Every law firm has its own platform for attorneys to establish themselves as thought leaders, but blogs written in legalese miss the mark. Here are easy ways to structure blog posts to make them more readable almost instantly.

When it comes to establishing an attorney as a thought leader, the gold standard remains good old-fashioned public relations. Nothing beats bylined articles or quotes in reputable news outlets. But bylines and quotes don’t come often unless you’re a columnist or CNN contributor, which are difficult roles to clinch. Fortunately, every law firm has its own platform for attorneys to establish thought leadership and communicate directly with current and potential clients: law firm websites.

The benefits of content marketing are considerable. Publishing informative articles on a firm website helps with PR by showing reporters and editors that attorneys and firms are knowledgeable sources of information. Blogs help with SEO by boosting a website’s ranking in the search algorithm. And blogs support other marketing efforts by providing content for social media and showcasing thought leadership for awards and rankings applications.

But (there is always a but) legal writing and blog writing are very different in structure and tone, and it can be challenging for lawyers to transition effectively between the two.

Besides the headline, one of the first things that goes wrong in attorney blog posts is structure. Accustomed to, and trained in, writing for the legal profession, lawyers tend to structure their pieces in ways that make them more difficult and less interesting to read.

This is a common pitfall that is easy to fix with an awareness of the audience and a handy template (provided here) that will make blog posts both easier to write for the author and more enjoyable to read for the target audience.

What’s the difference between legal writing and blog writing?

The first question to ask oneself before writing is, “Who is the audience?”

  • Legal writing is for judges, opposing counsel, and contractual counterparties, making precision essential. Every word will be closely scrutinized. Precision comes at the cost of readability because of all the qualifying and defining involved, which makes it wordy and difficult to understand for non-lawyers.
  • Blog writing is for potential clients, who may be other lawyers but often aren’t. Whether the target audience is the C-suite of healthcare or technology companies, real estate developers, or members of the general public looking for information about personal injury, blogs are more effective when they are concise.

The next critical difference between legal writing and blog writing is the main point of the article.

  • In legal writing, especially litigation, the conclusion is drawn after reciting a summary of facts.
  • In blogs, your audience wants to know the point right at the top.

Another key difference is tone.

  • Legal writing, while sometimes forceful and rhetorical, is often very conservative.
  • Blog writing should be more conversational, and many readers enjoy blogs with a more informal voice and style.

Finally, there’s a difference in language.

  • Legal writing contains terms of art, Latin phrases, abbreviations in quotes and parentheses on first mention, and citations in full, including case captions, numbers, and courts.
  • Blog writing should be as clear of clutter as possible, with citations as links in text.

Many attorney thought leadership blog posts interpret cases and statutes to provide readers with information that will be important to them. Here is a sample template that attorneys can use to write these articles efficiently.

A Sample Outline of a Blog Post

  1. The headline should be written last and concisely summarize the point of the article.
  2. The introduction should get right to it — what is the key takeaway for readers? What will the blog post provide for them? The first section should give readers all the information that will be necessary to them.
  3. The main body summarizes context and background. For example, if the blog post is about a lawsuit, here is where the author can provide a summary of the dispute. If it’s about a statute, here one provides details about how it will affect readers, and why the statute arose.
  4. The final paragraph can provide a summary, which is what many writers do. But it’s also an opportunity to broaden a perspective or wrap up the article in a clever way.

The Introduction is the Most Important Section

Readers on the internet want articles to get straight to the point. The first sentence should do that. If a court case will change the way potential clients do business, tell them. If a new statute will render a contract provision unenforceable, tell them. Give it to them straight.

Attorneys, or the marketing directors who edit them, should reserve details and supporting information for further down the body of the piece. There’s no need to include full case numbers or case captions or the numbers of a statute in the first paragraph. Reserve full party names for later unless they’re household names and their involvement in the case is newsworthy. The first paragraph should very concisely tell readers why the information is important to them. Supporting details can come later.

