...a poor-quality alert is more dangerous to a firm’s reputation than no alert at all.
General counsel read and appreciate timely client alerts. “I read virtually everything that somehow crosses my desk or any of my devices,” says Olga Mack, general counsel of ClearSlide. “After all, the written word to a lawyer is like free food to a college student – I just can’t get enough of it even when it is poor quality.”
And there’s the problem: a poor-quality alert is more dangerous to a firm’s reputation than no alert at all.
Lawyers are judged on how they write everything from emails to engagement letters. Neither should be wordy, and should be as free of jargon as possible. They need to be BLUF (bottom line up front), easy to read, and helpful.
Let’s look at the openings of two recent client alerts that crossed my desk, and then review some tips:
California Supreme Court Rejects On-Duty or On-Call Rest Breaks
On December 22, 2016, the California Supreme Court addressed two related issues: (i) whether California law requires employers to permit off-duty rest periods – that is, time during which an employee is relieved from all work-related duties and free from employer control, and (ii) can an employer satisfy its obligation to relieve employees from work-related duties and employer control if the employer requires its employees to remain on-call during rest periods.
On the plus side, this is a good headline. It’s informative and reasonably concise.
On the undesirable side, this first sentence has a whopping 70 words, and tells us absolutely nothing about the ruling. Rather, it focuses on what the court considered. That information is necessary, but should be much farther down in the alert.
This second alert illustrates a related problem:
Republican FCC Commissioners Fire First Shot in Next Network Neutrality Battle
In a statement released on Friday, December 16, and a letter to leaders of industry trade groups released on Monday, December 19, Michael O'Rielly and Ajit Pai, the two current Republican FCC commissioners, began the next battle over network neutrality regulations.
Again, good headline. “Fire” and “shot” make me want to read the piece. But the lede kills my interest all together. It is boring restatement of the headline. And at this point in the alert, the dates of the letter and statement are irrelevant. What we want to know is the gist of what the commissioners said. In fact, the alert takes some 200 words before we get to that.
BLUF: First sentences matter. A lot. Author Stephen King has said he spends months and sometimes even years perfecting the first sentence of his novels.
So how to improve alerts? Follow these rules.
Interesting headlines. See my earlier post on headlines for specific tips.
Subheds. Use these to quote from the ruling or new law, or add context or nuance.
Subheds within the body of the alert. These help readers skim more efficiently to learn if they need to read the entire alert.
An upfront call to action. Don’t make readers get down to the bottom of the alert to find out what they should be doing to prepare or respond. Where action by the client is suggested or required, put this information in the third paragraph. The “why should I care” element needs to be front and center.
Include a summary. This should be digestible for non-lawyers, so in-house counsel can pass alerts on to internal clients such as HR, IT, etc., as appropriate.
Provide context. In the first alert, the author could have added a graph that puts this ruling in perspective, such as “This is the third ruling in as many years dealing with rest breaks, each strengthening employee rights.”
Visuals matter. Use graphic elements wherever possible. For example, a pull quote (a key phrase, quotation or summary) helps the reader and sets your alerts apart, because hardly any firms use them.
Include links. Link to documents and appropriate background materials. If your reader needs to do a deep dive on the topic, make it easy for them.
Showcase expertise. Referencing the first alert, undoubtedly the law firm has written some kind of summary, checklist or white paper on rest breaks for clients. Include a link to show readers you are on top of the issue.
Firms put in a good deal of time on client alerts. Don’t waste your efforts. When general counsel get 5-6 alerts on each topic, the good ones stand out and the bad ones put firms in a poor light. Alerts are one indication of how the firm communicates and what it’s like to interface with its lawyers. Make a good impression.
[Susan Kostal is an editor, writer, business development strategist and media coach with over 25 years experience on the beat and in the C-suite. Susan's expertise includes legal industry trends, marketing, communications, and public relations.]