Thought Leadership Trends: What Catches the Attention of In-house Counsel?

Published on Oct 15, 2021

World Law Group sat down with JD Supra’s Adrian Lürssen, Co-founder, VP Strategic Development, to discuss trends that can be gleaned from what in-house counsel are reading and how lawyers can be true thought leaders. Here’s a bit of what we learned.

What do in-house counsel want to read?

In-house counsel are, as you know, busy people and so they want two things in thought leadership. First, they don’t want you to write about the law — they want you to explain quickly and clearly how changes in the law impact their work. There’s a difference and it matters.

Secondly, they want simplicity. While they can and do think like lawyers, they don’t want to be made to do so, mired in legalese. Busy as they are, they’d rather not work to find your point. Make it clear; lead with the main takeaway. Additionally, one common complaint of in-house counsel is that they want insights and guidance that they can share with their C-suite, but often that’s not what they’re getting.

Is there a formula that works?

I might qualify this and say there is an 'approach' that works, more than a formula. While some legal issues are extraordinarily complex and need enough space to be covered well, most of the popular content we encounter shares an approach that can be summed up as: 1. This happened. 2. This is what it changes (for you). 3. Here’s what you should do next.

Tied to that is sense of audience. The most successful thought leadership also addresses a particular reader directly. This is hugely important for success. Let your ideal audience know you have them in mind.

At the start of the COVID-19 isolation, we saw a vast amount of content produced around the myriad issues wrought by the pandemic. But firms were producing thick tomes that were meant to cover all situations. So, if you operated a business in California with less than 50 employees (for one example), you’d have to read through page upon page to find what mattered to your situation. This isn’t how it is done. A successful thought leader writes an analysis for that business owner in that particular situation, makes it very easy for them to understand the implications of the changing landscape, and helps them to understand next steps.

If I supported a firm or practice group with content and was handed a 100-page tome on some particular legal issue, I’d break it down into component parts based on audience and publish those separately. Our analytics make it clear: that’s how you earn and keep audience.

What about titles? How important are they in thought leadership?

Don’t ever underestimate the power of a title. Often, they are the first (and perhaps only) way to earn a reader. Your title should do much more than simply say what a person might get if they stop what they’re doing and click to read what you have to say. Your titles should convey why something matters, to whom it matters, and when possible: why stop what you are doing and click this now.

Years ago, numerous firms wrote about a significant change to the American patent system. It was a hot issue and each article received about 3,000 readers during its lifetime. Most titles didn’t capture any urgency — even though the change was hugely important. The typical title read “A change to the American patent system.” That’s the what, lacking urgency. One article stood out above the rest, something along the lines of: “10 Reasons Why Entrepreneurs Should Submit Their Patent Applications Right Now.”

That article earned 30,000 readers in a three-week period and, more to the point, was shared widely on LinkedIn by entrepreneurs, other patent attorneys, venture capitalists, executives and others for whom IP protection matters. It also appeared on several Silicon Valley platforms where IP is a hot, ongoing topic.

In all of the many posts written about this change, the information was generally the same. That post cut through the noise because of its focused title. Enough said.

What topics are trending right now?

Employer liability, cybersecurity, SEC, Cryptocurrency, and especially now COVID-19 – it’s number one on the list.

But the question is, how does COVID-19 trickle down to other areas? At the start of the pandemic, it was all about Force Majeure as the world went into isolation. Now, that’s no longer a primary concern. Today, everyone needs to know about legal considerations around vaccines — vaccine mandates, employer/employee requirements, and more. So, the question again becomes: how does this matter, right now, to the people you serve?

Or for example SPACs, which rose to even more prominence during the pandemic. There is a sense of saturation in the US market and an interest in Europe and Asia right now. ESG is another hot topic; layer that with SEC as we can expect a lot more SEC reporting under the Biden administration. The key here is to take those timely topics and infuse them into the skeleton of the evergreen ones.

Any final bits of advice?

Remember, you don’t need lots of readers, you just need the right readers. Think about how to cross-pollinate so you don’t miss those “right readers”. One such example comes from a few years ago, when we first started looking at how our data can inform not just new writing, but new business development initiatives in market segments. We were developing our first data tools and I would speak to groups of marketers and BD people in law firms. Standing in front of the room, I’d ask: “What is the single most important concern by readers in the energy and utilities space right now?” Folks with energy practices would throw out their guesses, all reasonable: clean tech, renewable energy, FERC, oil and gas, and so on. Those are all of course important, ongoing concerns, but at the time the single most important topic for readers coming to legal content from the energy space was cybersecurity! We saw that trend in its ascendancy, based on vast amounts of reader data. And those people were not reading about cybersecurity framed in ways that mattered to them (as participants in critical infrastructure).

They’d instead be drawn to content about data breaches in retail, or how internet companies responded to cyber attacks, and other such news beyond energy. We saw this disconnect as a missed opportunity. Law firms that served these companies missed the opportunity to deepen their relationships with clients around this critically important topic: cybersecurity. Their clients were looking elsewhere for help.

Author: Hanna Shea, World Law Group