Law Blog Post Formats: The Case Analysis

Posted in Blogs | Law Firms

The sixth in a series about useful law blog post formats.

This series began a week ago with the premise that lawyers can blog much more efficiently if they write to a pre-determined pattern or format. I started off with the easy ones: link posts, top [whatever] lists, annotations, legal checklists, and public relations posts.

Today’s law blog post format — the case analysis — is a little harder to pound out in a jiffy. But it can be done, especially if you are working with a tried-and-true recipe.

If you’ve got a plane to catch, I’ll get right to it: The ideal format for a lawyer blogging about court decisions today is to place analysis of the ruling at the beginning, middle, and end of the post. Cut out or starve everything else.

Remember Elmore Leonard’s rule for writing well: “Leave out all the parts that readers skip.”

Case Writing Through the Years

The basic approach to writing well about a judicial decision has changed quite a bit during the past few decades. I think it would be helpful if I described where we’ve been before I dispense advice on how law bloggers should be writing about cases today.

The Westazoic Era (1872 – 1995)

I started writing about court opinions in the late Westazoic Era, a period dominated by print publications. Back then it was possible to make a good living writing about judicial opinions that were published between release dates of the semiannual “pocket part” updates issued by commercial law publishers.

Case write-ups in those days followed a well-worn path:

  1. Holding
  2. Summary of court’s court’s reasoning
  3. Facts of case
  4. Expanded discussion of court’s reasoning
  5. Disposition and relief granted

Case reporters working within this format clung to the court opinion’s text, never commenting on whether the opinion was consistent with, or a departure from, existing precedent. Rarely was the impact on affected industries written about at any length. Where I worked, case writers were called “editors,” not “reporters,” a deft bit of nomenclature that marked the appropriate analytical distance between the case writer and his or her material.

Lawyers can still blog in this fashion. But I don’t think it will do them any good.

The Digital Decade (1995 – 2005)

With the advent of the commercial Internet, news of court opinions came much faster, and intra-professional conversations about the law exploded. Management where I worked demanded that expert commentary be included in write-ups of every significant judicial decision. Compliance with this command was uneven and grudging. Expert commentary, when included at all, was most often appended to an otherwise Westazoic writeup.

The evolved format looked like this:

  1. Holding
  2. Summary of court’s reasoning
  3. Expanded discussion of facts and court’s reasoning
  4. Disposition and relief granted
  5. Commentary on significance of ruling

Commentary makes its first appearance during this period.

The Social Media Decade (2005 – 2015)

Social media — significantly, law blogs — put further pressure on the Westazoic approach to case writing, leading to more urgent, additional demands from company management: Not only must expert commentary be included in every case writeup, it must be placed high in the story so that a busy, skimming reader will immediately appreciate the significance of the court’s ruling.

On a good day, the format looked like this:

  1. Holding
  2. Summary of court’s reasoning
  3. Commentary on significance of ruling
  4. Expanded discussion of facts and court’s reasoning
  5. Disposition and relief granted

Commentary assumes greater importance as the basic facts surrounding a court opinion are quickly, and widely, known.

The Mobile, Always-On Period (2015 – ?)

Today, the need for rapid distillation of the significance of a given court ruling burdens bloggers and professional journalists alike. Because of information overload, and because the basic facts of news developments spread so quickly, case writers must quickly get to the big-picture significance of a particular ruling. Analysis and explanation form the beginning, middle, and end of the best case writing today.

A strong case writeup today typically follows this pattern:

  1. Commentary on significance of ruling
  2. Expanded discussion of facts and court’s reasoning
  3. Additional commentary on significance of ruling
  4. Disposition and relief granted
  5. Forward-looking commentary on significance of ruling

Commentary is now the star of the show.

This is the approach law bloggers should adopt if they want to stand out. Westazoic Era patterns are quick to crank out, but they’re not going to build the blogger’s reputation to any great extent. They’re not going to meet the needs of readers who come to law blogs looking for smart takes on legal developments.

What’s Your Angle?

I see three main actors writing about court decisions:

Law firm bloggers who write cases up straight, without analysis, are swimming in a red ocean of journalists, court clerks, and industry bloggers.

Law student bloggers should strongly consider adopting the law professor approach. And for lawyers, well, that would be the lawyer role, wouldn’t it? Write what clients want to know.

The most promising approach for law firm bloggers is to start the post discussing the significance of the case to clients, expand on that take throughout the post, and conclude with additional ruminations about ripple effects from the court’s ruling. Let readers see how your mind works. This is your differentiator. This is how you position yourself relative to all the others working in the same niche.

Assessing the Case Analysis

Pros: Case analyses are a great format for demonstrating expertise and thought leadership.

Cons: Relative to most other law blog post formats, case analyses require a non-trivial investment of time.