Video: Why Experience Counts in a Legal Writer

Hi. My name is Laura Pennington and if we haven't met before, I am the legal SEO writer. I've been writing search engine optimized content for websites, blogs, social media and other platforms for attorneys and law firms since 2012. It's something that I really enjoy doing and I love having this blog as an opportunity for me to speak about some of the most important issues in content marketing for attorneys and law firms.

Most law firms around the country are already aware of the numerous benefits afforded by content marketing. Some may have not even started the process, some may have blogged but it's been six months since you updated it, and there's a lot of questions that come out regarding content marketing and why it's so important for law firms. So you already know that most people head to the internet and use search engines to identify the products and services and professionals they are going to work with.

That's certainly true when it comes to attorneys as well, and given that so many attorneys probably in your geographic area and in your practice area are also using SEO content as part of their digital marketing strategy, it becomes even more important to have one of your own. Now one of the things I want to talk about today is the value of hiring an expert; someone who knows the legal landscape in working on your legal copy. Now that expert doesn’t have to be me. I know there are plenty of other qualified and successful legal writers out there, but one of the conversations that I had with a potential client recently sort of illustrated the reason why experience matters so much.

And it was because I warned this client about getting burned and he went with the cheaper option and got burned. So, how does this happen? Legal writing is unlike a lot of other industries, where I could go teach myself how to be a writer on about gardening or about sports or about something else that I simply had a passion in. There are certain things that you can and can’t do in the legal world. You know there are certain words that you can’t use, there are problems that can get you in trouble with the State Bar, can get you in trouble with your website as far as using materials that you are not allowed to use in terms of the copyright.

And those are some of the biggest reasons why you need to partner with somebody who has some type of legal experience. It can be a retired attorney, it can be a paralegal, it can be a legal researcher, it can be a law student. There are a lot of different ways to find people in the industry who understand those rules and responsibilities as well as just the general tone of talking on a legal blog or on a legal website. It’s not the same as writing sales copy. That's not who we are talking to, that’s not the audience. So, the value of experience is extremely important. I had a conversation with a potential client about two and half weeks ago on the phone and I could tell from the beginning of the conversation that they were primarily motivated by price and that was fine because that’s not always going to be the right fit for me. And I understand that people have a budget and have a choice, and that's okay.

But I gave the individual this warning; I said, if you don’t hire me, please hire somebody with legal experience because I have been on what I call the saving end of projects like yours far too many times. What I mean by that is the law firm or the attorney that hires somebody else to it cheaply, this is very true if they try to go overseas with someone who doesn’t understand American laws, American customs, American perceptions of things with legality, but it can happen with anybody who just doesn’t really know the legal industry and what you can and can’t do. So, I begged this person, I said, whoever you go with, if price is your bottom-line motivation, please pick somebody who has legal experience because it is nightmare to be the writer who comes in and fixes the mistakes of someone else.

A lot of times on these projects the mistakes are so egregious that we can’t even fix it. We have to start over from zero. So, in that case, you’re saving money by hiring the cheaper person to do it first, but then you have to pay me or you have to pay another qualified person to do it all over again. That's not saving you money. You are paying more than what you would have paid to have it done right the first time. So, before you hire a legal writer, ask them about their experience. How many other people have they worked for? It's not uncommon for a legal writer to say that they cannot share the names of their clients with you. Attorneys, especially, are very sensitive to who owns the content.

