Thursday, February 4, 2010

How Lawyers Have Made Me A Better Writer

Lawyers are often beaten up for their writing. In caricature, they obfuscate in order to deceive, but that's an entirely unfair stereotype.  I've worked with many brilliant, ethical ones over the course of nearly a decade, and I know they've made me a better scribe.  Here's how:

Risk-aversion.  Lawyers like precedent, so as a marketer if one offers a new idea, often the (very frustrating) response is "who else is doing it?" Note: at the progressive firms, it's much, much better. This makes me choose my words carefully, and I've gotten better at asking myself whether my text is over the top.  I find copy agonizingly difficult to write, so thinking about this before I hit send is a useful guideline.

Language must be specific.  If you are selling your company or getting money to start one or divorcing, you want to be certain that the contract doesn't leave room for interpretation.  When I draft copy for brochures or any "client-facing" materials, they ask if a turn of phrase is really correct: "Can we really honestly say we do this?"  Whatever popular opinion, lawyers are held to tremendously high ethical standards and must only write what they mean.  A good rule for all of us.

They are specialists.  At a certain point, usually during law school or as a summer associate, lawyers must put all of their chips on one square and throw their lot into a narrow distinction.  In some cases, it's a calling, like criminal or family law, but, cable news personalities aside, those specialties don't generally pay a tremendous amount.  For those who go to Big Law, as it's known in the biz, they decide to look at tax or finance or spend their lives writing up leases for commercial landlords.  My intellect is more of a puddle than a glacial lake, so this is hard for me to understand.  So I write the best I can and then take it to people who live and breathe it.  Which means a lot of red ink.  And...

Edits make me better, even if they hurt.  I have never, ever sent something to a lawyer and had them write back "Wonderful, perfect writing."  They are used to dealing with young attorneys, with whom they are charged to educate.  This means, in associate parlance, that they bleed all over it.  That's the red ink.  Sometimes I don't agree, which leads to an, ahem, spirited discussion--one of my great pleasures of working with lawyers, as I love nothing more than making my case, even when I lose--but almost always I revise, read and realize that another pair of very experienced eyes make what I write better. 

1 comment:

  1. Sue, you forgot the constant praise and validation upon submitting beautifully written content! Silly... :)