In our last blog post, we gave 4 reasons why you should consider using lists in a legal blog post. It was nothing earth shattering and many attorneys who handle their own online legal content know that bulleted or numbered lists can be helpful, even if they haven’t pondered the why.
What many lawyers don’t know, though, is that these lists can come in 2 basic formats. Each one is based on the purpose that it serves in the post. Knowing the differences between the formats can help you see which one you should use and whether it would be more helpful to readers to scuttle the whole list thing, entirely, in exchange for full-on subheadings.
The 2 Kinds of Lists: Laundry Lists and Subheading Stand-Ins
The fundamental distinction that can be made among numbered and bullet point lists is whether they’re used as:
- Laundry lists, or
Laundry list-style bullets are like the one above: They consist of only a couple words each and function as an organized way to rattle off a string of somehow-related information.
Subheading-style bullet points are longer, with each entry often spanning a few lines. They delve deeper into each point, but not quite deep enough to warrant using subheadings for each entry. The numbered list we used in our last blog post is a great example. Each entry in that list gave a short, one-sentence reason why you should use lists in a legal blog post, and then provided 2.5 lines of support for that claim.
Laundry Lists are Easy to Use
Most lists in online legal blogs are in laundry list form. This form is great to quickly list off things like:
- Medical symptoms
- Case law factors
- Penalties of a criminal conviction
- Anything else that falls in the category created by the immediately preceding paragraph
Using a List as a Substitute for a Subheading is More Complex
A more daunting task is to use a bullet point list as a stand-in for a subheading. However, these kinds of listings can be extremely valuable for entries that take some explanation, but not enough to justify a completely different section in your post. We’ve found that around 60 words is a good cut off – if you want to explain an entry in a list, but can do it in under 60 words, you can still use a list format.
How About Some Examples?
It is always easier to see writing techniques in action, rather than just a description of them in action.
So, say you’re a personal injury lawyer and need to discuss the 4 elements of a tort in a legal blog post. You can go to a laundry list format:
Bang. Bang. Bang. Bang. Get in, get out, move on. Laundry lists don’t waste space or your reader’s time because you have more important things to discuss
But maybe your audience needs a refresher. Then you can turn to a subheading stand-in list:
- Duty. Typically, people owe a legal duty to others around them to keep them out of harm’s way. It usually requires people to act like a reasonably prudent person would, were they in the same situation. However, some relationships can require a stronger legal duty.
- Breach. People breach their legal duty to keep others safe when they act inappropriately or unreasonably.
- Causation. Breaching a legal duty can cause someone else to get hurt if, but for the breach, the injury would not have happened. The injury also cannot be too far removed from the breach to make it unlikely to be the ultimate cause of the injury.
- Damages. There also has to be loss of some sort. These are a victim’s legal damages. They can be financial, physical, or even emotional.
These entries give readers enough background information that they should be able to move on with a basic understanding of what you’re talking about. Note that the longest entry, causation, has 47 words. When you start to press towards our 60-word guideline, you begin to benefit from separating the list entries into subheaders of their own. This lets you expand on each entry, and often lets you open with a laundry list in the introductory paragraph. It also lets you score some extra SEO points by putting more content in H2 and H3 text.
The 4 Elements of a Tort (In H2 Text)
Victims in an accident can file a personal injury lawsuit. To win, they have to prove 4 things:
The Defendant Had a Legal Duty (As an H3 Subheading)
Everyone owes a responsibility to everyone else to act in a reasonably safe manner. The law imposes this duty on us to keep innocent people as safe as possible from accidents and other harm that often gets caused when we don’t act reasonably. Of course, what it means to act like a reasonable person varies depending on the situation. In many cases, it is up to the jury to determine what it meant to act reasonably, and whether the person who hurt you was or was not doing so.
And so on and so forth, with H3 sections on breach, causation, and damages.
Pros and Cons
There are pros and cons to each style:
- Laundry lists are quick and to the point. They don’t waste space or your reader’s time. However, if the entries are complicated topics like the elements of a tort, you risk alienating your readers if you don’t unpack them.
- Subheading stand-ins are shallow dives into each topic. They provide a quick and simple explanation for each entry, without wasting much of your reader’s time.
- Full-on subheadings provide the most detail, but at the expense of reader effort. If you don’t know your audience, you could alienate them by talking down to them with a full description of a topic they already know. They can also distract from the main subject of the post. However, unlike list formats, they use H2 or H3 text, which carries some SEO heft.