8:8:17 Writing client alerts that stand out LR

The other day I was conducting a webinar on writing client alerts for some of our business development, marketing and communications professionals and it took me back to six years ago when I first developed the training.

I had been with the firm for about a year when our CMO asked me to review some of our client alerts to see how we could improve them. My first challenge was to figure out who even wrote our client alerts, how they were distributed and how many we sent out each year. As you know, getting your arms around who does what at a firm as large as ours can be a formidable task, especially when you’re new.

My research revealed that mostly lawyers write client alerts and BD and marketing are in charge of distributing them. So I settled myself into a big cushy chair to read a cross-section of alerts from various regions and practice groups to identify patterns. This is what I found:

  • Headlines didn’t grab my attention.
  • News was buried.
  • Opening paragraphs were dense and hard to understand.
  • Many were too long (15-plus pages).
  • Most lacked any kind of practical advice.

That last issue was the biggest problem in my mind. I mean why explain a new legal development to clients without providing tips for what to do about it? That’s like me writing this entire blog post critiquing our client alerts and then saying, “Good luck!” without offering any suggestions on how to improve them.

Yet that’s precisely what so many client alerts do. It’s not just me who’s noticed. Clients and prospects — the very audience we are trying to inform and impress with our knowledge — have taken note as well. One general counsel has gone so far as to write a parody of the client alerts he receives from big law firms to demonstrate how formulaic and unhelpful they can be. In his parody, featured on the Above the Law legal blog, Aon Chief Counsel Mark Herrmann offers this advice to those interested in writing a client alert he may actually read:

Say something — anything — that isn’t the usual pabulum. Perhaps: “The new law may have an unintended consequence” — and identify it. Or: “This law may interact with another law in an important way.” Or: “An industry association has announced that it will be filing a constitutional challenge to certain provisions in the law. If your corporation is interested in supporting that effort, call X.” But, unless you enjoy being perceived as one of the crowd, please don’t tell us only that “a law was passed; you should obey it; we can help.” Been there; heard that; not impressed.

So, yeah. We need to take a step back and make sure we are giving clients the information they want in an alert. Let’s start by defining what a client alert is and what it’s intended to do. Here’s my take:

What a client alert is: A client alert is a short news bulletin that informs clients of a significant legal development that will affect their business — typically a new law, regulation, policy or major case.

Purpose: The purpose of a client alert is to explain how a legal development will affect clients and what steps they should take as a result of that development. The alert should provide practical information, not a legal analysis.

Based on this definition and purpose, here are my tips for writing clients alerts:

1. Write it like a news story.

When writing a client alert, you are not a lawyer, you are a news reporter. You are telling someone what happened, which means you need to get to the point. Right away. In the first sentence. Forget about the background, defined terms and lengthy name of the new law or policy. Those should come later. I’ll show you why. Read this opening paragraph of a client alert and try to identify what the news is.

In July 2008, more than 10 years after the Equal Opportunities Commission (“EOC”) introduced its first consultation paper on race discrimination, the Race Discrimination Ordinance (“RDO”) was gazetted (published by the government). Since the gazettal of the RDO, there has been extensive public consultation undertaken in respect of the Code of Practice on Employment under the Race Discrimination Ordinance (“Code”), which has resulted in heated debate and a number of significant amendments to the original draft. The substantive provisions of the RDO, as well as the Code, finally came into force on 10 July 2009.

Did you find the news? Where is it? Yep, buried in the last sentence. It took the author 76 words to get to the news that the Race Discrimination Ordinance had taken effect. And let’s look at those 76 words for a second. Do we care that the RDO took effect 10 years after the first consultation paper? Is it important for readers to know that the process of developing the race discrimination law sparked heated debate? And that significant amendments were made to the original draft?

No, not really. Those are background details that can go farther down in the story. If I’m a busy employment lawyer at a company in Hong Kong, I want to know three things:

  • What happened?
  • How does it affect me or my company?
  • What should we do about it?

Instead, you want to start with the news (what happened) like this:

Effective this month, Hong Kong’s race discrimination law imposes new obligations on employers to prevent race discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The new law, called the Race Discrimination Ordinance, holds companies liable for acts of racial discrimination by their employees, even if they didn’t know about the conduct. The only way employers can avoid liability is to demonstrate they have taken practical steps to avoid discrimination and harassment in their hiring and management processes.

