We think copywriters could teach lawyers a thing or two when it comes to communicating effectively…
Lawyers are professional writers. In fact, the average solicitor probably produces more words each day than any journalist, copywriter or novelist. But, while other professional writers are drilled in techniques to communicate their ideas simply and effectively, lawyers aren’t. (Well, at least not always). Instead, they can end up alienating clients by sounding like, well, lawyers.
That’s why we’ve come up with this list of five simple tricks from the world of advertising copywriting which we think every lawyer should know.
1. Start with your audience
The first thing any decent writer should think about is the person who’s going to read what they write. “If you can’t turn yourself into your customer, you probably shouldn’t be in the ad writing business at all,” agency founder Leo Burnett once said.
Volkswagen and Mercedes might both be cars – and German ones at that – but the two brands target a completely different market. The message their advertisers present will be different. And, just as importantly, their language will be different too.
Lawyers should take the same approach. When you speak to a client in their words, they’re more likely to understand your advice and act on it. And that’s the ultimate goal of lawyering.
So who is your audience? Because it’s impossible to get inside the head of your client, the best answer is that you should write for the broadest audience possible. When you do, it always pays to remember a few things:
- Your reader will probably be completely disinterested in the law unless it relates to their current situation. In other words, ditch the case names and legal technicalities (unless you really do need them).
- Where a technical area of the law does need to be explained, explain it simply. (Think of how you’d feel about a doctor talking of tarsals, metatarsals and phalanges when they could be telling you about your feet and toes).
- Get rid of words that aren’t part of normal English usage. No one I’ve ever met begins sentences with “Notwithstanding” or “Absent”. You shouldn’t either. (Using words like that won’t make you sound more learned, it’ll just make you sound pompous.) If you absolutely must use a legal term, also give a plain English explanation of what it means.
- Use proper names or pronouns that normal people use. Ditch “appellant”, “respondent” and even “vendor” (“seller” works just as well).
- Always remember the words of copywriting legend David Ogilvy: “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.”
2. Put first things first
Basic advertising follows a simple strategy. It hits you with a desire and then tells you how to satisfy it. (“Thirsty? Drink Coke”) Unfortunately, legal advices aren’t always so clear. Many advices read like thrillers. The writing takes several twists and turns before, right at the end, the moment is revealed – long after the client has given up.
Good legal writing follows a simple structure. The most important information (ie what to do) comes first; the information telling you why to do it follows.
To do this, you need to know what you’re saying before you actually say it. And that means planning. In fact, all good usually writing begins with two steps: the first involves coming up with ideas and the second involves organising those ideas into a narrative. (After that comes writing and editing.)
Thinking on the page won’t just deliver a worse product to your client; it will also ultimately create more work for you as you try to give coherence to your ramblings.
3. Tell yourself the end justifies the means
Many lawyers see themselves as the true guardians of the English language. This means they sometimes can’t see the forest for the trees. It convinces them of the need to stick to fusty (often incorrect) rules of grammar, like not splitting their infinitives (to jolly well split an infinitive is every writer’s right). It leads them to abhor modern writing techniques like bullet points, headings and short paragraphs. Instead, they write in long paragraphs with subclauses.
If the goal of legal writing is to have your client understand and act on your advice, you should do whatever it takes to make sure they do. Introduce new concepts with a heading. Bullet-point your lists to make them easy to digest. Keep your sentences short. Use action words to start sentences when you want action to be taken.
Let sentences that really matter stand alone, so that they also stand out.
And ditch the hesitation about not starting sentences with “And”, “So”, “But” or “Because’. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these words. (Just don’t go overboard, it will affect your style.)
In short, do whatever it takes to get your point across so that your clients act in their own best interests. Or, as Bill Bernbach (founder of ad agency DDB) put it, elevate yourself beyond the role of mere writer to that of communicator:
“It is insight into human nature that is the key to the communicator’s skill. For whereas the writer is concerned with what he puts into his writings, the communicator is concerned with what the reader gets out of it. He therefore becomes a student of how people read or listen.”
4. Remember not everything matters
Given that their content literally is money, both copywriters and journalists have strict word limits imposed on them. Every word on the page matters; if it doesn’t advance the story, it’s out. Lawyers don’t always have the same mindset. Perhaps they’re driven by the fear of being sued if they leave something out; perhaps it’s because there is no word limit to an advice. (The cynic might say it’s easier to justify a high fee with more words on the page.) Either way, there’s nothing more certain to distract a client than unnecessary information.
Ogilvy famously said that nothing needed to be longer than two pages. We’re not quite as ruthless. But remember, the longer something is, the less likely it is to be read.
Our final piece of advice is this: as a professional writer you should be paying as much attention as possible to how other people write. That doesn’t mean reading judgment after judgment. Writing expert Professor James C Raymond says that the problem with judges is that they usually write for an audience of lawyers. You’re writing for your clients.
Instead, to write well, make a habit of reading good writing from outside of the law. As Mary Wells Lawrence from Wells Rich Green – creator of famous campaigns like “I Love New York,” – said, you need to stretch yourself:
“You can’t just be you. You have to double yourself. You have to read books on subjects you know nothing about. You have to travel to places you never thought of traveling. You have to meet every kind of person and endlessly stretch what you know.”
Contact us today if your law firm needs help communicating clearly and effectively.
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Read more: 5 tips when writing for the web
A version of this article originally appeared on the Law Society of NSW website as ‘Write Like a Pro’