How Criminal Law Prepared Me To Write

Why freelance writing is a lot like criminal defense.


Steve Toews

3 years ago | 5 min read

Why writing is a lot like keeping people out of prison

Before I was a writer I was, for several years, a criminal defense lawyer. I defended people accused by the government of all sorts of crimes, from fraud to aggravated assault. My clients ranged in age from 12 to their late fifties. Some were guilty, some were innocent, and many were somewhere in-between. Some were facing large fines and others were staring down the barrel of their first penitentiary sentence.

As unique and individual as each of my clients were, one thing tied them all together. They all needed me. I was the only person standing between them and a life-altering criminal conviction and sentence.

At the time, I found this responsibility unsettling and stressful. I thought that I would be happier if I found myself in a professional role that didn’t make me the most important person in another human being’s life.

It would be years before I realized that, in fact, the secret to professional success in any field, from criminal law to freelance writing, is to make it impossible for your clients to maintain their lives or livelihoods without you.

Writers really are indispensable

Call them what you will — essential, indispensable, necessary — some services we simply cannot live without. People with potentially fatal heart conditions need cardiac surgery. Working people with kids need childcare.

But you’re a writer. You make words. You don’t keep people out of jail, perform brain surgery, or fly planes. Can what you do really be called essential?

The truth is…absolutely, yes! To the right people, the right words at the right time are the difference between success and failure, eating and starving.

What it means to be indispensable

There are two conditions that must be met before you can consider yourself to be indispensable to a client:

  1. You provide something your client needs to maintain his or her livelihood.
  2. The quality of your work and the way you deliver it are so high that it’s not worth the cost and risk of finding someone else to do that same work.

You should not interpret the word “needs” in the first condition too narrowly. Even seemingly dispensable conveniences are essentials in the right circumstances. For example, a cup of coffee in the morning might be a “nice-to-have” for some but it’s a downright necessity for others.

To the freelance writers who create them, blog articles and social media posts can seem like discretionary expenditures for their clients. But for a client who relies on organic search engine traffic or social media exposure to bring in business, your writing can be the only thing standing between them and stagnation.

The second condition is what immunizes you from the risk of your client dumping you for a competitor. If the switching costs of finding and onboarding a new writer are higher than what they’d save from switching to someone cheaper, they won’t switch.

If you can satisfy these conditions, you’ll have created a relationship in which you’re solving a problem that the client must solve, at a price that no one else can match.

4 ways to become indispensable

To become indispensable to your writing clients, you can focus on either or both of the conditions I’ve outlined above. Either way, you’re trying to increase the perceived value of what you provide to your client, or decrease the cost to them of obtaining it.

Get close to the point of sale

The most important change you can make immediately is to get your words closer to the point of sale. To put it bluntly, a client is more likely to consider sales copy on a landing page that moves 1000 subscriptions essential than she is a blog post that increases follower count by 50.

That’s not because the blog post is worthless, or that it won’t drive sales (eventually). It’s just that the ROI on the sales copy is easily and immediately demonstrable, while the ROI on the blog post is more difficult to calculate.

This is why successful direct sales copywriters command such high premiums, while content writers often struggle to increase their prices. The former delivers verifiable results that clients need, while the latter provides difficult-to-quantify results that clients want.

Clarify your value

In my old life, when I was retained by people accused of crimes, I didn’t focus their attention on the things I did for them. My clients didn’t care if I created an airtight bail plan, crafted a compelling cross-examination for an important witness, or designed a novel argument for sentencing. What they cared about were results. Did I get them out of jail pending trial? Did I help them avoid a criminal record? Did I successfully have their sentence reduced?

Writing clients are very similar. They don’t care about how many words you write or how well-structured your article is. They want to sell more widgets. They want to land more customers.

Whenever possible, you should be able to identify for your client the real impact, in dollars and cents, that your service had on their business. Other metrics — like follower counts, views, shares, etc. — are valuable as well, but nothing beats being able to say, “My writing brought in $X for you last month.”

If you find it difficult to quantify your impact in this way, take a look at the tip immediately preceding this one and try to get closer to the sale.

Eliminate friction

There are two ways to decrease the likelihood of your client swapping you out for a new writer.

First, you can increase the value of the service you provide. You can write better, write faster, write more persuasively, simply write more, etc.

Second, you can decrease the cost of providing your service. You can reduce your price, for example.

Now, most writers quite sensibly don’t want to reduce their prices or write more for the same amount of money. Instead of doing either of these things, focus on the friction involved in the provision of your service. Ask your client what annoys them about receiving your product. Do they dislike having to format and post your work on their blog themselves? Do they find your required method of payment annoying?

Eliminate those points of friction that take time out of your client’s day. Offer to proof, format, and post your articles on their blog yourself with a limited-privilege WordPress account. Accept PayPal instead of requiring a corporate check. Do whatever it takes to make your client’s life as easy as possible. From their perspective, money should flow out and solutions to their problem should flow in.

Be client-focused

This one is closely related to the previous point. You can increase the value of your services to your clients if you always remain focused on the problem you’re solving for them.

In my old job, that meant staying cognizant of what my criminal law clients were actually hiring me for. Not only did they want me to keep them out of jail, but they also wanted me to alleviate some of the intense fear they felt as a result of the charges they faced. They wanted reassurance, understanding, and empathy in the face of a harsh and frightening criminal justice machine.

Your writing clients have hired you for a set of reasons individual to them. If you stay focused on ensuring that you’re satisfying their expectations and needs, you’ll increase the perceived value of your services and reduce the likelihood that they’ll switch to a new writer.

This means constantly asking yourself the question, “Does this solve my client’s problem?” It means adapting to your client as their needs change and meeting them where they are, rather than demanding they adapt to your process.

Be courageous

It can be intimidating to be an essential service. When you find yourself in this position you quickly realize that failure and mistakes have real consequences for your clients. But putting yourself in a place where you’re needed, as opposed to merely wanted, is the key to finding success in writing — or any profession.


Created by

Steve Toews

Former lawyer. Current digital nomad and freelance writer.







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