It’s Casual Friday again, the day when I let my hair lie a bit flatter (because there isn’t enough of it to let down) and talk about things a bit less formally. And talk about less-formal things.

(Think of this as the self-employed person’s water-cooler conversation — only limited to once per week.)

I’ve been asked the following question many times: “Why do you call the work you do ‘legal/business’ writing, rather than legal writing or business writing?” Here’s my answer:

In my private mental dictionary, legal writing is a very specialized style of writing that is taught in law schools and is perfected throughout an attorney’s career. It follows highly formalized, long-established and very, very traditional guidelines. Manuals and textbooks are dedicated to this style of writing, and it is most appropriate for legal briefs, court documents, contracts, agreements, securities filings, articles to be published in scholarly legal journals, and so on. You know legal writing when you see it.

At the other extreme is business writing. Business writing is like the Wild West of writing, and can be as completely undisciplined or as rigidly straitlaced as necessary, depending on the medium, the message and the audience. Advertisements are a form of business writing. So are speeches, website content, e-mail pitches, proposal responses, business plans, annual reviews, photo captions, restaurant menus… virtually anything that uses words could fall under the header “business writing.”

Legal/business writing is a fascinating hybrid of these two. (To me, at least.) In some ways, it’s like the “coywolf” of the canine world.

(Note: The coyote population near our weekend home has risen dramatically in the last few years. Concerned about the safety of our dogs, I’ve been doing some research lately, and it turns out that a fairly high percentage of coyotes in the Midwest and Northeast are actually coyote-wolf hybrids, which apparently tend to blend the best attributes of both animals — and by “best,” I mean from an evolutionary perspective.)

Legal/business writing is writing done by or on behalf of lawyers and law firms, directed to their existing and potential clients. Whether in the form of a practice group description, an attorney bio, a client-seminar announcement, a press release, a white paper or a bylined article in a legal or business publication, its ultimate objective is to communicate information about legal issues and services to non-legal clients (or the attorneys who represent them).

Not only is legal/business writing its own unique discipline, it operates within certain restrictions that are not typical of other industries. For example, every attorney is familiar with the rules of professional conduct of his or her state. While most lawyers are very familiar with the requirements that prescribe appropriate action with respect to client representation, they often are less aware that, within these rules, there exist very specific guidelines regarding, among other things, attorney advertising. (If you’re not aware of these, the ABA has a great website that provides links to each state’s guidelines.)

Here’s just one example: Rule 7.4(c) of Article VII: Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct states, “Except when identifying certificates, awards or recognitions issued to him by an agency or organization, a lawyer may not use the terms “certified,” “specialist,” “expert,” or any other, similar terms to describe his qualifications as a lawyer or his qualifications in any subspecialty of the law.”

Less specifically, according to the Illinois Rules, lawyers are also prohibited from comparing their services to those of another lawyer, unless the comparison can be factually substantiated. (Imagine what would happen to the Coke-Pepsi advertising wars if all businesses had to follow this rule!) Lawyers must also avoid creating “unjustified expectations.”

And so on… The point of this (now not-so-Casual Friday) post is that legal/business writing is neither legal writing nor business writing, but exists in the delicately balanced intersection of the two. Which is why — if I can get personal here for just a moment — it’s very important to engage the services of a legal/business writer who knows the difference.

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