They often use non-disclosure agreements. That's completely normal. Most attorneys are using freelance writer content as ghostwritten content. So, I write it and it goes up on their site as if they wrote it. So, it's not unreasonable for a freelance writer to say, I honestly can’t tell you who I am working for. I can tell you - you know I will say things like I work for one of the biggest personal injury law firms out on the West Coast. I am not going to tell who that is because I can't or you know when I have people give me testimonials, but they don’t want to be named, I will say a Mid-Atlantic estate planning firm - something like that. So don’t write somebody off, if they can’t name a law firm that they've worked for because they'd kind of be outing their clients and it's actually a good sign if the writer you are talking to is keeping that confidentiality. That's part of the agreement of the signed contract is that they will not reveal that they are writing your content, so if they are giving their other clients that respect that means you are getting it too. But ask what their experience is. How many blogs or pieces of web content or eBooks have they written for other people? How long have they been doing this? Why are they interested in legal writing in the first place? Did they go to law school and just decide not to take the bar exam? Is this somebody who was a paralegal for 15 years and they just understand the ins and outs really well? Because you getting burned, I just cannot express how much of a problem that is in a legal community. It's a disaster to fix these projects. First of all, when they come in and they are poorly written and the person didn’t understand things they can’t say ethically - as a lawyer you know there are things that ethically you cannot say in a blog and far too many inexperienced writers who are calling themselves legal writers will say that anyways and assume that they won’t get caught.

But you can get caught as the attorney if you start getting notifications from the State Bar. Likewise, if your writer is giving you images to use in those blogs that are not licensed for use, you are going to get slammed with a takedown notice. You are going to get a nasty letter from Getty images. All of my clients have had things like this happen to them. I speak from experience. One of the other major dangers of going with somebody who doesn’t have legal experience is duplicate content. Now duplicate content hurts anybody's business, but it can really hurt a lawyer. So, I have client who came to me and said I can’t figure out what's going on with my website. I hired somebody else to write it, but we are just not performing well at all. I discovered that 80% of the content on his website was stolen from elsewhere. So, someone literally copied and pasted from another attorney.

How Google treats duplicate content is that they can’t tell the difference which is the correct content. So, it’s based on who posted it first. So, if some other lawyer posted that exact word for word copy or even 80%, 60%, 50% similar, Google sees your site as spam, your site as stealing this content, your posting it as duplicate content. It has taken us months to fix the disasters of duplicate content. It can take weeks or months to fix a project where someone has botched the writing so badly - some of the common mistakes that inexperienced legal writers make - let's go through a list.

Okay, so first of all, they will use images that they are not properly licensed to use. That's a copyright issue. Second of all they will make claims that you cannot make in legal writing. They will use words and claims that you can’t actually say. And the third thing they will do is they will use the wrong state. So, if I am writing for a Texas car accident attorney, but I am referencing Missouri's personal injury laws, that's not legally factual. And to have something on your website like that leads a client to believe that something is true that isn’t and could cost your business and a professional impression. So, never do that. I mean as the lawyer, you know the laws, but you have to have that confidence that your writer is doing the necessary research to make sure that they are keeping it accurate as well.

Some of the other things that an inexperienced freelance writer who is calling themselves a legal writer might do is they will try to make the content shorter than it needs to be. So, 200 or 300 words, that's not valuable from an SEO perspective. If they are doing it, they are just doing that to make a quick buck. It is not translating for you. So, my final plea to you, law firms and attorneys out there, is please please vet who you are hiring to do work for your website. It is your brand, it is your company, it is something you have worked very hard to build. It is something you went to school for, you took bar exams or you admitted to practice in various courts and districts for. So, don’t let that be botched by somebody who doesn’t take it as seriously as they should. Whatever freelance legal writer you hire to do your website, it needs to be someone who gets things correct. It needs to be someone who cares about the best possible thing for your business. So, I wish you luck in the search for a legal writer.

Let me recap with this story. The reason I wanted to talk about this in general is the client who I said, please hire someone with experience, don’t go the cheap route, you'll end up getting burned; yesterday sent me a message and said, "hey! Laura, are you still available? Exactly what you said happened. The work requires extensive editing. It's not what we are looking for. Are you still available?" And you know unfortunately, I am not. So, just an important lesson to keep in mind. Hire someone to get it done right the first time because otherwise you are paying for your time, you are paying for somebody else to go and fix it, you are paying the original writer. It's a huge mess and it's totally avoidable. Vet your candidates, just like you would vet an employee in the office. Please verify that your freelance writer understands what you can and can’t do.