Collaboration, Community, and Client Support — Q&A with Top Thought Leader Michelle Reed

JD Supra Perspectives
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[The latest in our ongoing series of discussions on successful thought leadership with recipients of JD Supra's Readers' Choice awards:]

Michelle Reed has loved writing all her life, and believes that good writing almost sounds like a song because it’s so well put together. Content that’s tedious to read, however, doesn’t even make it to her screen.

A cybersecurity, privacy, and data protection partner at Akin Gump in Dallas, Texas, Michelle keeps a folder of well written articles and briefs on her computer, to read when she needs inspiration on getting the reader's attention, quickly distilling what's important, and making sure her work is worth reading.

What were your expectations when you started out?

I first started writing, particularly in the data privacy and cybersecurity space, because there was so much going on that I needed to keep up on, and I wasn't satisfied with any source that I was reading. There were so many different issues and I felt like someone needed to distill what was happening.

I also wanted to create a place for the firm’s thought leadership, so people could see what we could do and they could understand what was important.

...our readership has certainly gone farther than I ever would have expected

The other thing that I wanted to do was to make sure – for our own internal purposes – that we had an analysis of the privacy laws and developments that mattered. Of course I wanted to reach clients and others interested in data privacy, but one of my primary goals was that we would become better lawyers by having analyzed and reviewed so many things and produced valuable content for people to appreciate.

Since then, our readership has certainly gone farther than I ever would have expected. There are people reviewing our content from all over the world: I have had people contact me from Africa and from Europe with questions. That’s a much wider distribution than I originally anticipated, and it’s great to be part of a global community working together to understand the new frontier of data privacy law.

How do you benefit from your writing?

A lot of different ways. Some of it is purely collaborative: through our work, we’ve established the relationships that allow us to work with other privacy professionals to understand and interpret the law.

We’ve gotten some great feedback from clients on what was helpful and how their businesses have benefited. They also tell us about related issues they would like us to address and analysis they hope we can provide.

...a great opportunity to reach others outside of the firm’s client community

Some of the biggest benefits come from places we didn’t expect. For example, on our California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) Report, which looked at the first year of litigation under the CCPA, we had legislators from across the country looking at our results and analysis. Similarly, other perspectives – even some of the writings on Europe and Africa – have had governmental actors downloading, reviewing, and analyzing our content, then contacting us about it.

I’m not sure we would have had that kind of significant reach around the world had it not been for JD Supra. With all of our articles being republished on JD Supra, it gives us a great opportunity to reach others outside of the firm’s client community and reach new people. And to see the huge array of law firm content published on JD Supra, and how much competition there is, it is a huge honor to receive their 2021 Readers' Choice Award.

It’s sometimes surprising to me when I think that my original myopic goal for writing was to bring together in one place the thought leadership that helps our clients. Now I see that our work really helps the community a lot more broadly than we thought it would, including at a fundamental policy level.

What is your process for writing?

I review industry publications first thing in the morning. So I get up before everyone else does, and read through the headlines of all of the developments in privacy law, from many different news sources. When I see something important, I'll click on it. I usually can't read them all in that amount of time, so end up having a window open with all the articles I feel like I need to read.

Later in the day I read them and ask myself “does this matter? Why does it matter to our clients?”

...an important part of great thought leadership is identifying what really matters

I think an important part of great thought leadership is identifying what really matters, and it's not always what's trendy – sometimes I read about an issue and realize that it’s is going to have a big impact. Those are the subjects I track. I then work with a great team that helps me decide what we're going to write about.

What successes have you gotten from your written work?

I'm a lawyer, so what do I love more than helping people? I've certainly had clients who have come to me from articles that we've written. They've seen the thought leadership out there, and then they called me and said, “I'm struggling with this problem. Can you help me?” because they saw something that I've written. That is positive feedback, and a big success for us.

Another benefit is being able to collaborate as a community. Part of the data privacy practice involves interpreting new laws, developing responses to new laws, and coming up with a way for those laws to be applied. Everyone is interpreting it fresh, and there is not a lot of precedent in the areas we're looking at.

One aspect that I think really defines success is what you do to allow people to collaborate and understand data privacy, and then coalesce around a standard that ultimately will help our clients and our community.

What specific takeaways do you have for lawyers who want to become thought leaders?

The first thing I would say is that titles are an art. They’re so important because you don't get readers unless the title interests them. And if you can't come up with a good title that makes someone want to read what you're writing, you're probably not writing about something that matters. So think about the title as the way you pitch your work to make it appeal to readers. You want the title to make people say “I’d better read this because it is important to me and to my business.” Titles matter.

...if you can't come up with a good title that makes someone want to read, you're probably not writing about something that matters.

Second, if you say something in ten words, but can say it in five, say it in five. Someone once asked me if lawyers get paid by the word because we all talk and write a lot. Make sure that your writing is lean and that every sentence has a purpose, that you're not repeating yourself, and that your work has clarity. Those are all really important things to writing.

Third, substance matters. Readers can tell when someone is just regurgitating what others have written and when an author has actually read the law and is analyzing it. Strong writers analyze and bring depth to issues that matter. That will differentiate your work.

Finally, writing is a team effort. You can't be a strong writer without having people who review and comment on your work, critique it, and give you new ideas and ways to think about something. You need a team behind you to make sure you think through all of the issues and bring a multidimensional analysis to the issues you're covering.

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Michelle Reed is a partner at Akin Gump in Dallas, Texas, and co-head of the firm's cybersecurity, privacy and data protection practice. She holds the lead spot among the top ten authors in JD Supra's 2021 Readers' Choice awards data privacy category. Follow Michelle's latest writings here.

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