Plain language vs legalese. Easy vs hard. Persuasion mandates clarity. Get your website ducks in a row with these tips.
Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes
Plain Language Law
✧︎︎︎ Kryptonite for Law Students & New Attorneys
Face it, colleagues: the heady days of our law school venture instilled odd fascination with
- a hairy hand,
- a lady named Helen Palsgraf (‘membah her?!), and
- a certain Latin phrase, res ipsa loquitur.1
Once in the real world we compounded our hostile phrasing tendencies, picking up the habits of our elders. Littering documents with
- now comes
- prays this Court
and other linguistic atrocities serve one purpose. The us-only language builds alleged inner security with the writer’s new attorney at law status. Anxious to prove our legal acumen, we forgot a basic fact of life. Every reader, everywhere, craves an easy read. Translated to the web context, legal linguistic tours guarantee a high bounce rate.
Like me, your maiden lawyering days may live far behind in the rear view mirror. That spells a new ongoing mission: develop and maintain an acute awareness of the actual language appearing on your website (and elsewhere).
✧︎︎︎ Writing in Plain Language = a Law Blogger’s BFF
My darlin’ hubby teases me: y’all will complicate air given half a chance. The man raises a valid point. Bloggers are called, surprise, bloggers. Lawyers entered the scene, erecting law firm blogs for marketing purposes. Further polluting the English language to distinguish ourselves, we created a new word: blawg. Cute, blending law with blog. Take a moment, counsel: google blawg. See any laypeople-oriented sites populating the search list?
If your livelihood targets only attorneys, blawg will pull those retinas. But what about folks wth a discrete problem, seeking an attorney to coax resolution? If I’m a non-lawyer, trying to discern pertinent legal issues, seeing blawg on a landing page coerces quick flight. Why? The firm concerned refuses to indulge plain language on a premier page. There’s little chance subsequent pages will respect the need for easy-to-comprehend information. Read: you’ve self-gifted a Bye Felicia!2 response.
✧︎︎︎ Finding “Stories” to Tell
The legal profession enjoys a unique internet-based advantage: a gabillion opinions live in Google Scholar’s free Law stash. Each opinion presents a story, driven by conflict. One side wins; the other loses. We know how to find what’s most relevant to our practice areas, and local area. We possess required interpretation skills.
But before jumping into those gem-filled Google waters, consider the nuances of writing web content.
✧︎︎︎ Tell the Story Using the Techniques of BestSelling Authors
The top-selling tales written by John Grisham, Maya Angelou3, and Tom Clancy require only a 7th-9th grade reading-level capability. (The linked page also confirms the same reading levels across this nation’s premier magazines.) The time associated with digesting these bestsellers reflects book length, not hostile phrasing.
The individual stories crystallized by judges require no hours-long time commitment to digest. But opinion language can simulate a hammer’s serial taps on the brain. Reason? Extreme legalese + sentence length flirting with Guinness world records. The good news? You alone set the stage and tone while conveying, in writing, the legal lessons instilled by an opinion.
Not every lawyer possesses natural on-your-feet argumentative skills. Nor does every attorney’s writing reflect tell-a-story polish. Yet, everyone relishes a good story. The facts in an opinion may stimulate all the excitement of drying wall paint. But a fiction-techniques legal writer breathes life into the mundane.
Holding attention forms step one in persuasion; conveying your message, step two. Succeeding at both escalates conversion potential.
Enhancing Conversion Potential
✧︎︎︎ Wielding a Lawyer’s Persuasive Skills
Conveying the basics of, say, intellectual property law invites a serious case of MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Ovahhh!). But a dose of imagination defeats that syndrome.
Example: add a twist. Focus on branding, using Nike’s iconic swoosh as your main character. The subject now pulsates because you’ve tapped into the globally familiar. Contrast the extreme success attending this professionally crafted branding with the predictable problems flowing from $5-a-shot logo creators. When eyes wed to a clock rather than quality, a facet of one logo likely will spill over to another. Similar logos invite litigation. That reality serves as springboard to discuss your services. The illustration promotes the need for counsel: prevent predictable problems.
Find enough opinions to create a short list, detailing the costs associated with promotes confusion intellectual property litigation. With that as background, the anchoring technique renders your fee abundantly reasonable.
1979 Nobel-prize winning research confirmed: predictable biases infect human decision making. Those biases include the natural effects of anchoring: once an item is called to someone’s attention, subsequent similar items trigger comparison with that first item (e.g. sticker price at a car dealership). The mind adores comparisons. The anchoring technique exploits this natural fact.
In all instances, our daily activity as legal practitioners involves marshaling facts and applicable law. We massage the combination to fashion a winning argument. On the web, instead of entertaining a jury (just keepin’ it real; we know this looms as necessity), we entertain site visitors.
✧︎︎︎ Getting, and Maintaining, Eyeballs → → Counselor, I need your help
You get attention by anticipating questions and providing responsive examples, i.e. related scenarios highlighting resolved issues. Grisham’s protagonist may carry a gun. Find your bullets in the critical facts triggering a court’s decision.
You hold attention by telling your story, in manner friendly to the reader.
Satisfying these requisites positions induces trust and authority status.
✦︎ Conjure the Reader’s Trust
Establishing trust online mandates quality content. News flash: folks recognize a mere electronic brochure on sight. Don’t be SherlockReena, sporting a pretend website!
