[The latest in our ongoing series of discussions on successful thought leadership with recipients of JD Supra's 2021 Readers' Choice awards:]
Brenda Fulmer, a medical device personal injury partner at Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, P.A., wants to educate people about product liability law and to help them better understand their options when harmed by defective drugs, medical devices, and consumer products.
"Writing is a natural extension of what I do day to day, and a very a good way to communicate with my clients..."
Equally important, she hopes to motivate her audience to take action and help make meaningful change in a system that can be, as she puts it, ‘just not right.’ She’s proud to have had several clients inspired enough – and angry enough – to go to DC to lobby against limitations imposed by Congress on the rights of consumers and to testify before the FDA about its approval of dangerous products.
How did you get started writing?
I've been writing my whole life. I wrote a lot even before I went to law school. I was on law review. And then, early in my career, I was always the one who wrote the web content for the firm’s website and did the blogs.
Writing is a natural extension of what I do day to day, and a very a good way to communicate with my clients: I regularly send them articles, posts, and other things I write, and they also follow what I’m publishing online.
How do you decide what to write about?
A lot of my content has to do with drug and medical device safety, the type of cases I handle. I don’t write about those matters just because I'm working on them, however, but because – unfortunately – there are a lot of these cases that are not actionable in the court system due to limitations that have been imposed by Congress or the Supreme Court.
So I write a lot about those issues because, honestly, it's a travesty when a medical device that someone puts into their body fails and they are unable to sue. This is not right, and a lot of the things that I've written over the years build on that theme.
In addition, I often write about defective products that can’t be addressed in the court system, but that people should still know about. That often includes discussions about preemption and other limitations on liability for drug and medical device companies, as well as the Food and Drug Administration and the role that it plays in approving or clearing products for sale.
I try to maintain a content calendar, although I'm not perfect at it. It's basically there so that I can make certain that I'm writing about cases or subjects that I would like to cover and hitting topics that are important to my audience.
"...a lot of companies that I write about are reading my articles."
Sometimes I write because I haven't covered a particular topic in a while, and it's important to our overall strategy. That's probably only about 20% of the time, though: the other 80% of the time, I write about issues that are interesting to me or where there has been an injustice. That's what motivates me.
Who are you writing for?
I try to write for consumers, although I hope other people read my work, too. Based on the analytics I get from JD Supra, a lot of companies that I write about are reading my articles. That’s a good thing, because it’s important to get their attention, but I try to write more for lay people.
It’s become clear to me over the years that there's a lot of misunderstanding out there about how the system works. And for most of my clients, no matter how they might feel about lawyers and the legal system, they are shocked when I explain how preemption works and that the courthouse door might be closed for a particular case where a patient has been harmed. Most don’t understand that there are products that hurt thousands of people yet no one is legally responsible for those costs and harm.
How has your writing supported your business growth?
It's helped tremendously, especially on the web. I get a lot of cases organically through my written work, and they’re coming in through blogs that have been posted to JD Supra, so I can directly see a correlation.
"I get a lot of cases organically through my written work..."
When potential clients are comparing me and my law firm to other firms, my JD Supra articles allow them to see not only what I'm writing about but also how I’m writing about it: that I’m passionate about the issues, that my blog posts aren’t necessarily solicitations for new work, that I’m committed to litigating cases, of course, but also to changing laws and preventing harms from happening again.
These are important factors for my audience: my clients who have been harmed certainly don’t want these things to ever happen to anyone else.
Plus, people see that I’ve written extensively about these types of safety and legal issues, for many years. That too differentiates me from other lawyers.
How do you measure the success of your written work?
I don’t have a precise method for measuring success, but I see the analytics reports from JD Supra and our website that show who’s reading my content and how they find it. As I said earlier, there’s a direct correlation between readers and new business opportunities.
"...there’s a direct correlation between readers and new business opportunities."
