Write to Be Useful — Q&A with Top Thought Leader Michael Wong

JD Supra Perspectives

[The latest in our ongoing series of discussions on successful thought leadership with recipients of JD Supra's 2021 Readers' Choice awards:]

Michael Wong, a management-side labor and employment law partner at SmithAmundsen, has always enjoyed writing. In the early part of his career, he was more of a re-active than pro-active writer, generally writing on subjects that had been raised by multiple clients or that came up in cases.

Then he got his first taste of how his audience responded to his thought leadership and realized that writing gave him a great opportunity to expand his work and develop his own brand, while developing a useful resource for clients, colleagues, and peers.

When did it become clear to you that writing could help build your business?

When I joined SmithAmundsen, firm leadership really encouraged us to write and stressed the importance of writing to get our names out as thought leaders. They provide us support, writing opportunities, and more importantly the time to write articles.

"...my clients don’t want to spend 20 minutes reading a law journal article: they want something they can read and process in five minutes or less..."

But writing as a business development endeavor really took a turn for me when I started regularly writing for the monthly publication of our local bar association. Before long, I was editor of the publication and people started to notice my work: other attorneys started complementing me on my articles, referring matters to me, and calling me about specific legal issues.

What inspires you to write?

I often write about current issues. A lot of time, I’ll turn questions from my clients or others into subjects. For example, if I’m at an event and someone asks me about an issue that leads to a great conversation, I'll make a mental note that this is a really good topic that people are interested in.

"...I’ll turn questions from my clients or others into subjects."

I also keep a list of different topics that I want to work on or even go back to, like minimum wage – some of my clients have to meet the requirements of not only that national minimum wage, but one for Cook County and one for the city of Chicago, all of which are different and increase on separate schedules.

Finally, I write recurring articles in series – such as my series on face masks in the workplace. The pandemic definitely led to more writing because we were just getting inundated with questions by clients. When we get more than one client asking the same question, we know that issue is going to be of interest to others, so it makes sense to put out an article that will benefit all of my clients and potential clients.

How has your writing supported your business growth?

Writing has been a significant help for me to build my brand and expand my exposure. As I mentioned, when I wrote for the bar association, it led to calls and referrals from other attorneys on issues where I’d demonstrated my expertise through my written work.

The same has been true for clients and potential clients. When I write about something and the post travels throughout my network, more and more people see my name and the perspective I provide on a different legal issues (and thanks to JD Supra, they can click on my name and see all my other articles).

"My work also leads people to email me with different questions..."

It’s really helped me expand my reach: people who like my writing style and helpful perspective on the challenges they face share my work with their contacts and this had led to speaking opportunities. I've done a lot of presentations on the issues that I write about, which is another great way to expand your network.

How do you measure the success of your written work?

Obviously it’s great to see how many people are reading my work, but the most important measure of success for me is when I get direct feedback from readers. Clients will thank me for giving them the answers to questions they have and for writing informative pieces on the issues they’re concerned about.

"My goal is to give my audience a fresh look at the issues and possible solutions..."

My work also leads people to email me with different questions. I appreciate that they feel comfortable enough to reach out, and try to provide thoughtful and informative answers to everyone who writes. It’s a great way to help people, and to establish relationships that could lead to additional opportunities.

Why do you think you’re so successful at connecting with your audience?

I don't know if I can really say that there's a secret to my success other than writing on topics that are relevant to the people I’m trying to reach and addressing the questions that keep them up at night.

I work hard at figuring out ways to explain what can be complicated legal issues in a relatable fashion. And I try to give people a different perspective on the topics: I don't want to simply regurgitate what everybody else is writing. My goal is to give my audience a fresh look at the issues and possible solutions.

How do you use the reader data you get from JD Supra?

It's been fantastic getting the readership reports. In addition to the reader numbers, it’s been really useful for me to have a breakdown of sectors, of companies, and of specific readers. It’s helpful when I’m thinking of what’s important to my clients and what I should write about to learn, for example, that a certain industry is looking at an article. That tells me that the problem is or will become a big issue for that sector, so I should consider working on something that targets the industry specifically.

"... it’s been really useful for me to have a breakdown of sectors, of companies, and of specific readers."

And of course the insight into which issues are important for all my readers supplements the research I do on topics and the questions I get from others to complete the picture of top-of-mind issues for my clients and potential clients.

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

Don’t be afraid to sit down and write. A lot of it is just simply practice: you need to write to get good at it. What’s more, writing will help you develop your own style, which is essential. That takes time and effort, both on the writing side, but also in terms of reading: the articles that you enjoy reading are going to be good examples of how you might want to write.

Also, it’s important to understand your audience. For my part, when drafting an article for clients, I try to avoid legal citations and in-depth analysis of legal nuances because my clients don’t want to spend 20 minutes reading a law journal article: they want something they can read and process in five minutes or less, to get an understanding of the issues and what they have to be aware of without reading a ton of citations (though I do still use citations or links to the law or cases when necessary because a lot of my clients have a legal background).

That will be different for others: everybody has to come up with their own style. You have to figure out a way for your work to stand out. Whether that's a different angle or different take on the issues, it’s necessary to find a way to make your writing stand out.

Finally: be yourself, have fun, and write something that you want to read that answers the questions that people are asking.


A partner at SmithAmundsen, Michael Wong advises and represents clients on employment law issues and lawsuits, including discrimination and harassment, ADA disability issues and accommodations, FMLA administration and claims, recreational and medical cannabis issues in the workplace, and more. He holds the lead spot among the top ten authors in JD Supra's 2021 Readers' Choice awards Employer Liability category. Follow and read Mike's latest writings here.


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