Law Blogging the Inverted Pyramid


Posted in Blogs | Content Marketing

In an earlier post on law blog calls to action I encouraged law firm bloggers to adopt the “inverted pyramid” writing style. The inverted pyramid technique front-loads posts with the most important information, followed by progressively less-important information and contextual/background reporting.

Per The Poynter Institute, the inverted pyramid remains relevant for digital communications because it (1) satisfies the reader’s desire to quickly grasp the gist of the article and (2) forces the writer to extract the essence of the news and package it for easy consumption.

This post shows how to apply the inverted pyramid to law blogging.

Meeting the Information Overload Challenge

Getting to the point quickly and packaging content for efficient consumption are matters of urgency given the amount of information that professionals wade through each day. Everybody complains about information overload.

According to the Greentarget/Zeughauser Group’s 2017 State of Digital & Content Marketing Survey, 26 percent of in-house counsel surveyed said that information overload is “a big problem,” while 50 percent reported it is “somewhat of a problem.”

Law firm marketing executives said that they believed that information overload is “a big problem” for 47 percent and “somewhat of a problem” for another 47 percent of their clients.

The same survey noted that 81 percent of law firm marketers, somewhat sadistically I would argue, plan on producing more content in 2017 than in 2016. Yikes.

Let’s vow to produce better, not more, content in 2017. The inverted pyramid is a step in the direction.

Reworking a Law Blog Post

The remainder of this post sketches one path to creating better content. I’ll take a blog post written in a conventional style, annotate it with the sort of comments a (typically misanthropic) copy editor might sprinkle throughout a reporter’s copy. Then I’ll rewrite the post in an inverted pyramid style.

I’ll edit for clarity and wordiness too. Sharpening fuzzy words and eliminating extra words are two of the easiest, and most potent, ways to improve a piece of writing.

The following example comes from Stoel Rives’ excellent World of Employment blog. Their post on Mendoza v. Nordstrom was short and suited my purposes, so I grabbed it.

California Supreme Court Clarifies [MISSED OPPORTUNITY HERE TO SAY WHAT THE COURT RULED] California’s Day of Rest Statutes

In Mendoza v. Nordstrom, [IS THE NAME OF THE CASE IMPORTANT ENOUGH TO BE IN THE LEDE?] the California Supreme Court answered three [IS THE NUMBER THREE IMPORTANT? IF NOT, WHY IS IT IN THE LEDE?] questions from the Ninth Circuit concerning California’s “day of rest” statutes. [THE WORD “ANSWERED” DOESN’T DELIVER THE GOODS, PARTICULARLY IN THE LEDE. THE READER WANTS TO KNOW THE ANSWER — THAT’S WHAT SHOULD BE CONTAINED IN THE LEDE.] The Court’s decision clarifies [AGAIN WE HAVE “CLARIFIES.” THE READER STILL DOESN’T KNOW WHAT THE COURT HELD] a significant [DELETE “SIGNIFICANT,” ADDS NOTHING] ambiguity for employers regarding the obligation to provide employees with their statutorily mandated day of rest.

Mendoza involved a putative class action filed by former Nordstrom employees alleging Nordstrom violated California’s Labor Code by failing to provide them with one day of rest in seven and causing them to work more than six in seven days. After the district court granted summary judgment in Nordstrom’s favor, plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit. [YOU’VE JUMPED TO A DISCUSSION OF THE FACTS, BUT YOU STILL HAVEN’T MENTIONED WHAT THE COURT HELD, OR WHY THAT MIGHT BE IMPORTANT TO THE READER][MOVE THIS DOWN.]

Three provisions of the California Labor Code were at issue in Mendoza: Sections 551, 552, and 556. Section 551 entitles employees to “one day’s rest therefrom in seven.” Section 552 prohibits employers from “caus[ing]” employees to work more than “six days in seven.” Section 556, however, excepts from this prohibition employees whose “total hours of employment do not exceed 30 hours in any week or six hours in any one day thereof.”

The California Supreme Court [“COURT” IS SUFFICIENT ON SECOND AND SUBSEQUENT REFERENCES] answered [WE’RE PRETTY DEEP INTO THE POST BUT YOU STILL HAVEN’T DESCRIBED THE COURT’S HOLDING] the following three questions:

  1. Is the day of rest required by Sections 551 and 552 calculated by the workweek, or does it apply on a rolling basis to any seven-consecutive-day period?
  2. Does the exemption in Section 556 apply so long as an employee works six hours or less on at least one day of the applicable week OR does it apply only when an employee works no more than six hours on each and every day of the week?
  3. What does it mean for an employer to “cause” an employee to work more than six days in seven? [READER IS STILL LOOKING FOR ANSWERS]

The Supreme Court’s [“COURT” IS SUFFICIENT ON SECOND AND SUBSEQUENT REFERENCES] opinion included a thorough discussion [IS “THOROUGH” NECESSARY HERE? WE WOULD EXPECT THE CAL SUPREMES TO BE THOROUGH, RIGHT?] of the language and statutory history of these Sections, their interplay with the Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders, and their interpretation by the Industrial Welfare Commission and the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement.[ISN’T THIS WHAT COURTS ALWAYS DO? WHY IS THIS NOTEWORTHY?][MOVE LOWER OR STRIKE] After this extensive [AGAIN, “EXTENSIVE” SEEMS UNNECESSARY] discussion, the Court concluded that:

  1. the day of rest required by Sections 551 and 552 is calculated by the workweek,[FINALLY WE GET TO RULING. THIS NEEDS TO GO HIGHER]
  2. the exemption in Section 556 only applies if every daily shift during the week was six hours or less, [THIS NEEDS TO GO HIGHER] and
  3. an employer does not “cause” an employee to work more than six days in seven when it tells employees they are entitled to a day of rest and allows the employees to freely exercise that right. [THIS NEEDS TO GO HIGHER. IS ANY ONE OF THESE THREE HOLDINGS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE OTHERS? IF SO, CONSIDER LEADING WITH IT.]

