Legal departments. It’s their job to avoid risk. And as copywriters, it can seem like their job is to sap all personality and effectiveness from our work like binder-wielding vampires. In fact, it can seem like copywriters and legal departments are destined to do battle. But it doesn’t have to work that way.
In most companies, the legal department’s job is to advise people in other departments of legal risks and repercussions so those people can make informed decisions. Acting as authorities with power of approval over marketing and copywriting is usually NOT part of their job, but something that happens through habit, and sometimes through legal’s desire to be in control. They don’t like uncertainty, remember?
The words you choose matter, especially with legal. Framing you conversations around getting their “recommendations,” “advice,” “counsel,” or “assessment” on your copywriting can go a long way toward reminding them that they’re not here to tell you yes or no, but to guide you toward marketing that’s less likely to result in litigation. Ask for approval and you’ll often get rejection. Ask for advice and the conversation quickly becomes more nuanced.
One of the most frustrating things I’ve received from legal departments are clumsy redline edits that don’t match the company voice and sound like, well, legalese.
Contrary to popular belief, this usually isn’t the result of malice from red pen-wielding lawyers with unfulfilled desires of authorship, but the result of efficiency. It’s much quicker for legal to mark up specific changes to your copywriting that they know will be legally sound than to explain the intricacies of the laws or regulations they’re trying to address.
But instead of just taking these copywriting edits as-is or blindly trying alternatives, go in and talk to your legal department. Ask them what the risks and thinking are behind their suggestions. You may be able to offer alternatives that meet their concerns and better fit your company’s voice. Which brings me to my next point.
It sounds simple, but it’s incredibly powerful. It’s easy to fight a faceless jerk who always gives you trouble over email all the time. But it’s harder to be rigid with a smart person who treats you fairly and offers well-reasoned arguments.
Visiting your legal department gives both lawyer and copywriter a chance to humanize each other, understand each other’s motivations, and dare I say, maybe find out you have something in common. It’s a move that generally leads to a working relationship that’s more collaborative than antagonistic, and may earn you social capital that you can leverage later on.
When I regularly visited my legal department at a previous job, I discovered that behind the suits were people who enjoyed craft beer, pulled crazy stunts in college and were capable of some pretty funny email exchanges.
The earlier legal is involved, the smoother your project will go. It may seem counter-intuitive to let legal near a fledgling project, lest they kill it before it leaves the nest.
But involving legal early with relevant questions can help you avoid legal sticking points and copywriting issues up front before too much work has been done. It’s much easier than trying to get legal signoff at the eleventh hour and be forced into awkwardly salvaging something that was flawed in the first place.
And naturally, involving legal early makes them feel more valued and respected—which usually results in them being less rigid and more likely to cut you some slack. They know they have a reputation for being joy-sucking gatekeepers and they appreciate it when you don’t treat them that way.
Do these things and you can transform a mortal enemy into a valued ally (and possible drinking buddy), or at very least, save yourself the frustration of endless losing arguments over your copywriting.
What are some of your greatest copywriting horror stories involving legal? What are some of your biggest copywriting-legal victories? Sound off in the comments.