spelling and grammar throughout the document. When you’re done, look at the readability statistics, and make a copy of them.

Word won’t catch everything, so you’ll have to read the copy to:
  • Eliminate any remaining errors
  • Improve the copy and shorten it
As you’re looking for errors, look for any opportunity to cut words and replace longer phrases with shorter ones. And be on the lookout for anything that’s not as clear as can be, or that smacks of legalese.
Improve on whatever you can make clearer or more concise. If Word identified passive sentences, make them active; that is, reword them so the subject is doing something, rather than having something done to it.

And be on the lookout for series of items that you could replace with a numbered or bulleted list. If you create such a list, give it an introduction, and make sure each item in it is presented in like fashion.

After you edit the post, use Word to check grammar and spelling once again. Compare the new readability statistics to the earlier ones.

You’ve done a good job of editing if:
  • The post contains fewer words.
  • There are fewer words per sentence.
  • There are few, if any, passive sentences.
  • The Flesch reading ease score increased and the grade level decreased.
Tip: You can check a single sentence or paragraph to see how your edits affect readability.

If you ever write a post that begins like this:

One of the most important protections provided to taxpayers by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is a taxpayer’s right to obtain a hearing known as a collection due process, or CDP hearing, with the IRS Appeals Division before an IRS collection officer can issue a tax levy as provided by Internal Revenue Code Section (IRC) Section 6330.

You should edit it so it’s more like this:

As a taxpayer, you have a right to a hearing before the IRS can issue a levy against you.

If your posts aren’t clear and concise, or seem as if they were written of, by, and for attorneys, your blog won’t help you attract potential clients. They won’t even bother to read it.

Mister Thorne is a freelance legal editor and writer in San Francisco. He can be reached at mister.thorne@comcast.net.

© Copyright 2009, American Bar Association.