Although the 2016 presidential race pitting Hillary Clinton against the Donald Trump has dominated the news for the past year, the reality is that the outcome of tomorrow’s election is unlikely to have an immediate impact on most voters. By contrast, thirty-four states have a combined total of 157 propositions on the ballot that will directly affect a large number of individuals and businesses – including many existing – or potential clients.
The referendums likely to affect to widest swath of the population involve the legal status of marijuana. As described here five states — Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada will vote on legalization of marijuana, while ballots in four other states – Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota — take up the issue of allowing use of medical marijuana.
In addition to voting on marijuana, Americans will weigh in on a variety of other issues, according to Politico. These include whether to (1) establish a constitutional right to hunt and fish (to be decided in Indiana with similar issues pending in Montana and Kansas), (2) enact a carbon tax (Washington State); (2) impose more stringent requirements for background checks for firearms and ammunition (Maine, Nevada and California) and (4) approve “Death with Dignity” legislation allowing assisted suicide by doctors at the request of terminally ill patients (Colorado).
If enacted, these laws may create new opportunities or present new risks for many of your firm’s clients. Consider a state where recreational or medical marijuana is legalized. Doctors and other medical providers will want information on whether and in what circumstances they can prescribe marijuana for a patient, individuals will want to understand understanding the limits of legalization (for example, do DUI laws apply to someone who’s just smoked a joint before driving, would an apartment complex’s anti-smoking rules bar marijuana use, are there limits to the amount of marijuana a person can possess at one time, etc…) and entrepreneurs and investors will be clamoring for guidance on how to lawfully sell. Even lawyers who focus on professional responsibility issues may find themselves responding to questions about the ethics of counseling on state marijuana legalization laws when federal law still makes marijuana illegal.
The same kinds of questions arise under other proposed legislation, whether related to assisted suicide, background checks for firearms and carbon taxes: providers (such as doctors, firearms dealers or carbon-emitting companies) will always be interested in new opportunities and compliance obligations created by a new law, while consumers will want to understand what they can do, or require representation on matters of first impression if they’re charged with violations.
In short, new laws create new opportunities for lawyers in a wide range of practice areas. However, if you want to maximize future opportunities, keep in mind that there’s but a narrow window to get the word out about hot-off-the-presses news to existing and prospective clients.
For starters, if you wait too long, it’s only a matter of time before other law firms and their marketers pounce on the new trend. Thus, by the time you’ve had a chance to weigh in, your clients will have been inundated with coverage from other sources. Further, by responding quickly, you position yourself as an authority for the media which will report on the new laws and most likely, seek out lawyers to comment on the ramifications.
Unfortunately, many lawyers often hesitate to express an opinion about news topics or make predictions before they have the benefit of seeing what other lawyers or experts say. As a result, they lose out on the change to capitalize on the new opportunities that new legislation can create.
In any event, let’s say that you’ve already made up your mind to write about new legislation. Below are some suggestions on what to say and how to get the word out:
What’s the best channel to get the word out about new developments?
Rely on existing distribution methods first. The fastest way to get the word out about new legislation is to rely on your quickest and most-highly followed distribution channels first. For some firms, that might be a blog , for others, an electronic newsletter. If your firm generally shares new developments via a semi-annual printed newsletter or a monthly column in the local newspaper or bar journal, try to go to press earlier (for example, call your editors and ask if they’ll print a story in the next few days, or dispatch a special edition of your newsletter) or consider another electronic option to avoid having the story become yesterday’s news before you’ve had a chance to write about it. Same with a weekly or monthly podcast – record a new show as soon as possible, and let your listeners and others know about it via email (if you have a subscribe list) or social media.
One caveat: if you typically disseminate news through a social media channel like Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook, don’t just link to a newspaper story reporting on the new law without any additional commentary. That only tips off your competitors without giving much value to readers. At the very least, include a short post on Facebook or LinkedIn to accompany the link, or put something up on your law firm website and link to it via your tweet.
