Write to Become a Better Lawyer — Q&A with Top Thought Leader Howard Berkower

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:]

For Howard Berkower — a corporate, M&A, and capital markets lawyer at McCarter & English — true thought leaders are constantly looking for new things to learn while challenging what they believe. He cites Keith Richards—who wants to keep performing rock and roll until he dies—and Bobby Kennedy—who saw what wasn’t and asked “why not?”—as examples of people driven to seek out new ways of doing things.

...good writing demonstrates the highest plane of understanding.

Those are some of the main reasons he writes: to explore new ideas, think of novel ways to solve problems, and become a better advocate for his clients because of it.

How did you get started writing?

My practice focuses on corporate M&A, governance, and SEC matters and I have been writing in one form or another my whole career. I also have advised private equity funds in becoming licensed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) as “small business investment companies” and their resulting investments in small businesses.

I found the follow-up contacts I received from all kinds of businesses to be very rewarding...

When the pandemic struck in March 2020 and many businesses experienced significant liquidity problems, I devoted my time to understanding the new SBA lending programs and the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) created by the CARES Act with the goal of doing what I could to be helpful to businesses during this unprecedented time.

With the goal of sharing this information broadly to those who needed it most, I wrote an initial client alert on PPP within days of its creation that explained the concepts and applicable rules. I found that experience and the follow-up contacts I received from all kinds of businesses to be very rewarding, so I kept at it and quickly became the firm’s leading resource on this novel area of practice.

I’m one of those lawyers who believes that writing about an issue is the best way to make sense of it: writing requires you to edit and refine and redefine the problem as you take complex concepts and make them easy to understand.

So the more I wrote about the PPP, the better I understood it, and the better I was able to advise businesses whether they qualified for a PPP loan, how to maximize the loan amount, and how to spend the funds so as to maximize the amount of the loan that could be forgiven. I was able to help many businesses, which was very gratifying.

How do you decide what to write about?

On a regular basis, I receive emails from sources, including JD Supra, reporting on recent developments in my areas of focus. When I see a subject that is particularly germane to my practice and therefore helpful to my clients and contacts, I’ll write on that topic.

I've gotten direct inquiries and referrals ... people who have read my work, reached out to me, and became clients

I also talk regularly to clients about the challenges they’re facing and if an issue has implications for others, I will potentially write about that as well. The subjects that are very important to my clients—topics that I need to know more about and understand better so that I can better advise them—are the ones that I cover.

How has your writing supported your business growth?

In a couple of ways. I've gotten direct inquiries and referrals from what I've written—particularly in the early days of the pandemic where people would call with questions on the Paycheck Protection Program.

...the greater benefit is intangible, in helping others, and becoming a better lawyer

And, because I’ve written on the issues and understand them more than if I had not, I have a better understanding of what's going on and what’s at stake, which allows me to provide better advice. So I think that in general, writing helps me lawyer more efficiently and be a better advisor to my clients.

There’s been some direct benefit to my practice in the sense that I've actually gotten clients, people who have read my work, reached out to me, and became clients. But in many ways the greater benefit is intangible, in helping others, and becoming a better lawyer.

It’s certainly helped me provide urgent, on-the-spot answers to clients because I am so familiar with the issues I’ve written about and can respond more quickly, accurately, and efficiently because I have the knowledge and true understanding of the issues that come with writing about them.

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

If you had asked me that question five or ten years ago, I would have said that it’s because my analysis is extremely thorough. But the nature of communications and reader expectations have changed, so I’ve adapted my writing style—not too long, not too complex, not too abstract, not too scholarly, with a minimum of footnotes, etc.

Recently, we won a pitch for an M&A client based in part on an article ... that I’d written years ago

I try to put myself in the shoes of my clients when I’m drafting, and get to the issues keeping them up at night—whether it's a company raising capital or acquiring another business, a senior executive negotiating an employment contract, or a board of directors with corporate governance or fiduciary duty questions. That’s the lens through which I try to look at all of my writing work.

It’s important to me to speak directly to the reader, so when I’m satisfied with an article, after I’ve worked and reworked it, edited and refined the language, I’ll give it to colleagues to read and review. I’ll incorporate their suggestions, and also work with the business development team to help me turn the article into a better product that’s more accessible.

Do you find, based on the readership reports that JD Supra provides and the emails and phone calls you get, that the clients and potential clients you're targeting are the ones actually reading your content?

Yes, although it’s important to be clear what I’m specifically targeting. On the PPP, for example, my principal motivation to write on that subject was to provide meaningful help to small businesses that were experiencing unprecedented times and strains on their business. And that has been successful – I got a lot of feedback from those readers.

...there will always be an audience for good written work.

I even was retained by some new clients, although I wasn’t explicitly targeting new work with those articles but rather trying to be generous with my experience to the business community at large—even those businesses that were not likely to become clients.

On other topics, however, I am definitely targeting new clients, and it’s very satisfying when my written work reaches them. Recently, we won a pitch for an M&A client based in part on an article on assignment clauses that I’d written years ago.

What’s the single most important piece of advice you have for lawyers who aspire to become thought leaders through their content?

In my view, good writing demonstrates the highest plane of understanding. So it’s very important for lawyers who want to be thought leaders to write intelligently on issues, even those they haven’t spent weeks or even days considering. To be a good writer, you need to practice writing and editing. That’s what leads to understanding the questions, to present them succinctly, and to develop the discipline of turning sophisticated, complicated issues into easy to understand concepts.

It’s never too early to start: no one is too junior to begin contributing to the marketplace of ideas written for clients and potential clients. It’s also never too late: it is important for lawyers to continue to grow and evolve throughout their career. There’s a reason our profession is referred to as “the practice of law!”

If you commit to thinking and writing about the challenges your clients face, reading what others have written on them, and expressing yourself clearly, you’ll gain traction. It requires perseverance, of course, but there will always be an audience for good written work.

And remember that writing is a collaborative effort. Give your work to others to read—they’ll make it better. Whether it’s fixing grammatical issues or making your work more accessible to readers, colleagues and peers will help you produce your best work.


A trusted corporate advisor to businesses of all types and sizes, from start-ups to seasoned companies, Howard Berkower builds long-term client relationships by first listening to clients to understand their goals and then delivering creative yet practical advice and solutions in a cost efficient manner. He holds a top spot amount the top ten authors in JD Supra’s 2021 Readers’ Choice awards Finance & Banking category. Follow his writing here.

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