Writing to Put Yourself on the Map

J.B. Ruhl
Stick to this agenda and the up-front work you do now will help put you on the map as an expert later.

Stick to this agenda and the up-front work you do now will help put you on the map as an expert later.

DragonImages via iStock

The Post-Normal Times is a column that follows trends in the legal industry, legal technologies, legal innovation, and access to legal services and offers insights into how new lawyers can turn them from agents of change into agents of opportunity. 

In my last column, I outlined how to build legal scenarios to identify emerging practice opportunities. I closed by urging that, when you find a trend you’d like to jump on, you should “start writing—in blogs, client-alert letters, and bar journals—to position yourself as one of the early go-to lawyers in the field.” Easy for me to say!

In the legal industry class I offer at Vanderbilt Law School, I have the students do just that—they identify a trend and write a “blawg” post, client alert, and short bar journal article about it. I also have them deliver a short “elevator pitch.” Next year I am going to add an outline and a frequently asked questions (FAQ) as additional assignments. These are all very different in scope and purpose, but if you stick to the following agenda, the up-front work you put into this series of written products will help put you on the map and ensure that the trend does not slip out of your reach.

Blawg Post. Even if you or your organization do not have a legal blog, start by writing a blawg post. For my students, this serves as their topic proposal and a reality check as to whether there is anything there. The post should be no more than 500 words and written for a general audience. It should describe the trend (e.g., drones for delivery, or facial recognition software, or block chain technology) and show that it will have some impacts requiring attention from the law. It should be fun to read. If you have a blawg, have some non-lawyer friends read it before you post it.

Outline. After you write your blawg post, and before you write another word, develop your outline of what you hope to cover in the longer work products. Make the outline substantive—not just a list of topics. Start with a summary paragraph and also provide a historical time line of major events. How you organize from there depends on the topic—just be sure the themes fit a coherent, logical order. Under each theme in the outline, in addition to some summary description, cite and summarize important statutes, regulations, and cases. This is not only good preparation for the other written work products, but the outline will also serve as a handy deliverable for CLE presentations. It also should be a living document that you refine over time and to which you continuously add new legal developments. The objective is to project that you are very on top of the subject matter, and you will be if you follow this practice.

Client Alert. Whether you work in a firm, in-house, or for an agency or NGO, a client alert letter is a good way to distill and communicate an emerging trend for your relevant non-lawyer client base. Unlike the blawg post, this writing style is rather stiff. You want to show your clients that this is a trend that could affect them in a way that triggers legal issues, you are following it and the legal developments surrounding it (provide light citations), and you have some well-based ideas about where it is headed. If you believe they have a stake in the trend and should take a position, spell out why and what their position should be. Post the letter on your website and have print copies available at meetings.

Bar Journal Article. Once you have your client alert letter ready, converting it to a bar journal or newsletter article is an easy next step. Most bar journals do not require extensive law review style citations, and they often specify a word limit around 2,000. The key is that you use this work product to speak to legal practitioners, not non-lawyers. The message you want to send to them is that you are leading the way in the bar on this trend. Think of it as your ticket to invitations to present at CLE meetings and other opportunities to go live on the topic.

Elevator Pitch and FAQ. You are about to get on an elevator or share a short cab ride with a colleague who asks you about the latest things you are working. This is why you need a one-minute elevator pitch and a FAQ to follow up. The pitch, which is designed to prompt questions, would go something like: “I’m working on a client alert letter that explains to our clients the legal issues surrounding the use of facial recognition software in the workplace. There’s a swarm of them, including X, Y, and Z.” Your FAQ is designed to have anticipated follow-up questions and give concise, informative answers. One easy way to generate those questions is to pitch to some friends and family members and see what questions they ask.

The Post-Normal Times is a column that follows trends in the legal industry, legal technologies, legal innovation, and access to legal services and offers insights into how new lawyers can turn them from agents of change into agents of opportunity. 

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J.B. Ruhl

J.B. Ruhl is the David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair of Law and Director of the Program on Law & Innovation at Vanderbilt University.