Mendoza makes clear the complex and multi-layered nature of California’s employment laws. [THIS SENTENCE DOESN’T REALLY SAY MUCH. IS YOUR INSIGHT THAT CALIFORNIA’S EMPLOYMENT LAWS ARE “COMPLEX AND MULTI-LAYERED” SIGNIFICANT? WE NEED TO GIVE MORE REAL ESTATE TO THE COURT’S HOLDING.] The decision, however, provides much-needed (and mostly favorable) guidance to California employers concerning employee rest day requirements. [WHY IS THE COURT’S GUIDANCE “MUCH NEEDED” AND “MOSTLY FAVORABLE”? WHAT SHOULD EMPLOYERS DO IN RESPONSE TO THIS RULING? CAN YOU PUT THIS RULING IN A LARGER CONTEXT? FOR EXAMPLE, WHAT IS THE SITUATION IN NEIGHBORING STATES? WHAT IS THE LIKELY IMPACT OF THIS RULING ON CLASS ACTION LITIGATION INVOLVING THE REST DAY STATUTE? YOUR INSIGHTS HERE WOULD MAKE THIS A KILLER BLOG POST.]

My main criticisms of the post are:

  1. The headline and lede could have better-described the court’s holding or the significance of the holding.
  2. The author’s discussion of the court’s holding and its significance was overly brief and delivered at the very end of the post.
  3. The author spent too much time writing about the issues to be decided, and too little time writing about how the court decided them.
  4. The author’s organizational frame — setting out the three questions raised in a list, and setting out the court’s three answers — was borrowed from the court’s opinion (PDF). Court opinions are different creatures than blog posts (and news articles). The organization and writing style of a court opinion will almost never work well for a blog post, particularly one targeted to a non-lawyer audience.

Here’s my stab at rewriting the post.

California Workers Have Right to One Day Off Each Week

The California Supreme Court ruled today that the “day of rest” mandated by state labor laws gives non-exempt employees the right to one day off during each seven-day work week.

Prior to the court’s ruling, California law was ambiguous as to whether an employee’s right to “one day’s rest therefrom in seven” means one day off every seven days, on a rolling basis, or one day off during each workweek. The court’s decision to adopt the latter interpretation is a win for employers, bringing much-needed flexibility and clarity to the employer’s “day of rest” obligations.

Two other aspects of the court’s opinion are worth noting. An employee need not be provided a “day of rest” if all shifts during the preceding work week were below six hours. Many employers had assumed that the exception kicked in if just one shift lasted less than six hours.

The court also explained that an employer does not “cause” an employee to work more than six days in seven if the employee, after being advised that he or she is entitled to a day of rest, freely decides to work the seventh day.

In practice, the court’s ruling would permit an employee to take Monday off one week and Friday off the next — thereby working 10 consecutive days — without creating legal liability for the employer, provided it was the employee’s voluntary decision to work this schedule.

Employers Have Work to Do

A careful review of existing workplace policies will be necessary for employers to take full advantage of the court’s ruling.

Employers will want to ensure that employee handbooks clearly define the work week and clearly provide for one day of rest during each work week.

Workplace practices based on the assumption a single under-six-hour workday creates an exception to the “day of rest” requirement are no longer legally sound and should be revised.

Finally, employers will want to avoid engaging in any conduct that could be construed as “causing” an employee to work more than six days each work week.

In its opinion, the court declared: “An employer’s obligation is to apprise employees of their entitlement to a day of rest and thereafter to maintain absolute neutrality as to the exercise of that right.”

Litigation dangers lurk here. An employee may be able to claim that the employer failed to maintain “absolute neutrality” regarding the employee’s right to a day of rest if, for example, supervisors encouraged working on the seventh day or if promotions or job stability are dependent on a willingness to work seven days a week.

Managers should be trained to not pressure employees to work seven days during the work week.

Unionized workplaces are subject to the “day or rest” requirements unless the collective bargaining agreement expressly provides otherwise.

The case, Mendoza v. Nordstrom, involved a putative class action filed by former Nordstrom employees alleging Nordstrom violated California’s Labor Code by failing to provide them with one day of rest in seven and causing them to work more than six in seven days.

After the district court granted summary judgment in Nordstrom’s favor, plaintiffs appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which certified to the state supreme court a trio of state labor law issues arising from the interplay of Section 551 (“one day’s rest therefrom in seven”), Section 552 (“causing employees to work more than six days in seven”), and Section 556 (providing an exception to the “day of rest” requirement if “total hours of employment do not exceed 30 hours in any week or six hours in any one day thereof”).

In Conclusion

OK, so it’s not art. But the revised post delivered the news quickly and succinctly. The post led with the aspect of the court’s ruling that the writer decided was most important to the reader. And the post features several takeaways or action steps, any one of which is a good reason for readers to call outside counsel and have their workplace practices reviewed.

If I knew anything about California labor law (which, unfortunately, I don’t), the takeaways would have been so much better and I probably would have found a way to lead with them instead of the straight news lede contained in the post.

Law bloggers who adopt an inverted pyramid approach to writing news-oriented posts have a much-better chance of connecting with busy readers.