Give Context in the Middle Section

The second section is where the background and context begin to unfurl, and this is where the attorney can give fuller details, including case numbers or the full names of legislation.

For example, an article about why an appellate court decision could change how predecessors in title of property are liable for environmental cleanup should tell potential clients the important part first — that they might be at risk. The introduction would say something like, “Energy companies may be liable for the costs of environmental cleanup of property, even if it was sold a long time ago.” The first paragraph should tell readers if the news is relevant to them, and what the risks and costs may be. Anything relevant to the client’s bottom line goes up top.

The second section could say, “The dispute arose in 2020 when Hypothetical Oil Company sued Second Oil Company, the previous owner of a parcel of land in New Jersey, to recoup costs of environmental remediation after a jury brought back such-and-such a verdict.” The section will then more fully describe the underlying dispute and begin to roll out supporting details, like the question that was addressed in the appeal. Here is where to tell the story of the case. An abbreviated case caption would go here, too, rather than in the introduction.

Please note that in a blog post, a full case citation with caption and number is best served at the bottom of the article — especially if it’s very long. After the last sentence, simply say, “The case is Hypothetical Oil Company et al. v. Second Oil Company et al., case no. 2020 502 483 (3dd) 538275 (niner) in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division.” In the body of the text, a link to the opinion is just fine.

In a client alert or blog post describing a statute, the second section could include fuller details about what clients will have to do in response to the new law. For example, the introductory paragraph can say, “The Michigan legislature has passed a bill that will make the enforcement of noncompetition clauses in employment contracts more difficult.” The second section can be bullet points about what kind of provisions businesses can include to help protect themselves.

After giving the readers all the relevant information about how the statute will affect them, you can then provide more context about why the legislature passed the bill: “The bill was passed in response to a state Supreme Court decision that found certain provisions were unenforceable,” and so on.

The Final Section is an Opportunity for Flair (Maybe)

Many attorneys prefer to use a reserved tone in their thought leadership, which is understandable. A serious, responsible voice is important for invoking trust in readership. However, there is still room for providing opinions, context, or wider musings, and that is what the final section is for. While many writers may be tempted to simply summarize all of the above in the last paragraph, the final section could be a place for a wider, more global perspective. This is where deeper digs into history can come in, or projections about what the wider future impacts of the issue will be farther down the road. This is also where authors can let their humor or intellect shine with clever turns of phrase or an entendre to wrap things up.

Write the Headline Last

The true headline of a piece will rarely unveil itself on a blank page. By all means, writers can write a headline to get themselves started and anchor themselves to a topic, but the true headline should be written last. Many ideas will reveal themselves in the course of the drafting, and the really important takeaway — what will be most important to the reader — will be distilled from the content once everything is on the page.

By the way, editing is very important, and attorneys should always read everything they write at least twice. One of these readings should be with an eye toward making sentences sharper and more concise.

Notes on Style and Approach

It bears repeating that blog writing is different than legal writing. While there may be debate in the public sphere about an article (one would hope for such engagement), blog posts will not be closely scrutinized the way contracts and litigation documents are, so they don’t need to be written with the same microscopic precision. Instead, blog posts should be written for concision. A three-word phrase is preferable: “The man’s dog,” over the cumbersome phrase, “The dog of the man.” The red car, not the car that is red.

For many non-writer writers, organizing their thoughts into a coherent piece is the primary challenge that they completely overlook at the outset of writing an article, and it shows in the results. Many writers know that the way to approach article writing is by conducting research first, outlining second, drafting third, and editing (and re-editing) last. Non-writers often go research-write-submit, which is why their pieces are so glaringly amateur.

Lawyers, while intelligent and well-informed, are no exception because no one taught them the process. Having a template handy takes care of the second step automatically, resulting in a work that feels coherent and provides value to readers.

Now, if only they would learn how to edit, too.

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of ALM's Law Journal Newsletters Marketing the Law Firm.