Research, Routine, and Relationships — Q&A With Top Thought Leader Walter Wright

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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:]

When you publish three posts a day, five days a week, nearly 52 weeks a year like attorney Walter Wright does, you’ve got to have an efficient routine to make sure writing doesn’t get in the way of practicing law.

For Wright, a member at Mitchell Williams in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he advises clients on environmental, energy, and water law, that means devoting time every morning identifying issues that matter to his readers so that he can spend one hour each evening drafting content.

How did you get started writing and why do you keep it up?

Three things motivated me to start our blog. First, because environmental and energy law are constantly changing – starting back in the 1970s and going through today – and there’s so much activity at the federal and the Arkansas level involving legislative and regulatory changes, policy developments, enforcement, etc. If I’m going to keep up with these developments, do the research to understand them and be able to advise clients, why not take the next step and put some of that out for others to read?

...as you continually write about issues no one is working on, you end up knowing about them in ways that other lawyers do not.

Secondly, I've taught environmental law for the past 28 years at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock School of Law. To be fair to students it’s important to stay on top of developments and provide policy insight rather than simply lecturing from a textbook. Again, I thought that since I was doing the work I might as well turn it into written material.

And finally, like most law firms, we've got a law clerk program. Law students these days are pretty sophisticated: they’re obviously interested in the practice of law, in real estate, in litigation pleadings, etc. But a surprising number are also interested in learning about client development and business development, and our blog gives them a great opportunity to coauthor posts, understand the process, and start publishing their work.

I’d add that one of the competitive advantages of writing a blog is that as you continually write about issues that no one is working on, you end up knowing about them in ways that other lawyers do not.

What is your writing process?

I have an automatic Westlaw search that's been running now for about ten years where I've got 30 different search terms. It spits out a number of decisions every day. I'll glance through those, and if are any that I think might be of interest, I'll put them aside. I also go through the press releases of about 15 or 20 environmental organizations, the Department of Justice, and the EPA.

Because a third of our posts focus on Arkansas, I look at the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment – Division of Environmental Quality's website for policy changes, administrative decisions, and articles on the Natural Resources Commission.

I spend about an hour a night, Sunday through Thursday, where I quickly look through my stack of articles and developments...

In addition, I follow developments in several other States that have fairly sophisticated environmental and water programs. Not because they're necessarily applicable to Arkansas, but because they do interesting things that might find their way to Arkansas, like California’s environmental requirements related to marijuana cultivation: Arkansas recently authorized grow facilities, so the state is starting to develop requirements for those facilities. The California regulations may not be directly relevant to Arkansas, but they obviously are of interest now simply because the topic has become relevant to Arkansas.

I spend about an hour a night, Sunday through Thursday, where I quickly look through my stack of articles and developments, then dictate several posts that my assistant will transcribe in the morning. It's really not a lengthy process.

How do you decide what to write about?

For years I’ve represented several trade associations dealing with environmental, energy, and water issues so I know what matters to them. I write about those developments with a balance of about 60% environmental matters, 30% energy topics, and 10% water.

At the same time, I write on issues that are or will become important even if they’re not immediately relevant to my clients. For example, ten years ago my clients didn’t have activities in or developments involving solar power, but I was interested in it so I started writing about it.

You’ve talked a little about your audience. Who specifically are you writing for?

I’d guess that around 90% of the folks who read our work are non-lawyers. I try make it valuable for them by writing about a mix of legal and policy issues, providing straightforward and timely notices about regulatory developments without getting into the weeds of detailed legal analyses.

...analytics provided by JD Supra are also very useful to help us determine the subjects of most interest to our readers.

In addition, we know – thanks to JD Supra’s reports – that a great deal of our readership is in Arkansas where there aren’t a lot of publications covering the issues. That’s why we always dedicate one-third of our posts to developments that are unique to the state.

The analytics provided by JD Supra are also very useful to help us determine the subjects of most interest to our readers. This is particularly important because I cover three broad topics (environmental, energy, water) which at any given time probably involve hundreds of issues.

In addition, the analytics give me timely feedback on the focus of particular companies or industries. Finally, because of the volume of posts we produce, seeing the numbers allows me to write on low-key and obscure topics then gauge – and sometimes spur – interest.

How do you benefit from writing?

In a few ways, the first of which is the most important to me. I've been practicing in Arkansas for about 28 years. While I like to think it’s a small enough state and legal community that I’ve become generally known, the fact we’ve been writing our blog for as long as we have gives me some credibility with the agencies and regulated community, and even with environmental groups.

In addition to that, writing has forced me to become familiar enough with regulatory legal policy and issues so that I’m able to draft blog posts on those topics. That has allowed me not only to become conversant on the issues, but sometimes practice in areas that I probably would never have wandered into otherwise.

...while there have certainly been instances that I got new clients because of the blog, it’s given me an important way for enhancing my relationships with existing clients.

Finally, while there have certainly been instances that I got new clients because of the blog, it’s given me an important for way enhancing my relationships with existing clients. In fact in many cases I’ve gotten messages from clients that they’ve seen a post and want to talk about it.

Similarly, I hear from people in state agencies, the regulated community, and even environmental groups who ask me to help them disseminate information on the blog. That makes me happy to know that not only are they reading our blog, but that they almost view it as an Arkansas community forum. And it kind of is: there is no other publication that focuses as much on our state as we do, covering legal and regulatory developments while at the same time listing local seminars, agency changes, and other news of that nature.

What advice do you have for other lawyers who want to become thought leaders?

One of the most important things is to find a niche. Whether you write about a certain geography or a subset of a particular legal area, a niche is critical. For us, with so many people writing about environment, energy, and water issues, that meant focusing on Arkansas which allows us to address topics that are not covered by other firms.

Another key practice is to be systematic. Whether you publish once a week, twice a week, or three times a month, if readers know that you produce regular updates, they’re more likely to get into the habit checking in for new content.

It’s also important to develop a routine. As we all know, the practice of law is time consuming and you need to find a way to be efficient with your time. Similarly, your writing also needs to be efficient. The blog has taught me how to be more succinct in my writing, and it’s going to make your life easier if you too can figure that out, because you don’t have 30 hours a week to devote to it. A 50-page brief isn’t necessarily more effective than a well-written 10-page brief after all.

Finally, you need to spend time exploring the needs and interests of your audience. I try to identify issues that concern our readers both so that I can write about those topics and track their evolution, and also to develop an appreciation for what worries them because that helps me target areas I think they should be interested in.

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Walter Wright has more than 30 years of experience in environmental, energy (petroleum marketing), and water law. He holds the lead spot among the top ten authors in JD Supra's 2021 Readers' Choice awards Energy and Environment categories.

 

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