SUMMARY: How in-house lawyers communicate with their business colleagues is a vital and yet often overlooked skill. By structuring your writing, keeping it concise, leading with the answer and making the next step easy, you can boost your effectiveness.
Lawyers are trained to think precisely, logically, and in a manner which reduces risk. This thinking can lead to cautious writing that carves out assumptions and offers qualified opinions. While this style can be sensible in certain contexts, it’s not a great way to communicate with your business stakeholders. It often leads to dense prose where the central message is not easily discerned.
This article is aimed at in-house counsel who are looking to improve the effectiveness of their writing. It’s also worth noting this article doesn’t address formal legal drafting – but rather how in-house counsel can better communicate with their business stakeholders.
Use headings – like this one!
Structuring your writing around clear headings is a sure-fire way to help your reader. Typically, you’ll have one or two paragraphs under each heading. It also has the bonus effect of forcing you to ensure each section has one cogent thought and isn’t overcrowded with ideas. Readers can quickly ascertain your key arguments and even navigate straight to the one they wish to engage with as a priority. Also, don’t leave headings for your Word documents and PDFs, they work wonderfully in emails as well.
The Pyramid Principal
This is famous framework from Barbara Minto who oversaw training for McKinsey & Company back in the 1970s. The principle says that your thinking should form a pyramid structure that cascades down from a single, top-level thought. Below that top-level thought sits your arguments, and below that is your supporting data. Executives typically prefer this approach as you start with the ‘answer’ and if they then want more of an understanding, they can dive deeper.
Make the next step easy
If you’re looking for your business colleagues to take an action, you need to make it as easy for them as possible. This may take the form of a quick list or table of actions with who’s responsible to do what and by when. If the next steps are buried at the bottom of your email and not highlighted in any way, don’t be surprised if you’re forced to chase your colleagues!
Shorter is usually sweet.
Many readers may have heard Blaise Pascal’s quote (or some variation of it): “I have made this longer than usual because I have not had time to make it shorter.” This saying contains a truth many of us are familiar with– being concise is difficult. It’s even more difficult for lawyers who have been trained to include all sorts of exceptions and qualifications. But this is a worthy struggle as almost all business workers prefer snappy over sprawling writing.
There are a few ways to help yourself be more concise. If you’re using Microsoft Word, there is now an in-built Editor that will make suggestions to improve conciseness. There are other digital tools you can use as a writing aid, like Grammarly. But nothing is better than a good old human editor going over each sentence and asking themselves whether this can simplified or shortened. You need to engage with drafting and strive to be as economical as possible. For example, the previous sentence should be edited down to: “Your drafting should be as economical as possible”.
De-jargon and simplify
Stop using Latin phrases and niche acronyms with your business colleagues. Inter alia is a fun phrase, but it’s not suitable for the lay business person. Long words like ‘abovementioned’ are generally avoidable. Active verbs are better than passive verbs. Directness and simplicity are reliable touchstones for lucid writing. If you write down a word and aren’t sure if everyone would likely know it…remove or change it.
Writing to your business colleagues is not the same as writing court submissions or academic papers. Clear writing requires effort; there’s no secret shortcut. However, if you follow the rules and tips above, you may find your writing improve. And better writing should lead to better business outcomes.
- The Pyramid Principle, by Barbara Minto
- Writing skills for in-house counsel by Sterling Miller
- Honing Your Communication Skills Outside of the Legal Environment (Law Society Gazette Singapore)
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