Then explain how it affects your audience, like this:

Failing to take steps to comply with the RDO puts your company at risk of litigation. The new ordinance allows job applicants and employees to file race discrimination complaints with the Equal Opportunity Commission, which has the power to conduct investigations and facilitate settlements. Grievants can also file claims in district court, which has the power to invalidate contracts that violate the RDO, order you to reinstate or promote an employee and award punitive and exemplary damages.

In this second paragraph, I’m essentially saying, “Hey, employers. If you don’t pay attention to the RDO, these are the potential consequences.” That information is most likely to get their attention and keep them reading to find out what they need to do to comply with the new law.

Also notice how much easier the sentences are to read when they’re not peppered with lots of dates, legalese and defined terms like (“EOC”), (“RDO”) and (“Code”). The date on the alert is sufficient to tell readers when the event happened (assuming you’re writing about it within the same month, which I hope you are), and you should avoid using defined terms in alerts because they’re distracting and unnecessary. An alert is a client communication, not a legal contract.

Using this “get to the point” structure respects your audience’s time. Don’t make them wait 76 words for the news. You risk losing them.

2. State the news concisely in your headline.

Headlines are one of the most important aspects of any news story because they often determine whether someone will read on. The headline for the alert we’ve been discussing was this:

Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance and Code of Practice on Employment — Now Fully Operational

The good thing about this headline is that it does state the news about the new ordinance. However, there’s an easier way to say it. Instead of using a wordy phrase like “now fully operational,” why not simply say “takes effect”? Then your headline would be:

Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance Takes Effect

Now it’s half of the original length. (Note that I also shortened the ordinance name to make the headline even more concise.)

As I explain in my post on how to write catchy headlines, using verbs in your headlines will make them stronger and more likely to pique curiosity. A headline that says “Cross-Border M&A rises 20%” is much more likely to get a reader’s attention than “Trends in Cross-Border M&A.”

The verb “rises” gives the first headline a sense of momentum. It also forces you to say exactly what the cross-border M&A trend is. Providing that detail is more likely to make a reader wonder, 20%? Hmmm…why did it rise 20%? and read on to find out. In headline writing, reader curiosity is your best friend.

3. Provide practical advice

Okay, this is where you get to be lawyers. This is when you use your knowledge and expertise to look at the legal development and put it in perspective for clients. It’s the time to, as Mark Herrmann urges, think about things like whether the new law or policy may have unintended consequences or interact with another law in an important way. As a member of our target audience, Mark gave us some great advice on how to differentiate our alerts from the pack. So let’s follow it.

At the very least, provide some tips about what actions clients should take in response to the development you’re writing about. And make sure they go beyond the standard “consult with legal counsel” or “review your policies to make sure they comply with the new law.”

Those tips are too vague to be of much help. They also fail to show that you’re a creative, innovative thinker who offers clients practical advice that will help them solve their business problems. You’re not going to just tell them what they can hear from anyone else.

4. Use my client alert outline

If you want a framework to help you implement these tips, I’d recommend using the client alert outline I created to help lawyers and business services professionals write stronger headlines, get to the news quickly and include practical tips. The outline is basically a catchy headline followed by four sections:

  • Headline
  • Section 1: What’s changed
  • Section 2: What it means for you
  • Section 3: Actions to take
  • Section 4: Read more (optional)

For most alerts, you should only use the first three sections. Only — and I repeat, only — use section 4 when you need to provide additional context about the new law, policy or case for clients who want the nitty gritty details (most don’t). As an alternative, consider ending the alert with something like, “If you’d like further details about this development you can read the law/policy/case here” and link to it. (Bonus tip: don’t say “Click here.” That’s old school.)

Going forward, I highly recommend using this structure to write client alerts rather than sitting in a dark room, staring at a blinking cursor with no one else to talk to. If you’re still not convinced that you need help, here’s a testimonial from one lawyer who followed it:

I found the outline really helped me to focus my thoughts and get over that initial hump of staring at a blank screen. Because of that, I think the first draft only took me about an hour, whereas usually it is a much longer process. Thank you very much.

So, give the outline a try and let me know if it helps you gain more hours in your day. I think I just might have found the loophole.

Note to readers: This post was written while I was conducting writing workshops for the lawyers and business services professionals at Baker McKenzie, where I wrote and edited the law firm’s thought leadership content for eight years. In the post, I rely on examples from Baker McKenzie communications and refer to the firm in the first person because I worked there at the time of writing.

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