Look at the articles presented on your competitors’ sites. What can you add? How can you present a better article? Zero in on one critical aspect treated in mere hit-&-run fashion. Or, provide a more comprehensive overview of the subject matter. Either approach will elevate your site in the reader’s eyes.
✦︎ Establish Your Authority Status
Securing an authority reputation requires links to authoritative content (which, incidentally, Google adores). Discussing that content yields a trust-worthy and friendly online presence.
Tone counts! If slipping into a colloquial expression kills 30+ words, use it. Read: this ain’t the time to act like your grandpop’s stuffy lawyer. Loosen the tight-knot tie; kick off your heels. Relax and exploit the fun inherent in the challenge.
You can tell the site visitor your law firm stays abreast of late-breaking legal developments. Or you can show that fact with prompt presentation of news items. And don’t limit yourself to law, per se. Tech news —with implications relevant to your practice— offer blog post ideas. Find the ball and run with it.
If a desired local-flavor focus remains elusive in opinions, check your local area’s event calendar. A state fair’s carnival invites a personal injury discussion, given the history of some carnivals. Where there are cars, e.g. an auto show, you can pivot into a lemon-car law discussion. A restaurant with persistent low ratings embraces a pattern of negligence article. Take the ordinary, slide it under the prism of a legal microscope, and write! The basis for intelligent references to your geographic location (local SEO) surrounds you. (SEO = Search Engine Optimization.)
Additional Present Quality Content Issues
✧︎︎︎ Master Intelligent Sprinkling of KeyWords
Conversion potential applies only to those who actually visit your site and digest your offerings. Given Google’s status as premier transporter of visitors, the importance of keywords materializes. Never lose sight of this reality: folks use Google to locate desired information. This explains my earlier declaration about the need to anticipate questions (searches), and create responsive pages.
Do not confuse the need for keywords with the practice of keyword stuffing. When alleged SEO experts insist keyword stuffing paves your road to conversion, smile politely, and walk away.
Think of the 3-times jury rule : when you want to ensure a jury remembers a certain fact, you mention it at least 3 times. If you employ a lazy approach, tossing in the critical mention time and again absent rhyme or reason, the jury will call you a …. well, the effect yields the opposite of your desired goal.
Treat keywords with the same respect. Within a related context, they work well. But when they interrupt flow rather than enhance it, Google will notice. Google’s responsive gift? Placement of your page in the nether regions of the search results list. ‘Nuff said.
✧︎︎︎ Blog Post Length
Your purpose per post inherently suggests length. No definitive rules apply. Me? Quality overrides length considerations. Others? Rough guidelines follow.
If your primary concern involves social media sharing, aim for a short post (under 500 words). A desire to coax Google search-ranking friendliness, or educate your target audience, coerces a longer post (1200–2500 word count).
Suggested resources for further exploration of this word-count issue:
- The Write Practice: How Long Should Your Blog Post Be?
- Co-Schedule: What Really Is The Best Blog Post Length?
- Snap Agency: For Blog Posts in 2017, What’s the Best Length for SEO?
- Moz: The Perfect Blog Post Length and Publishing Frequency is B?!!$#÷x (personal opinion: THE BEST advice appears in this post: “You should match your goals and your content goals with searcher goals.”)
✅ Realize: subject ideas for creating quality content abound:
- caselaw via Google Scholar’s Law opinion database
- website articles
- news articles
- local event listings (springboards to discussing your practice areas)
By the way, if those local event listings offer no meaty basis for discussion, switch gears. Consider presenting a simple listing of local events, ordered by date. It adds to the friendliness aspect of your site, i.e. you’re not always playing the role of a me-focused sales person. Bonus: minimal brain power required!
✅ If you choose to write the copy yourself, integrate the primary techniques of bestselling authors: make your text
- easy to read (headers, bullet points, and boldface accommodate skimming the text)
- easy to digest (7th-9th grade reading level; google: free readability tools; play watchdog, chasing away every instance of legalese you find; if the discussion requires a certain legal term, respect your audience by providing an explanation)
- similar to a story (cut & dry copy induces 😴 zzzzz’s 😴)
- fun (coax smiles; fun experiences linger in memory)
✅ Add links to authoritative articles to conjure trust and position yourself as an expert.
✅ Gain familiarity with apps and services easing the mechanics of finding and creating quality content.
✅ Remain mindful of the distinction between accommodating vs stuffing keywords.
✅ One all-encompassing umbrella rule: keep (the searches of) your target audience foremost in mind.
✅ If you refuse to make time to personally create the required web copy, outsource the chore. Psst! I’m available. Shoot a message detailing your mission, noting your preferred response method.
- Strict translation: the thing speaks for itself. Example: a movie theater’s chandelier dislodges from the ceiling, striking a seated patron. Properly secured chandeliers remain in place. The fact the chandelier fell suggests the movie theater’s negligent maintenance of its establishment, i.e. the thing speaks for itself. ↩
- Popular tv programs initiate new colloquialisms. Seinfeld gifted yadda yadda yadda, shorthand for a who-cares monologue spoken by another. A more recent show, Empire, gives us Bye Felicia!. Translation: a situation proves unworthy of one’s time, prompting abrupt departure. ↩
- Ms. Angelou’s 9th-10th grade reading level score appears on a listing with many other renowned authors. Pawtucket School Department. Compilation of Appendices for the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects ↩