I just waded through 14 client alerts about TC Heartland (the recent SCOTUS patent venue decision), and boy, are most of them difficult to read.
Which begs the question: why are lawyers writing client alerts?
Presumably, alerts are written to educate, showcase the lawyers’ services and expertise, and ultimately entice clients to send over new business.
But an alert cannot do its job if its copy is so dense that a client is turned off from reading it and unsubscribes from the email list instead (which happens more often than we’d like to think, as people who monitor such things tell me).
Writing an effective alert requires editorial control over the material. It requires thinking about what information is helpful to your reader. And it requires expending some brain power on the structure and architecture of the narrative to guide the reader to an understanding of what’s important about recent legal developments.
Here are five tweaks to make a client alert instantly more reader-friendly:
1. Don’t waste the first paragraph. Your first paragraph is your most valuable real estate (and the first sentence is the most valuable corner of that real estate). Don’t throw it away on a history lesson or throat clearing. Grab your reader’s attention with a mini-story that signals who should care about this news, and why.
So instead of:
On May 22, 2017, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court in TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods Group Brands LLC, overturned the entrenched thirty-year Federal Circuit law thirty years of Federal Circuit law regarding venue in patent infringement cases, holding that the patent venue statute 28 U.S.C. § 1400(b) is the exclusive provision controlling venue in patent cases, and that under § 1400(b), “a domestic corporation ‘resides’ only in its State of incorporation.”
Start with something like:
Accused patent infringers can now only be sued in the state of their incorporation or where they have a regular and established place of business, because the Supreme Court’s May 22, 2017 decision in TC Heartland overturns the law regarding venue in patent cases.
Or (if you represent defendants and are feeling cheeky):
If your company is the frequent target of non-practicing entities (“NPEs”) suing for patent infringement in the Eastern District of Texas, the Supreme Court’s recent TC Hearland decision may make your tormentors’ lives more difficult.
2. Avoid the treatise look. We live in the era of scanning. People don’t read each and every line in an orderly progression, especially on their screens. They scan in an “F” pattern (first sentence, then down, with short forays into the text). Which means that writing in scanning-unfriendly, long, dense-looking paragraphs is likely to scare readers away (even if the content itself is quite readable and not dense at all).
The antidote? Shorten your paragraphs, and always have just a single idea per paragraph (there’s no need to remind you to have only one idea per sentence, right?).
And if a sentence is of particular importance, make it a stand-alone paragraph; seriously, there’s no rule against single-sentence paragraphs.
3. Use descriptive headings. The goal of the alert is to educate the reader. Descriptive headings achieve this goal even if the reader merely glances at the alert (which, as discussed in Paragraph 2 above, is how a reader is most likely to “read” the alert). Just for clarity: “Background” and “Procedural posture” are not descriptive headings.
4. Avoid pompousness and bloat. Don’t use bigger words than are necessary. For example, don’t “utilize” where you can “use,” and don’t “circumscribe” where “limit” or “restrict” do the job equally well.
5. Keep the procedure to a minimum. Ask yourself who your reader is, and what that reader needs to know about the update you’re analyzing. Unless your intended readership is a gaggle of law geeks, I bet that it could live without the blow-by-blow procedural posture of the case.
Limiting this section to the essentials is a courtesy to your readers, because you’re not sending them on a frustrating scavenger hunt. It’s not the readers’ job to hunt for bits of important information—it’s the writer’s job to present these meaningful bits in a readable fashion.
For example, several alerts mention that Judge Gorsuch did not participate in the TC Heartland decision. Is this information necessary to a client’s understanding of TC Heartland? If so, explain why. If not, why mention it?
All this boil down to the following: put yourself in your reader’s shoes and ask whether you’re enjoying reading the alert you wrote. If you find yourself (a) skimming the contents, (b) having to reread a paragraph just to get its meaning; or (c) with your eyes glazing over, a rewrite is probably advisable.