I spend a lot of time writing legal blogs and other client-facing content for lawyers and law firms. Many posts involve complex or opaque subjects and concepts, none of which lend themselves to straightforward explanations or inherently compelling narratives, but nonetheless have important implications for a firm’s clients or prospects.
Such articles may not soon be major motion pictures, but I keep a line from one movie in the forefront of my mind when I try to balance a topic’s inherent density with the need for it to be readable, comprehensible, and useful to the intended audience.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of “This Is Spinal Tap,” easily the greatest film ever made about a non-existent rock band (although the recent documentary about the Blue Jean Committee ranks a brilliant but distant second). In addition to giving us such classic tunes as “Big Bottom,” “Gimme Some Money,” and “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight,” Tap also dispensed some iconic wisdom that legal blog writers should heed when trying to balance the desire to show off their knowledge about a subject with the imperative that it makes sense to non-lawyers:
“There’s a fine line between stupid and clever.”
Readability v. Expertise
In the case of legal blogs about dense subjects, the fine line is between impenetrable language and insulting condescension (which means talking to people like they’re stupid). Put another way, it is the struggle between readability and expertise.
In content writing, “readability” is a buzzword used to describe whether content conveys concepts and ideas in an understandable way. Tests, programs, and algorithms analyze the supposed readability of text, usually on scales that relate to age or grade level. The conventional wisdom holds that most marketing content should be at a sixth-grade reading level.
I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that lawyers need to write legal blog posts with Fortnite-addled tweens in mind. But I also know that lawyers want their content to reach and be read by the largest possible number of prospects and customers. They want those folks to understand what they’re reading (and not click to someone else’s article) by sparing them from needless jargon and legalese, exhaustingly long sentences, and words that make it clear that the writer and his thesaurus spend way too much time together.
Think Like a Lawyer, But Write Like a Human Being
Unfortunately, law school not only teaches you how to “think like a lawyer,” but it also teaches you how to write like one. Whether in briefs, demand letters, or other written submissions, attorneys spend their careers writing content designed to convince the reader that they are right, that their position is the most sound, supported, and well-reasoned, that they know their subject and arguments backward and forwards. This is, of course, essential in the context of this type of attorney work product.
But the content attorneys write for judges and other lawyers will be read by judges and other lawyers. The problem is that when attorneys turn their attention to writing client-facing content, they often fail to account for the fact that most of the folks they are writing for didn’t rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in law school debt. While that decision may make those readers smart, it doesn’t necessarily mean they understand complicated legal topics discussed in complicated legal language.
As with their written work product, lawyers want to use their blog posts and marketing content to convey that they know what they are talking about; that they’re highly educated and experienced, and that they’re the attorneys the reader should turn to for answers. But those who want to learn about a subject an attorney is writing about need more than regurgitated statutes, case citations, and some pompous and needlessly deployed Latin.
At the same time, attorneys need to be wary of over-correcting; of dumbing things down so much that the reader feels disrespected or that the author doesn’t appear to have the knowledge and intelligence that the reader is looking for in a lawyer. That is the fine line between showing off your chops and writing for grade-schoolers.
I call that content sweet spot “accessible expertise.” Attorney blog writers can find it by following these tips:
- When the subject requires the use of essential but unfamiliar terms, define and explain them in plain English.
- Use storytelling, metaphors, analogies, or anecdotes to make foreign concepts more approachable and familiar.
- Use a simple premise to frame a complex issue.
- Acknowledge the complexity of the subject and encourage readers to reach out to you to get a better understanding or learn more.
When lawyers can tap into their expertise in a way that bestows comprehensible benefits on their readers, that is how they can ensure that their content “goes to 11.”