How Lawyers can Write Awesome Articles that Actually Help People

I'm sure you've heard this before: when it comes to SEO for lawyers or any diligent form of content marketing, you've got to regularly produce “high quality” content.

But what the heck does “high quality” even mean, and isn't that a completely subjective assessment anyway?

I'm going to explore where things often go wrong with law firm blogs, and some of the steps you need to ensure you follow to maximise the chances of your message being found, read and shared.

I'm going to focus on law firm blogs and article writing, but the principles can be extended to most forms of content.

Content Killers

To reach “high quality” the easiest place to start is to examine what will likely push something into “low quality”, irrespective of its other merits. Once we have these in mind, we can spin them around to ensure we've got some positive things to focus on.

These widespread habits of law firm writing styles will help your articles get lost in the vacuum of cyberspace forever:

  • rubbish headlines – if I'm not clicking on it, then I'm not reading it;
  • turgid, lawyery sounding language – if I wanted to read a textbook I'd just buy one;
  • articles that don't deliver on the promise they make in the headline;
  • failing to deal with the topic in sufficient depth that it's actually helpful;
  • not using appropriate paragraphs, headings, images or whitespace to break up your article into readable chunks;
  • writing for other lawyers;
  • padding the article with too much fluff.

Put your hand up if you've broken any/all of these rules…

Yep – me too, but we can all change and now's a good time to do it.

The Many Steps to Writing Awesome Content

If this was a standard piece of puff content I'd have made that dot point list in the last section the entire article, added a few more words and called this post “The 7 Sins of Article Writing for Lawyers” or something like that.

But the irony would be too striking, and I'd be justifiably mocked by my digital marketing buddies around the world.

So instead of me just saying “don't do those things” we can probably aim a bit (not much – but a bit) higher, and craft a sequences of steps that you should consider when producing any article, blog post, video, podcast or whatever (with the possible exception of taking a photo, but even that might need to follow some of these rules).

Great Content Requires a Specific Audience

You can't write a good article for “you know, just whoever I guess”. It's inevitably going to be a useless fluff piece which isn't helpful to anyone.

Instead, you need to know precisely who your article is for. There are plenty of ways to define your audience, but however you do it make sure you have a sharp focus on who the article is supposed to benefit right from the moment you pick up a pen sit down at the keyboard.

One easy way to pick who you're writing for is to think of your current and past clients. Would one of them really like your intended article? If so – bingo. Take everything you know about them and pretend you're writing to them, rather than to the world at large. What language do they use? What things freak them out? What did they want to achieve in their life or business? Having these concepts in your brain will help you ensure that you cover off on what actually matters.

Case in point – this article is clearly written for lawyers. It uses fairly sophisticated language and lawyer-based examples throughout.

Pick a Narrow Topic… that Matters to your Reader

It's at this (early) point most lawyers create for themselves more problems than any amount of copywriting training can fix – topic selection.

Hopefully you've got a proper content marketing strategy, but I'm going to guess that most of you don't and so you choose topics on an ad hoc basis.

Generally speaking, the trend is for most people to pick too broad a topic and then fail to deal with it adequately. The reason for that failure is usually because dealing with the chosen topic in detail would be, in fact, a book rather than a blog post.

As an example, let's consider the big topic of mediation.  From broadest to narrowest, here are some topics (not headlines, but topics):

  1. Mediation
  2. Mediation is good
  3. Mediation is better than litigation
  4. Early mediation is better than protracted litigation
  5. Early mediation is cheaper and more likely to resolve favourably than late mediation
  6. How to mediate early, resolve your dispute and avoid litigation
  7. How to get another party to agree to early mediation (with a nod to the earlier benefits)

Most lawyers have a tendency to aim their topic selection around items 1-3, or possibly 4 on a good day.

While those might be OK broad selections for your cornerstone content, they are simply too broad for a decent blog post. You'll inevitably end up with a listicle like “5 Reasons Mediation is Better than Litigation” with a few headlines and content that everybody already knows. The content itself will almost inevitably be trite, and in fact won't help anyone do anything or avoid anything.

Whereas, if topic 6 or 7 are part of a larger series of excellent content, then it will actually help me do something. I already know that mediation is good – so how do I make it happen? That's a material benefit to me, not just more noise.

While there's a place in your arsenal for shorter form list posts, they don't fall into the “epic content” category that we're aiming for here.

So my action tip here, for everything but cornerstone content: aim narrow in your topic selection.

Researching your Article

If you're writing a case note, you've already done your research and hopefully haven't just gone to a mega-firm's website to read their summary of the decision.

But otherwise, it's a good idea to find out how your competition has treated the topic. It might give you some ideas to build on (not steal) that you hadn't already come up with.

Most importantly though, it tells you:

  • what headlines people are using;
  • what kind of content Google is ranking;
  • how detailed or otherwise those competitor's articles are;
  • which relevant issues aren't dealt with by others that you can include; and
  • whether there are some more resources you can draw on.

Once you have this information, you can map out your article's sub-headings and items to cover so you've created a structure for your writing.

Action tip: take the information you learn from your research to ensure that your article is both comprehensive and more useful than others in the field.

Putting Pen to Paper

Hopefully with the earlier steps you've got a solid plan, some great ideas for your content, and you're ready to put fingers to keyboard.

