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Seven Content Mistakes That Almost All Law Firms Make

Joe Reevy

We have been supplying b2c content for law firm websites, newsletters etc for 15 years. Most firms write content in house.

 Whilst I'd never say what we do is perfect, here are some aspects of content that we pay attention to that many law firms who create content in house clearly don't, and, in our view, should!


1. Inconsistent Style

 I am always amazed that whilst law firm marketers often want to talk about 'the firm's brand' and stress how important it is for all aspects of this to be in harmony, this doesn't appear to extend to their in-house generated content, which is presented in a whole plethora of styles.

 The importance of this really comes obvious when you don't apply a style guide because then you see the results of NOT making your style consistent. I'll give you an example. We treat 'the Government' as a proper noun, so we capitalise it. There's no right or wrong on this. However, use 'the Government' in one article and 'the government'  (common noun, not capitalised) in the next and it just looks less than perfect. In fact, I have seen the word used as proper and common nouns in succeeding paragraphs in an article before now. Another area in which editorial inconsistency is rife - and it looks bad - is the punctuation of lists or bullet points.

 Similarly, writing in a very relaxed, informal style will grate if the preceding item was in a very precise style.

 The impact on the reader will be negative even though they may not be able to define why. Our style guide for writers and editors runs to three pages. There's a reason for that.


 2.Writing in the wrong language.

 All professionals have their own industry language – and in law the industry, argot is substantial. Regrettably for lawyers, terms they regard as normal and everyday are anything but to the public at large, who, when they encounter writing replete with such terms, simply switch off.

One example I saw a week or two ago was an article on divorce which started with the word 'Spousal'. Spousal is a word I've never heard in everyday conversation. Ever. So, what will be the reaction of the reader? Switch off/move on.

 If you must use a legal term not in common usage, explain what it means. Better still, don't use it at all.

 It gets worse though. Lawyers generally have a good command of the language, so are inclined to use words like 'interregnum' or 'hiatus' when they should be using 'pause' or 'gap'. Failing to use everyday language when it is possible to do so not only puts off those who do not understand such arcane (oops, I did it myself) language, but to those who DO understand it, it looks arrogant or (worse!) like a person who cannot be bothered to express themselves as clearly as possible. The point of content is not to show how smart you are, but how good you'd be to use as an advisor: these are normally very different things.

 Using words like egregious is an egregious error: don't do it.

 Intelligibility is crucial. There are a number of free tools to check how easy your content is to read.  Use them. Just today I saw an item that required a postgraduate level of education to understand. Not good.

 If you are writing for an industry, take the time to learn their language and write in it. It shows 'industry knowledge' in a way mere technical expertise cannot.


 2.b. Writing in the wrong language

I'll talk more about editing below, but DO get your English right. I was talking the other day with a firm a partner of which had written a blog. It clearly wasn't reviewed, because he used the word 'principle' when he meant 'principal'.  It's the sort of mistake that jumps right off the page at the well-educated. To those of you - if any- of the 'Oh well, the sense is clear, what does it matter?' school I would ask this simple question...would you want someone who makes a mistake like that to draft the contract for the sale of your business?

These sorts of things mean you just don't ever get the enquiry...so you'll never know they cost you business: but they do.


2.c. Writing in the wrong language

Never use someone who is not a native dialect speaker to write for you. Not only will they make apparent mistakes (for example, an American reading the ante-penultimate paragraph below would think I have spelt 'centered' incorrectly, but this is written for an English readership. 50 years in the UK has taught me to think as well as write in UK English and despite that fact that the meanings of words are the same (more or less...), I'd have written this in an entirely different tone and style were it for a US audience. This sort of nuanced writing is really difficult unless you are perfectly bilingual. I still listen to US programming for a couple of hours before I write anything for publication in the US, and whilst almost everyone thinks they can do it, they can't. To a true native speaker, teh outcome in writing in a language that is not your natural idiom (at best) doesn't quite 'work' and at worst appears patronising. I have left one US expression in this just to make my compatriots happy!


3. Too long

 This blog will end up being about 1400 words. That's fine for this sort of blog, which will be read mainly on PCs at work. It is too long for a normal b2c web content or news item. No-one older than 45 will ever read a 700 word article on their mobile phone for example – the eye strain due to the small font will mean they move on in 200 words.

 The medium should determine the length.


 4. Editorial control – Editors, not authors


The article that started with 'Spousal', mentioned above went on to use the word 'maintenance' nine (9) times in a single paragraph. I'd bet my boots no member of the public ever started the next paragraph. Repetition makes for extremely dull reading. Buy a Thesarus if you need to, but ban avoidable repetition!

 A quick edit would have picked that up. Indeed, failure to edit by someone other than the author (who should never have total editorial control) is probably the most obvious failing in the output of law firms. No one edits my blogs, so you'll probably find typos (I can't type for beans)  and so on...you wouldn't if they were edited.

 No-one should ever edit their own material and (here's the big point) it should be recognised that the editor's role in content is MORE important than the writer's. Good writers are relatively easy to find. Good editors are gold dust.


 5. Balance

 I recently looked at a firm's website. In it's 'Legal news' they had added 20 employment law items in less than 8 weeks. However, there were only 2 family law items added in the last 2 years. What conclusion would a browser looking for a divorce lawyer draw? That this is an employment law firm not really interested in family law clients.

 If you have web content, make sure it reflects the whole of your firm's offering and is balanced.



 The whole point of writing content is for others to read it, and for them to read it, it has to be interesting for them. 'What It Means For You' (WIMFY) has to be clear to readers. The legal issue involved may be interesting beyond compare for you as a lawyer, but is it relevant and interesting for your audience and can you explain it in their language? If the answer to any of these is no, don't even start.

 The other aspect of this is that content should be targeted. Family law clients and prospects don't care about landlord and tenant law. People looking for employment law don't need to know about insolvency or contested probate.

 Don't mix different content. Target your content on web pages and newsletters (and social networking where possible) to those specifically interested in that type of material . This is very easy to do.



 7. Currency (Yesterday's News)

 Today (4 Nov) I have been looking at one firm's website which promises 'Legal news' that 'will keep you up to date...'. The last posting was 2010.

 If you offer legal NEWS, it MUST be current. Aim to be in the first 10 per cent (that's one of our editorial customs, by the way, we say 'per cent, we don't use 'percent' or the % sign) of firms that promulgate the news, otherwise you are just an 'also ran'. This is one of the biggest problems with 'in house' content: it is often way behind the mark if its production relies on fee-earners.

 Besides, a professional firm should NEVER make a promise it doesn't keep...let alone a public promise. What this tells your reader is that you make promises and you don't care if you keep them or not.

 On the other hand WIMFY CONTENT can be much older...indeed, general guides and so on can often not be date sensitive at all. These make good content because you can recycle them. The aim here is to make sure these don't disappear from view quickly because they should be semi-permanent. Your web setup should make that easy...if not, change it.

The aim of content is usually to be an incentive for the person reading it that to contact your firm - not your competitor - to take advice.  To win that battle, have timely, relevant, client-centred material which is easy to understand.

 Although it may be true to say that content is not as massively valuable as it is often claimed to be (which is why keeping the cost down is crucial), if you get the basics wrong, you'll simply fail to reap the benefits of having good content... and you will almost certainly never know what you have missed.




To reduce your firm's marketing costs, save staff time and grow your business faster, get in touch. 01392 423607 or see our websites at www.words4business.com,  www.legalrss.co.uk  (for law firms needing content) or www.myinfonet.com (for anyone needing a very fast, very simple, multi-modal communications/content management solution)

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