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Making Legal Articles Accessible to More Than Just Lawyers

Writing is an art. It’s no simple task to just pick up the pen (or keyboard, rather) and start composing. But, once you get the juices flowing, it can be even harder to keep it going and have it make sense – especially when you’re used to writing a certain way.

As a lawyer, you may find it challenging to adjust your style and tone for a contributed article when you’re used to writing memos, motions and briefs. Writing for a non-legal, industry-specific audience, however, is not the same – and requires a different level of attention to detail.

The key is to remember this isn’t law review. Most editors aren’t looking for the legalese-heavy pieces (though certain exceptions apply, like writing for a legal journal – but that’s for a different post!), and they may come back and ask for revisions if the article is too technical. It’s in your best interest to come across as clearly and as simply as possible – for your goal is to convert readers into clients.

Leverage Your Knowledge, But Don’t Sound Precocious

Writing for a judge differs vastly from writing for an industry-specific audience that includes fellow counsel business executives and possibly members of the judiciary. If you write an article with terms like “heretofore” and “demurrer,” a judge would understand – but your business audience likely won’t. You don’t want to risk confusing the reader with unnecessary jargon. Depending on who your audience is, you should aim for a simpler piece, explaining yourself thoroughly and analyzing and concluding in a way a layperson can understand. If you feel the need to include a legal term, make sure you explain what it means and provide a clear example.

There’s a particular line from Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins song “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” that seems fitting:

“Even though the sound of it, Is something quite atrocious, If you say it loud enough, You’ll always sound precocious.”

Don’t overwhelm your readers with precocious language; rather, guide them with easy-to-explain words, concepts and examples.

Stick to Your Word Count

Most editors will give you a handful of editorial guidelines when you commit to writing for their publication. One is a word count, which may range as few as 500-600 words to as many as 1,500-2,000 words for certain trade publications. Editors can be strict with their word counts, so you’ll want to follow these guidelines as closely as possible.

It’s a bad look if you turn in 1,000+ words for a 500-word article. In such cases, consider the topic you’re discussing and see if you can cover it in fewer words. If you’re focusing on the top workplace considerations for employers, could you trim it from the Top 10 issues to the Top 5 or Top 3? Beyond this sort of winnowing, where are the easy places to cut?

If you find yourself short of the word count, review the article and see if there is an area that you can expand upon. Also, with each section, consider if a non-lawyer will understand what you are saying. If not, perhaps you can include a bit more detail, using that extra word count, to further break down examples or concepts.

Cut the Citations, Save the Words

I took a legal writing course in law school (at Pacific McGeorge, we called it “Global Lawyering Skills”), so believe me when I say I completely understand and appreciate the value of legal citations. A legal audience can decipher the citation, but you shouldn’t assume a general audience will be able to understand. By including these citations, you run the risk of confusing your readers with a Bluebook-compliant citation that – ultimately – isn’t necessary (and, given online publishing, is likely to be cut).

Legal citations can be lengthy, which ultimately adds to your word count. If you’re in a pinch for trimming words to get under a certain cutoff, take out the citations first. It’s the easiest step to trimming fat off an article without sacrificing content. Don’t leave it to the editor to figure out what’s critical in your piece.

There’s a time and place for citations, but, generally, this isn’t it.

A byline article in a trade publication can offer great exposure to a targeted audience, ripe with potential clients. To catch their attention – and hold it as they read your article – you’ll want to strike the right balance. An informative, detailed-but-straightforward article with real-life examples will go a long way toward helping the reader understand your message. Lastly, do not forget to include contact information like an email address – it’s a great way for the reader to follow up with you if they have questions, and, it’s a launching point to establishing a relationship.

– Michael Panelli

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