Legal Journalism and Writing Op-Eds: Advice for Breaking In

BY CHRIS SZABLA

With law school graduates like Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin ’86 rapidly becoming media mainstays, it comes as little surprise that journalism ranks as one of the most sought after alternative career choices among HLS students. The school, and at least one student group, have responded to demand: last Thursday presented a banquet of options for students interested in entering the field.

Greg Stohr ’95, started off the day with an OCS sponsored breakfast panel on life as a journalist covering the Supreme Court. Stohr remained throughout the day to advise students individually. Meanwhile, a lunchtime National Security and Law Society event covered op-ed writing and submission. The Stohr event attracted both students interested in journalism and the Court in general. Starting out, Stohr said, he decided he didn’t want to work at a law firm. He found that entering the field required “a lot of groping about,” and that although internships could help law students get a foot in the door, getting a job in journalism also required “a lot of shoe leather, writing people”.

He focused on legal reporting, since news organizations tended to look more favorably on his HLS degree, and eventually landed at Bloomberg, which was “intrigued,” he said, to hire a Harvard Law grad. He began by covering lower courts, working his way up to his current position: a process, he said, which was not that difficult once he began.

Stohr said that his approach was to translate legal concepts, like subject matter jurisdiction, for lay people, and to extract the important parts of Supreme Court opinions from the confusing swirl of secondary legal issues. Although he typically shaped his coverage to include stories of interest to Bloomberg’s Wall Street-heavy readership, he said that he also had some discretion to shape which cases got more or less coverage. Stohr noted that he was interested in upcoming cases involving child rape, lethal injection, and the Second Amendment, but dreaded the messiness of future cases involving Guantanamo Bay. He also said that the court’s schedule afforded him different opportunities – during recesses, he has worked on feature stories, such as an interview with Justice Samuel Alito.

The NSLS’ op-ed workshop placed far more emphasis on the basic “how to” of writing and submitting an opinion piece. The event was spearheaded by Erik Swabb ’09, an Iraq War veteran who has contributed op-eds on security to papers ranging from the Baltimore Sun to the Wall Street Journal. Swabb stressed that successful op-eds should be both short and engaging. The best, he observed, usually began with or included a personal anecdote or story that made the particular policy point being advocated appear more compelling. This would not only grab the reader’s attention, he continued, but grant the writer the authority of a unique perspective. Writing what one knew, he stressed above all, was critical.

So, too, was staying current. An op-ed directly related to a current or upcoming news event, Swabb observed, was more likely to be chosen. He suggested formatting op-eds such that they could be used at various times, editing them to tie-in events such as anniversaries or newly-released reports.

Swabb suggested that when submitting op-eds, students aim high, beginning with national papers and working down to more regional publications. Each piece should only be submitted to one paper at a time, he said, and they will usually respond within a week. It was also important, he continued, to know a publication’s readership, and to cater to it. He also suggested including a short synopsis of who one was when submitting the piece, possibly teaming up with a willing professor to gain more authority.

Swabb concluded that, by writing op-eds, “for good or bad, you start to be perceived as an expert in the field”. He said that he was invited to make TV appearances and do interviews after he had published enough of his own, and that it could lead to book deals or fellowship offers as well.

Beyond his concern for the issues about which he writes, Swabb says he got into op-ed writing for personal reasons. “I’m sick and tired of legal writing, and want to do something different,” he said, “something creative.”

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