YOUR LEGAL WRITES: Breathing life into the legal newsletter

By Kathryn E. Brown | Jul 19, 2007


Paper, envelopes, address labels and stamps are making a comeback through the resurrection of printed newsletters.

Thanks (or blame) can be delivered to magazine moguls Martha Stewart, Rachel Ray and Oprah Winfrey, as all three personalities have launched min-versions of their famous periodicals. This return-to-the-basics approach to informative media has spread to regular businesses, and communication managers are giving newsletter programs one more try.

According to public relations and marketing experts, newsletters were killed several years ago by law firms. Between poorly written, lengthy content and irregular mailings, lawyers destroyed a medium that once served as a lifeline for clients.

Publishers remind writers that the purpose of a publication is to present pertinent information in a timely fashion. Assigning such tasks to junior members of the firm may be a wonderful experience for up and comers, but clients expect "brand names" to appear in bylines, especially when it comes to explaining complex changes in the law.

Similarly, writers tend to forget their audiences, choosing verbose legal language rather than the plain English style preferred by readers. Editors claim that newsletters are not dead, but simply buried alive in Web sites. Perhaps a more appropriate obituary would be the death of desktop publishing.

One marketing professional remarked that most legal newsletters resembled funeral announcements, with blocks of black and white text flowing into the next, void of graphics and font variety. Something so visually depressing and intellectually boring couldn't be expected to generate telephone calls, let alone new business. Despite the negativity, some lawyers still feel the "publish or perish" threat is enough reason to stay in the newsletter business.

Another deadly mistake made by marketing directors was the choice to hire outside agencies to publish generic newsletters for practice groups, which was nothing more than a firm's logo stamped on prewritten material. Called a "canned" newsletter, this effort was supposed to put an end to tardiness, but the incorrectness of information ruined its effectiveness.

As some lawyers soon learned, the information had no bearing on most of the firm's clientele, which produced a fury of subscription cancellations. Critics state that ghostwritten newsletters relay a sense of incompetence, in that lawyers appear to be unable to report the information by themselves. More often than not, time was the culprit – not a lack of expertise.

E-alert distribution was the suggested tactic to overcome newsletter delays, but that strategy was hindered by the problem of enormous file sizes. Law firm newsletters may have been delivered on time, but they couldn't be opened due to software incompatibility or junk filters. As a result, the up-to-the-minute alerts were rejected by network administrators before recipients ever had the chance to request an alternate version.

What is the benefit of producing something that is a nuisance to write and a nuisance to receive? Consultants believe that a well-rounded communications plan includes a printed product of some type, and it serves as a form of client service in that recipients are kept abreast of industry news without a hefty bill attached.

Time and effort are the required components of publication success, marketing consultants argue. A well-written story that explains why a client should care about the information shared with them is the ultimate outcome, but one that is rarely experienced. Good stories produce results, they say, and that is achieved by writing through a client's point of view.

Pop culture's latest cliche -- "It's not about you" -- seems to be resonating in the legal world, as lawyers are soon learning that self-promotion is the easiest way to turn off current readers and potential clients. If the reader's perspective is ignored, then the lawyer risks irritating a client base that already feels pestered by countless business solicitations.

For a newsletter program to be worthwhile, publications should be addressed to a specific, niche-focused group of people. When newsletters are current, concise, complete, coherent, and clear, a law firm stands to witness a return on its investment rather than returned envelopes.

As Martha Stewart says, it's a good thing.

Brown is a legal marketing executive as well as the managing member of a writing agency in Charleston.

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