Get in front of the media Once you’ve posted or pod-cast about new legislation, circulate the information to the media. If there’s a reporter or blogger who’s been covering the story regularly, send your materials to them and offer your assistance with future reporting. If possible, try to explain the connection between your take on the legislation with the reporter’s previous story (for example, you might say “In your story on marijuana legislation, you noted that it was uncertain as to how long it would take Department X to implement regulations. Here’s my article describing the process and my estimated time frames).
Whatever you do, avoid carbon-copy emails in bulk to a dozen publications or asking a marketer to forward a press release announcing your availability for interviews. Most likely, the media will be inundated with all kinds of useless queries and your generic email is destined for the delete button right along with the other junk. You’re better off sending out three targeted media requests than two dozen generic emails.
Repurpose, repurpose and repurpose Once you’ve invested time in writing or broadcasting about the new legislation, you can repurpose that material for several different fora. Or, as I’ve suggested in the past, use the whole pig . If you believe that there’s a long term market for lawyers to handle issues under the new law and you’re willing to invest time in establishing yourself as an expert, you could expand a short blog post into a law review article . Alternatively, you could record a CLE, present on the issue at an industry conference or convert the material into an ebook. In short, for a small investment of time upfront, you can create fodder for multiple future projects.
What kinds of coverage is most useful?
Focus on your expertise If all you plan to do is summarize the new legislation much as a paralegal would annotate a deposition, don’t bother covering it at all because it provides little value to readers. Instead, figure out ways to add a spin that highlights your expertise. So, if you are a criminal defense attorney, you might discuss whether the new law will criminalize new activity, or clarify instances where individuals can still be prosecuted, even if they believe otherwise. A lawyer who handles elder abuse cases might discuss whether nursing homes can dispense medical marijuana, while a family law attorney write a post about whether smoking marijuana could impact a judge’s custody decision. By tailoring a post to make it relevant to your practice area, not only will you show your knowledge to prospective clients, but you’ll set your commentary apart from the dozens of other plain vanilla summaries.
Experiment with different delivery mechanisms If you’re writing or speaking about a new law, try to get inside your target clients’ head and imagine the kinds of concerns they have – and then present the material in a format that’s responsive to their needs. Some clients may be most interested in an FAQ on the new law rather than a summary, others may want a list of Do’s and Don’ts, while still others may be interested in a flow chart of what to expect in the coming weeks or months. And in my view, all clients will want at least the option of reading the new law for themselves so be sure to link to the underlying legislation. You’d be surprised at how few lawyers do that.
How to Address Uncertainty
As I mentioned earlier, although new laws often resolve uncertainty, at the same time, they may raise new questions. Other times, a new law may speak to a problem in general terms, but its full impact will remain unknown until regulations are promulgated, or until a court interprets an ambiguous term. Yet how can lawyers write about what may happen down the line without looking like total fools if they are wrong?
Focus on the Process One way to get around the issue of what’s next is to focus on the implementation process. If a rule making lies ahead, explain how the process works, how long it will take and identify key junctures where the public will have an opportunity for input. Or simply divide your blog post or article into two sections — “What we know” and “What we don’t know” so at least clients will understand what issues remain unresolved. You can also offer continuing coverage of the unresolved issues so that clients will continue to turn to your materials as a source of information.
Take a Stand Alternatively, you can also take a guess on what’s likely to happen in the future based on past experience. That’s the approach that I often take to new issues: I’ll describe couple of possible outcomes and take a stab at identifying the one that I regard as most likely – and if it’s a close call, I’ll say so. I’ve found that this technique gives readers insight into the decision-making process and often generates questions (that lead to business) or discussion with other colleagues (that can also lead to business). Of course, if you’re taking a position that readers may rely on, you’ll want to include the usual caveats and disclaimers (e.g., that this is just an opinion that should not be relied upon as legal advice, outcome may vary based on specific facts, etc…).
Tomorrow, Americans will go to the polls to choose the candidate who will lead the country for the next four years as well as the policies that will govern for the foreseeable future. By helping the public understand the implications of the elections, you assist them in making another important choice: choosing you as their lawyer.