This is an area with a tonne of opinions already, and lots of existing thoughts on the topic. To avoid waffling on, here are mine:

  • Remind yourself at every step who you're writing for – unless the answer is “for lawyers” then whatever you write shouldn't sound like a law school assignment or a file note
  • What's the point of your article?
  • For longer articles, you'll want to use various techniques to break up the wall of text. This means:
    • sub-headings
    • images (where relevant)
    • quote styles
    • bullets and numbers
    • short-ish paragraphs
  • Keep your tone fairly informal – lots of people disagree with this, but I've yet to be convinced that sounding like a stuffed shirt is good for your professional image. If in doubt, write the way you speak (unless you swear constantly, which I'd probably avoid), then at least it's consistent with your personality.
  • Be succinct.

Here's the basic rule of thumb: if I get to your article because I'm trying to find out how to do X then your article should, as efficiently as possible, give me what I need in order to do X. If it doesn't, then you need to change the topic or change the article.

Action Tip – after you've written your first draft, sit on it for a day. Come back to it with fresh eyes and read it from your target audience's perspective – is it overly complicated, hard to read, or leave questions unanswered? If so – fix it before posting.

Injecting Personality Into your Article

Many lawyers view “professional” as synonymous with “bland”. Although we have to accept that some of our topics will be a bit dry, that doesn't automatically mean they must be devoid of personality.

Unfortunately, that's exactly how much writing turns out as we go into autopilot legalese mode. So how can you simultaneously write an article that's informative AND engaging?

Of course, going completely off the rails isn't going to be too palatable to most people reading this, so let's aim for the middle somewhere: be human.

Write your article the way you would if you were explaining the topic to someone in person. Use conjunctions, friendly approachable language and an easy going tone.

After all – if it's OK to talk that way, it's probably fine to write that way too.

Headlines that Work

While clever headlines sound good to us inside our own heads, they are often too clever for your audience, and nobody can understand what your article is about without reading it… which they won't.

Although I'm sure you'll have a working title for your article from the start, I've put headlines here because the best time to refine them is after you've written the article.

If your headline doesn't do its job, nobody will read your piece. It might be the greatest article on topic X ever written, but in a sea of potential things to read you have to give me a reason to click on your article instead of the other options.

Writing headlines is actually quite hard (ironically I'm not happy with the headline of this article). While we want to avoid click-bait, we also want people to click.

I've dealt with a few examples of good/better headlines before, but we might as well touch on it again.

There are some absolute shockers out there though, so let's get rid of them first. Do not:

  • make your headline a case name (unless it's a famous case that people actually know on sight)
  • make the first words of your headline the publication name or your firm name
  • lie in your headline about the article topic

After that are the “maybe but probably not” headlines. In this camp I put clever headlines that are probably too clever for people to understand what the article is about. While clever headlines sound good to us inside our own heads, they are often too clever for your audience, and nobody can understand what your article is about without reading it… which they won't.

Basically a good headline should:

  • identify the topic
  • promise me something
  • catch my attention.

It's not very easy, but spending a bit of time on your headline is worth it.

Kill the Word Limit

This is something of an aside. Many firms I've worked with seem to have implemented a system of arbitrary word limits on their articles.

This practice is one of the most foolish that I can possibly think of.

Most of the time, it's enforced for one of two reasons:

  1. to attempt to encourage authors to keep their work succinct;
  2. because of a concern that “people don't read long articles”.

The first reason is completely valid, but this is the worst way to go about it. To keep a writer's work succinct, teach them to write better – don't truncate their word count with no reference to the scope of their topic.

The second reason is a surface level concern, and refuses to accept the truth of what a reader wants. It is true that a casual reader who isn't truly interested in your topic might not read the entirely of an article. However, an interested reader who genuinely wants to know about your topic will want to know EVERYTHING that you have to offer.

To the first, they're not going to read your article in detail anyway. They already view it as a pleasant aside, not an important piece.

To the second, failing to deal with a topic properly is simply going to disappoint them and result in them looking elsewhere for the answers that you could have provided. Is that really what you want?

Plus there's the whole issue that Google couldn't care less about your words limits – it wants the best treatment of a topic it and its users can find – a 500 word piece that deserves 2500 words won't cut it for SEO purposes. Here's some data from HubSpot for you:

from Hubspot.com

Kill your word limits. They are well intended, but not a substitute for good writing and ultimately foolish.

Respond to Feedback

In truth, we're often the worst judges of our own work. Often we think it's better than it is, and sometimes we think it's worse than others do.

Ensure that you're looking at your metrics. How are people responding, if at all?

If nobody's reading it, then why? Is it topic choice, headline, or layout?

Whatever the case, don't just throw your articles out into the wild and then ignore them completely. Learn from what your audience is saying, or not saying.

And All the Rest

Having high quality content is an important piece of the digital marketing puzzle, but of course it's not the only piece.

In additional producing stuff that people will enjoy, it's still a good idea to keep things like your SEO strategy and the overall site design in mind. The first because it will help people find your awesome content, and the second because it will help people read it.

Beyond that though – don't be afraid to have a little fun with your tone, your style and your personality. You are you, and often the most useful advice I can give lawyers to significantly improve their articles involves taking their lawyer hat off, and putting their human hat on.

So What Have we Achieved?

Following this guidelines isn't going to win you a Pulitzer prize. What they will do, though, is ensure that you can produce work which:

  • is relevant to the people it should be
  • helps those people achieve or avoid something they care about
  • uses language that resonates (bing! marketing word) with them
  • is visually appealing, or at least not a wall of text; and
  • demonstrates your expertise on the subject at the same time.

This is NOT an easy mix of things to achieve, so don't expect to totally nail it regularly. But at least, with this guide to producing high quality content, you can give it a red hot go.

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