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What Are White Papers and Should Lawyers Write Them?

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 15, 2016 10:05 AM

Once upon a time, white papers were simply government documents that spelled out government policies and invited comment on them. The Churchhill White Paper of 1922 is one of the earliest such examples.

But white papers have changed plenty over the years. Today, they're authoritative, persuasive, mini-reports primarily used to develop thought leadership or business leads. Should you be writing one?

White Papers 101

Since the 70s white papers have proliferated, becoming a major marketing and business tool. But the conventions of a white paper vary between companies and industries. Some are short "why you need our product" explainers. Others are incredibly in-depth and dense looks at industry trends or challenges.

If there's one strand binding all white papers together, however, it is that they seek to address a complex issue or problem while advocating for a particular solution.

They're typically not as academic as something you'd find in a law journal, nor as casual as what you'd put on your blog. Need an example? Here's FindLaw Lawyer Marketing's white paper on why most websites are designed to fail and Surfwatch's white paper on cyberattacks against law firms.

The form isn't too hard to get down. Generally, white papers are 6 pages or longer, sometimes much longer, with a title page, table of contents, executive summary, body, and conclusion. They're technical, professional documents, so the tone should match. (There are even free online templates.)

A white paper's most important feature, though, is that it's not just given away even if it's free. Every white paper requires at least an email -- and often many more contact details -- before it can be accessed. This allows the authors to follow up with potential clients. The goal, after all, is leads.

Should You Write One?

Whether you should write a white paper depends on your practice and marketing goals. If you are a plaintiff's side personal injury lawyer, most of your clients probably aren't going to read through a white paper on developing trends in substantive medical damages before contacting you. But plenty of corporate clients would be interested in developments in Title VII litigation, for example, or the benefits of having counsel when contracting with the government.

While white papers are typically targeted at potential customers, there is another audience you could pursue as well. If you are looking to build your name as a leader in your field, white papers can help you share your expertise with colleagues, without having to jump through the hoops required by academic journals.

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