How to Write Un-Terrible Headlines for your Legal Updates

Writing good headlines is an art form in itself, and lawyers are usually the worst artists out there.

I'm not gonna give you all the theory in massive detail. Instead, I'm going to give you a few words of theory and then we'll look at some practical examples.

Here are a few simple guidelines of headline writing that the vast majority of lawyers completely ignore:

  1. the sole purpose of a headline is to encourage people to click on the article;
  2. rule #1 doesn't allow you to lie – clickbait is a no-no;
  3. rule #1 does require you to tell people what the article is about;
  4. the name of your publication or your firm must ABSOLUTELY NOT be the first thing in the headline;
  5. use words that your readers care about (yes – this means you need to know who your readers are, or at least who you want them to be);
  6. use emotion;
  7. don't be boring

I'm not going to suggest that writing a good headline for a legal topic is always easy – but if you're forced to write a timely update article, then at least give the headline a bit of attention so that there's a chance somebody might read your case note carefully written blog post.

With those in mind, let's take a look at a few examples that I've plucked from the depths of the internet. In each case I'm going to look at the headline, make some comments, and offer a rewrite. I'm also going to make some assumptions about the intended audience for the article, but I'm not always going to tell you what they are because we'd be here forever. Also – having a good headline doesn't make up for having a boring article, and these are headline examples only.

By the way – because I'm not a jerk, I deliberately tried to remove the firm's details from here.  I'm not interested in making people look bad, I'm interested in helping them improve.

Example #1 – Family Law Act Amendments

Here we have an article on a recent piece of legislation which proposes a process where someone accused of domestic violence can be prevented from cross-examining their alleged victim in Court.

A big issue for many people, and one which treads on both the emotional trigger of domestic violence and the emotional trigger of the “right” to face your accuser.

This headline, though, talks about amendments to legislation.

Hot Tip: most personal clients don't care about amendments to legislation, they care about issues.

The biggest problems with this headline are that it fails to:

  1. tell you what the article is about in substance, although admittedly it tells you that it's about legislative amendments
  2. offer a compelling reason to click, unless you happen to be a lawyer
  3. use any emotion at all
  4. use the language of likely Family Law clients.

Domestic violence is such a massive and topical issue that legal topics like this one are a prime candidate to use the emotional impetus of the issue to create a compelling headline.

My rewrite of this headline for this topic?

Imagine if Someone Who Bashed you Could Interrogate You in Court

or perhaps

You Don't Have to Fear Being Questioned by your Abuser in Court Any More

No legislation. No amendments. No vague reference to “family violence”.

Emotional but accurate, and (in my view) more likely to get someone to click.

Naturally your article has to follow suit – it should be targeted to the same audience as your headline.

Example #2 -Something about Finance

At first glance you're going to say “hey – clever headline” and I agree.

But just a warning, the problem with clever can sometimes be that nobody is clever enough to understand it.

It also fails to deliver a promise “click on this article and you'll find out X, Y and Z”.

Sometimes this can be helped by an excerpt, but in this case unfortunately the “in brief” section is (sorry folks!) incomprehensible gibberish.

It goes on about short consultation periods and what that means from a policy perspective, but doesn't tell me at all what I'm about to read or why I should. In fact, it doesn't really give me any information at all.

Although I attempted bravely to understand this article it's pretty hard to follow (perhaps it's easier for those in the industry) but one thing I noticed is that there is apparently a big fat fine for ADIs (banks) who breach the new rules.

So instead of only focusing on clever, what if we added in substance? Like this:

Banks Better not Poke the Bear, or they could Face Up to $210m in fines

The clever remains (if it was that clever in the first place), but now there's a bit more substance and reason to read. Do you want a $210m fine? I don't!

Hot Tipif you're going to write an excerpt or an “in brief” section it should actually tell people what they're going to read, not talk about peripheral issues.

Example #3 – The French

OK so I want to give credit where credit's due – this headline:

  1. has an awesome background image, complete with french flag colours – nice one!
  2. clearly says what it's about.

On the downside, it's really really long. I almost had to take a breath in the middle of reading it (even though I wasn't reading it out aloud!)

Capturing the essence of the headline is very difficult in the midst of so many words, and people often get lost – particularly if some of it is in French.

Beyond that, the problem with long headlines is that they don't go well on mobile phones – the headline often gets cut off in the process and you could lost something important.

Personally I'd keep the guts of this because I like it, but try and make it a bit shorter.  Something like:

Will French Labour Law Finally Reflect Modern Reality with the Loi Travail?

With that I'm assuming people know what the Loi Travail is, because I'm not one of them as it's not my area – if not, get rid of it completely and have something even more snappy.

Phrases like “overview of the key measures” generally don't need to appear anywhere in any headline – they offer limited value.

Bear in Mind…

A few things.

First – your article title doesn't have to be the same as your search engine optimization (SEO) title.

Second – trying to have stodgy, “professional” article headlines is a misleading and ineffective goal.

Third – if you're going to bother producing a regular blog on your firm's site, then this is a pretty important factor to get right.

So Please… Think About your Headline

Your headline isn't an afterthought.

It needs to encourage people to click.

It needs to be considered.

It deserves your attention if you want your hard work in writing a quality article to matter.

It's your turn now – what's the best legal update headline that you've seen recently?  Or are they all terrible?

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