Tips for Lawyers Writing Articles

As I may have mentioned, I’ve edited a ton of articles by lawyers. Most were not all that great, at least to start with. Lawyers have a hard time switching from brief- and contract-writing mode to article mode. Articles are much more conversational, and on top of that, most lawyers haven’t had much experience writing them.

So here are a few tips to make your article stand out.

Include a hook in your first sentence. The first sentence in an article is called a lede. No, that’s not a misspelling. While journalism isn’t as filled with page-of-history-worth-thousand-volumes-of-logic examples as law, “lede” [pronounced leed] is just such an example. The term evolved, depending on who you ask, from the days of typesetting, in which the spacing of words was manually determined by leading, thin pieces of lead inserted between letters and words. Or, it was the lead content of the inks used. At any rate, lede evolved to avoid confusion. Nowadays, it’s mainly used to show off that you know what it is; many in publishing now spell it as “lead.” As usual, I digress.

The hook in your first sentence or two needs to quickly convey to readers why they should care about your article. Tried-and-true hooks for legal articles are:

  • Recent changes in the law, and how the reader will likely commit malpractice if they don’t read your article;
  • An emerging trend in business or culture that will almost surely affect the law;
  • Real-world, possibly unanticipated developments resulting from recent changes in the law.

There are a few more variations, but you probably get my drift.

When I say “quickly convey,” I mean in 25 words or less. I know you’ll think that is impossible for something as complex as law. My response to that is Rubbish! If you can’t fit your topic in 25 words, you’re probably trying to pack too many ideas in one poor sentence.

Along those lines, what I often see in article ledes is a history lesson. Wrong, wrong, wrong! But also a very common fault of lawyer-writers. We’re convinced that if the history and background of something is not included, no one will know it, or worse, will chew us out for not being thorough. I once edited an article that spent the first third of the article explaining and defining all the intellectual property terms involved. It was horrible. The good news was, it was also very salvageable, once most of the terms were deleted and a few crucial ones included in a sidebar. In fact, that article went on to win a gold award for feature writing.

Headlines Are Not 20 Words Long. Ever. And, if you ever submit a headline like this one:

Call the Doctor, I Think I Am Gonna Crash: What You Need To Know, But Are Afraid To Ask About the New Designated Doctor and Required Medical Examination Rules and Processes

that landed on the my desk one time, you will rot in writer’s hell. I will see to it personally. Here’s a clue: 5 words or less. That’s the number of words most headlines should contain. You can cheat, particularly in b2b pubs, by using subheds on those unruly complex ideas. But keep that main title short. Remember, brevity is . . . well, you know.

Footnotes and Headlines Do Not Mix. Seriously, I cannot believe I have to say this. But in the aforementioned headline, there was a footnote after “crash,” to let us all know the excruciating details of the Eagles, “Life in the Fast Lane,” Hotel California, and changes in band personnel on that album (yes, it was an album). Um, thanks, but no thanks. If you need to footnote a headline, it’s not the right headline!

Pop Culture References in Headlines Must Connect to the Story Content. They cannot relate only tangentially, as the alleged headline above did. The story was about new legal requirements for the use of particular doctors in workers’ comp cases. It was not about drug abuse, drug overdose, needing a doctor on the spot, or even about driving rapidly. Doubtless the song reminded the author of some fond memories of a well-spent youth, but readers don’t care! Use a reference that obviously connects to your story. Your readers will thank you.

Make your article understandable, not unassailable. Here’s a tip from an editor of Legal Times I once worked with: We publish articles that are understandable for 90% of our readers, not 100%. In other words, articles for papers, magazines, and newsletters don’t need to be written as defensively as briefs and contracts. You don’t need to parse everything to the nth degree, or try to ensure that your prose can only be understood to mean one thing and one thing only. Aim for slightly less technical, even breezy. It’s OK, I promise.

There are lots more tips where these came from, but that should be a good start for now. Go forth and write!