Guidelines for Writing an Op-Ed for Pro Bono Attorneys
What is an op-ed?
An op-ed is a feature on the editorial pages of a newspaper and expresses the opinion of an author usually not affiliated with the publication’s editorial board.
Unlike news stories, which are objective and showcase the facts only, the point of an op-ed is to discuss the facts while displaying the unique point of view of the writer on a subject. An op-ed offers a new perspective on an issue that readers might not have considered before. In your case, as an attorney with a focus on animal protection, you can provide a point of view on issues others may be unaware of.
How to write an op-ed
Choose a publication
The local newspaper is a great place to start. Look at their website and find out the details on how to submit an op-ed – it should be located on the Op-Ed, Opinion or Contact Us pages. There you will find a word count (it can vary greatly depending on the publication) and whom to submit it to.
Look over the op-ed section and see if someone else recently has written about the subject you’re writing about. If so, the newspaper is unlikely to run yours, but a competing publication might.
Another option is to write for your local bar association’s magazine. Those publications usually require attorneys to submit a pitch to the editor before writing. You can find the editor’s contact information on the magazine’s website.
Be aware of timing
Timing is very important when submitting an op-ed. Submit it too late and it’s considered old news. Is your op-ed in response to something currently happening in the news? If so, submit the op-ed within 24 hours of the breaking news story.
If there’s a specific event in your town that happens every year (like a rodeo or the circus) that you would like to comment on, submit your pitch as far as a month ahead of time. That allows editors to plan on running it when the event is happening or the week before it happens.
If your op-ed does not have a tie-in to a specific news story, submit it during “slow news days.” The newspaper is more likely to run it when there is no competition from op-eds related to important breaking news.
Pick a headline that is both eye-catching and intriguing. This will grab the editor’s attention and make it stand out from the dozens of submissions newspapers get every single day.
In your first paragraph, give a quick summary of what your op-ed is about. State your opinion and reasoning in a way that will make readers want to keep on reading.
In the following paragraphs, explain your reasoning and back it up with facts. You can identify the other side’s argument and explain why it is wrong. You don’t want to preach to the readers, you want to explain your point of view to them with researched, fact-checked information so that when they’re done reading they’ll think to themselves, “that makes sense.”
Finish by offering a solution to the problem you’ve pointed out in your op-ed. Give people a specific call to action. Should they call their elected representatives? Adopt a plant-based diet? Boycott the circus? End with a strong and thought-provoking line.
You can find an example at the end of this document of an op-ed submitted by the Animal Legal Defense Fund to the News-Press in Florida.
As an attorney, you have a distinctive set of skills and knowledge and you want to showcase that in your op-ed. It is what makes your opinion and point of view unique. Beware using legalese, however. Avoid jargon and expressions people who are not attorneys wouldn’t understand. A good way to think about this is, how would you explain this issue to a friend at a bar?
If submitting to your local bar association’s magazine, however, feel free to use any legal terms. That language is expected in a legal publication and since the readers are fellow attorneys, the op-ed can offer a more technical point of view.
Do not go over the word limit established by the publication. Use active verbs and only include information that is absolutely necessary to your central point. Every word and sentence should serve a purpose. Edit yourself, eliminate any redundancies and unnecessary phrases, and be ruthless about it. Your goal is to have your piece published, not to protect your work of art.
Running your op-ed through five different people can ruin your timeline, but it’s important to have a fresh pair of eyes for proofreading. Submitting an op-ed with errors makes it easy for any publication to pass on publishing it.
Submitting your op-ed
- Look at the newspaper’s website to find out who you should email your op-ed to. If you can’t find the information online, call the newspaper and ask.
- Include a brief note to the person you’re sending the op-ed to explaining who you are and what the op-ed is about.
- Attach your op-ed to the email but also paste it in as text. Some editors do not like opening unsolicited attachments.
- If the publication decides to publish your op-ed, they’ll contact you. If you don’t hear from anyone within 24 hours, it’s ok to send a quick follow up email. If you don’t hear from anyone in a few days, assume your piece is not getting published and submit it to another publication.
- When submitting an op-ed to your local bar association’s magazine, the editor will determine a deadline. Do not, under any circumstances, miss that deadline. Editors rely on articles being turned in at the pre-determined times to produce and publish a magazine. By being late, you are throwing their schedules off and they are unlikely to accept articles from you again.
Here’s an example for an op-ed submitted by the Animal Legal Defense Fund in response to a news article published on The Las Vegas Review-Journal:
Hello John, My name is Natalia Lima and I work with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, the nation’s preeminent legal advocacy organization for animals. Last Friday The Las Vegas Review-Journal published the op-ed “Animal Lawyers Dog the Legal System” that makes reference to our work. Please find attached an op-ed from our executive director Stephen Wells, in which he explains our side of the argument. Thank you, Natalia Lima | Publicist
Animal Legal Defense Fund | ALDF.ORG email@example.com
You got published, now what?
- Contact Animal Legal Defense Fund Pro Bono Director Tom Linney and brag about it! We’ll be sure to share your success on our social media channels.
- Share far and wide on your personal and employer’s social media accounts pages (Linked in, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and encourage your colleagues to do the same.