Gaining the confidence to write what you have to say
Jeremy W. Richter
When I started my law blog in June 2016, I did so without too much trepidation. I was essentially briefing cases and writing about my practice in ways I was pretty comfortable with. But then I wanted to branch out. I started to have ideas about things other than recent appellate decisions I would like to write about. And that’s where things started to feel dicey. I wasn’t sure I was qualified to write about these other things.
I started slowly. After reading, Stephen King’s On Writing, I wrote a (mostly derivative) post about how writing like Stephen King would improve your legal writing. When that went fine, a month later I wrote a personal piece about learning some hard lessons about failure from a bad experience with a rental property. A few days after posting the article about failure, I got an email from a lawyer I knew who was going through the same thing and was appreciative to have someone to commiserate with.
With the confidence I developed from those experiences, I branched out into writing about client management. And this was where I really had concerns about how others would perceive my qualifications. I was a fourth-year associate writing about maintaining and developing relationships with clients. What could I tell lawyers who had been practicing far longer? At that time, I wasn’t sure.
But I had something to say. I was interested in my topic, had talked to people about it, read about it, ruminated on it and practiced what I was writing about. I felt that what I had to say about the metrics that corporate clients use to measure the performance of outside counsel were well-founded and could be beneficial to both attorneys and their clients. I was compelled to write about it despite what, on paper, looked like limited qualifications.
That post about client metrics, which I published in December 2016, set the tone for writing about the three areas I now write about the most: case management, client management and practice management. I’ve written more than 60 blog entries and articles on those topics since that day. And that is the content that helped my blog grow and evolved into my forthcoming book, Building a Better Law Practice: Become a Better Lawyer in Five Minutes a Day. If I hadn’t taken a step off that precipitous ledge, many of the opportunities that are before me now would not have developed.
So when a friend of mine, R.I. Smith, mentioned the other day that what was holding him back from launching his website was concern about whether he was credentialed enough to opine about legal writing, I told him to take the plunge:
Smith: My problem is that I have two types of issues—legal curiosities that take a long time to digest to my satisfaction, and tearing apart/fawning over well-written pleadings and opinions. I’m qualified to do the first, but shy away from the latter, outside of [LawyerSmack]. What I liked and what others like are different things.
Richter: You shouldn’t shy from it. You’re plenty smart enough to have/share your opinion publicly about it.
Smith: Well, it’s the difference between, “I clerked and read hundreds of motions and memos and this is what I thought was most convincing,” and “You shouldn’t do these things.”
Richter: Support your argument, and if people disagree, then fine. They’ll go on writing their briefs the same way it’s been done for 40 years.
Smith: Ya, which is fine. It’s a longer version of [former] Judge [Alex] Kozinski’s video about not boring him. Write your own stuff, don’t cite long passages of law. Give me the good stuff. We just have different views on what the good stuff is. And I am probably the oddity that read nearly every single page of exhibits which were submitted.
Richter: There’s definitely a market for those ideas. Look what Bryan Garner and Ross Guberman have been able to do for themselves.
Smith: Well, Ross is why I say I’m not qualified. I’ve been tearing apart my style based upon his work.
Richter: Ross started somewhere too.
Smith: That’s true.
Richter: Just because he’s uber-qualified doesn’t mean you’re not qualified, even if you disagree with him.
Smith: Sure. I think it’s just been more finding where I am qualified and hitting on those points.
Richter: I’m a sixth-year associate writing about client management and case management. There are people on my email list who’ve been practicing for five times as long. It can be intimidating. But you can’t let that hinder you.
Smith: Well, it helps that you’re good at that. Thanks for the advice. It’s something I’ve been putting off because I’m consistently sure I’m not qualified to say anything except to someone asking me.
Richter: To the extent that I’m any good at it, it’s because I care about it, read about it, and think a lot about it. Which sounds like the same way you are with the legal writing stuff. Come on in, the water’s fine.
I would say the same thing to any lawyer who’s considering branching out into something they’re uncertain they’ll be seen as qualified for. If you educate yourself about your subject. If it’s something you care about. If it’s something you feel compelled to write articles or blog entries, record YouTube videos, or publish podcasts about, then just do it.
You may make missteps along the way. I have. You may shout into the void for a while before you find both your voice and your audience. I did.
But here’s something I firmly believe: There is no more certain way to learn and grow than to put yourself in the precarious position of failing, especially when you might fail publicly.
Jeremy W. Richter is an associate with Webster Henry in Birmingham, Alabama, and the author of an eponymous law blog.
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