Bottom line: Op-eds are an underutilized tool that attorneys and their clients can use to tell their side of the story of their legal disputes to local audiences in order to persuade the Court of Public Opinion.

If you’ve ever read a newspaper, you are familiar with an op-ed. 

An op-ed is an opinion piece written by someone not affiliated with the media outlet that runs opposite the editorial page in that media outlet — thus the term “op-ed.”

Op-eds are an opportunity for an author to provide timely insights or opinion regarding a noteworthy topic of interest to the audience served by that media outlet.

Unlike a typical news article written by a reporter, an op-ed is not going to be challenged in real time as it’s being formed. A reporter is not going to ask the op-ed’s author any hardball questions during an interview — there is no interview!

Op-eds can be useful for attorneys and clients who want to tell their side of the story of a high-profile legal dispute they are a part of in a way that will hopefully gain the support of the public by persuading consumers of the media outlet that the attorneys and the clients are on the right side of their legal disputes.

While there are plenty of articles and blog posts online about how to write an op-ed, I wanted to give a few tips about op-eds that are particularly pertinent to attorneys and their clients.

First, attorneys and their clients must be concise in their op-eds.

Generally speaking, op-eds are between 350 and 750 words. That’s not a lot of space within which to make arguments. So, attorneys and clients must be sure to use impactful words and arguments that resonate with readers.

Second, attorneys and their clients must be persuasive.

They’ve got to make an argument in their op-eds. Op-eds should not be a simple rehashing of facts. They should persuade readers to come to the side of the attorney and client and to see the world from their perspective. 

Third, when drafting op-eds, attorneys and clients should be thinking “Why should the reader care?” 

Attorneys and clients must determine how to draw readers in, make them care, and make sure that they understand just how important this legal issue is — not to just that client, but to society as a whole.

From a plaintiff’s perspective, an attorney or client could talk about the way that society would be harmed if the kind of conduct at issue in their legal dispute went unpunished.

From a defense perspective, an attorney or client could talk about how the overzealous prosecution of this kind of conduct could lead to the loss of our civil rights and the like.

Fourth, attorneys and clients have to remember that these op-eds are being read by members of the general public. 

These people will not have a deep understanding of the law. They will not have a deep understanding of legal process. Attorneys must make sure they are translating their arguments into plain English so that readers can understand what they are being told. Legalese is likely to confuse readers, and may even dissuade them from reading the rest of an op-ed. 

Fifth, attorney ethics rules still apply to these op-eds—as does defamation law. 

When writing or submitting an op-ed, attorneys will have to make sure they’re complying with the governing ethical rules, notably Rule of Professional Conduct 3.6 (Trial Publicity). Attorneys and clients alike will also have to make sure that they are not defaming anyone when they write an op-ed.

One point about the mechanics of writing op-eds. I would hazard a guess that at least half of the op-eds published in any given day are ghostwritten. They are written by a PR person, a marketer, a freelance writer—anybody but the person whose byline appears on the op-ed. It’s not uncommon for attorneys to farm out the writing of an op-ed to another writer. That writer takes a first crack at the document. Then, the attorney would review it before he or she submits it to the publication. 

It is also important to keep in mind that op-eds do not automatically run simply by virtue of being submitted. There is a selection process. So when writing an op-ed, attorneys and their clients have to appeal to not just the public, but also to a gatekeeper: an editor who is deciding whether or not to include the op-ed in an upcoming edition of the media outlet. 

Attorneys and their clients often overlook op-eds as tools they can use to engage and persuade the Court of Public Opinion when they’re involved in high-profile legal disputes. When attorneys and their clients are developing their Court of Public Opinion strategy for a particular legal dispute, they should be considering whether there’s a place for an op-ed or two in that strategy.

Bottom line: Op-eds are an underutilized tool that attorneys and their clients can use to tell their side of the story of their legal disputes to local audiences in order to persuade the Court of Public Opinion.

Wayne Pollock is the founder and managing attorney of Copo Strategies in Philadelphia, a national legal services and communications firm. Attorneys and law firms enlist Copo Strategies to ethically, proactively, and strategically engage the media and the public regarding their clients’ cases (to help resolve those cases favorably), and to engage the media, referral sources, and prospective clients regarding their firms (to help bring new client matters in the door). Contact him at waynepollock@copostrategies.com or 215–454–2180.