I also learn a lot from talking to clients and referral sources, and get contacted by reporters who found me through things I’ve written. I was contacted once by a prosecutor in Greece that had read one of my pieces and wanted my assistance going after one of the medical device manufacturers I wrote about.
What’s interesting for me is that all the general promotion and advertising that law firms typically do regarding accolades, verdicts, etc., isn’t usually what makes the difference: it’s the fact that I write on specific safety issues that leads people to contact us.
Why do you think you’re so successful at connecting with readers?
I think it’s because I write about the issues. It’s quite common for lawyers to make their content all about the lawyer, their experience, the money they’ve recovered, and things like that. Those things are important, of course, but clients are faced with real issues and need real guidance. I want them to read my materials and say, “I want to hire this lawyer. She knows what she's doing. She wants to help me and others who have been harmed.”
"...it’s the fact that I write on specific safety issues that leads people to contact us."
Clients often have more pressing issues than how many cases I’ve won. Again, that’s important, but they have specific questions that aren’t always answered in legal marketing content: how did this happen to them? Why did this happen? What do they need to do to protect themselves? What kind of testing do they need?
Many years ago I attended a fascinating program on marketing that addressed the different types of potential clients and how they make decisions on legal representation. A lot of lawyer content is written for the impulsive client who’s looking to hire a lawyer that day, but the reality is that that’s a small subset: most people are interested in information because they need time to digest what they read before making a decision on pursuing a claim and hiring a lawyer.
That’s why I take a holistic approach in my writing, to provide the types of information people faced with these problems might need so that they can read about the issues, take time to digest them, and then make decisions based on what they’ve learned.
Some people are driven by emotion, but others are very driven by facts, and I try to find the right mix to make my work helpful to all. Often, I’ll write about the nuts and bolts of an issue in one piece, then do a deeper dive into various aspects of the problem in subsequent articles.
I am still trying to figure out the different types of audiences, but I think the most important thing is to recognize that different people need different information, and to provide all of them with content that helps them understand the situations they are in.
You get the readership reports from JD Supra on a regular basis. What role does that data play in your work?
We have a marketing department with four or five people who spend a lot of time reviewing the numbers.
I find the analytics reports helpful when I’m looking at ways to phrase something or how I might write about something. It’s useful to get new ideas – sometimes we’re so used to using certain technical, legal, and medical terms that we forget that everyone doesn’t know what they mean. For instance, my practice area is referred to as “mass torts,” but the reality is unless you do that kind of work, that term doesn’t mean anything (sometimes not even to other lawyers).
"One useful thing we learn from the [analytics] reports is when parties involved in cases I’m handling are reading my work..."
Often when I'm writing something that could fall into that category, I’ll take a step back and break down exactly I'm talking about and try to use completely different phrasing because if I write an article about “mass torts,” I'll probably miss 99% of the people that should read it because they don’t look for that information using that search term.
One very useful thing we learn from the reports is when parties involved in cases I’m handling are reading my work. This can be very helpful in settlement discussions where defendants are trying to figure out who they need to be concerned about. If you're seen as a leader in a particular litigation project, your clients are going to benefit because you're getting yourself noticed, which puts you at the top of the list of people the defendants need to talk to when it is time for settlement negotiations.
What advice do you have for lawyers who want to become thought leaders?
Write – and write often – on issues you're passionate about. Passion makes a difference, it’s what makes you unique and authentic.
Don’t outsource your content. Writing your own articles allows you to stand out from the crowd and maintain your voice.
Don’t write articles that only talk about you and are essentially solicitations. An objective of getting additional cases is fine, but it shouldn’t get in the way of good writing that explains the issues and ways to solve them.
Avoid legalese. Writing at a level that your readers can understand makes your work more approachable and ultimately useful to them.
Brenda Fulmer is a Partner and Shareholder with the law firm of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley, P.A., one of the largest personal injury law firms in Florida. She holds the lead spot among the top ten authors in JD Supra's 2021 Readers' Choice awards Product Liability category. Follow and read Brenda's latest writings here.