What’s wrong with this picture?
To people who are not familiar with Australia’s National Rugby League competition (the NRL), it might not be obvious, but simply put the game being described is between the Knights and the Broncos, but the mascots shown are those of the Knights and the Bulldogs.
OK, so this is embarrassing but not earth-shattering, and in 60 to 80 pages of newspaper, a blooper or two is to be expected. Lawyers, however, do not have the luxury of making even simple mistakes, and great care must be taken when solicitors put their names to public documents; this is especially the case when posting articles on substantive issues of law.
Almost all law firms show off their abilities and areas of expertise through articles on their websites these days, and this can be a powerful marketing tool. A well-written article can attract clients, especially if links to it are shared around due to its quality. What should go without saying is that when such articles are wrong, they can do immense damage to a firm; this means that at least three different people should look at these before anyone hits ‘publish’.
Even for sole practitioners and small firms, this is possible if you tap your network of colleagues for help. Running substantive posts past each other is mutually beneficial and can build collegiality within local practice groups, as well as create effective quality control.
Any posts that come out of the QLS Ethics and Practice Centre have always been reviewed by two people other than the author, and reviewers always include our Director, Stafford Shepherd (as any who have been students of Stafford’s can attest, he misses nothing!). Indeed if I am writing on an area of law in which I have friends who are experts, I will utilise them as well — for example, if I do an article about administrative law, I will run it past a mate of mine who is a guru in that area; his feedback could save me a lot of grief.
Even when you can’t tap experts for feedback, there are some things you can do to ensure that your posts are beneficial and likely to generate work.
1. Make sure they are right
Well, duh — but I have seen many a post which not only misses the mark but is not a correct statement of the law. A client will not stay with a law firm if they find they cannot rely on the firm’s website content. This also means that website articles and blog posts cannot simply be left to the tech-savvy junior lawyer at the firm. If you are showing off your expertise, make sure the experts at the firm are controlling the content.
2. Get the grammar and spelling right
You may well be a Modern Grammarian who feels it is fine to begin sentences with conjunctions, end them with prepositions and use trendy three-word sentences for impact, but that isn’t a great idea in your professional posts. The reason is that clients who care about grammar will be annoyed by these lapses, and you are better off not annoying your clients (clients who don’t care about grammar will hardly complain that your site is ‘too grammatically correct’). There is no point in making a stand for your ‘right’ to begin a sentence with ‘and’ if it loses you a client — and yes, some clients are that fussy.
3. Keep an eye on your style
Blog posts and internet articles are generally less formal than those that go in journals, but it is good to keep in mind that the style of your blog will reflect on your firm. Too informal and you will not appear professional, too formal and no-one will read the post. It is a difficult balancing act and yet another reason to have friends and colleagues review your posts; they’ll tell you if the post isn’t working.
Further, make sure you know what punctuation is for and how it affects the flow of a piece. For example, there is a thing called an ‘em dash’ which many people — on the internet — use too much — and it messes up the flow — of their sentence structure — and makes the piece — unreadable. See what I mean? In addition, there is no place in a professional blog for sentences in capitals, five exclamation points in a row and the like.
4. Update old articles when necessary
The law is a living thing and rarely stays still for long. Precedents change, cases get appealed, courts decide to go a different way and distinguish earlier decisions; legislation is repealed or amended, especially with a change in government. Blog posts and articles need to be reviewed occasionally to ensure they reflect the true status of the law. The message here is that having a blog and a website is an ongoing commitment; you can’t simply post things and forget about them for months. Lawyers who do a good job of social media and internet promotion usually have a plan around its use, and nominate a person dedicated to making sure everything stays on track.
The online world offers powerful opportunities for lawyers, but those opportunities are two-edged swords, capable of being beneficial or disastrous; care must be taken to ensure we stay on the right side of that equation.
 I am well aware that, having raised this issue, my article will be subject to rigorous examination, and inevitably I will have made a grammatical error of some kind; no doubt many will point this out with glee. I have no problem with that, as long as people subject their own publications to the same level of scrutiny!
 If you are unsure about appropriate writing styles, there are publications that may be of assistance, such as the Oxford Guide to English Usage.