So you decided to leave your law firm and move in house. Congratulations! No longer are you chained to the clock in six-minute increments. Even better, you can focus on becoming a trusted advisor for a single company. But to do that, you’ll first have to communicate with your company’s businesspeople in a way they can understand. And that means you have to learn to write in a completely different way than you did at the firm.
For many lawyers, that transition takes months, if not years. But it doesn’t have to. These three rules will give you a head start.
Rule 1: Keep it useful. The biggest difference between in-house writing and other legal writing is your audience. Most lawyers write for other lawyers—judges, professors, partners, and the like. But in house, you’re usually writing for executives, managers, and professionals. These people have different needs. They have real-world business goals and concrete questions. They’re not interested in doctrinal nuances, or even how you came up with your answer. They just want the answer.
Now, that doesn’t mean you should write only terse, yes-or-no advice. Nor does it mean you should ignore all qualifications. You’re not doing your job if you omit necessary context. But it does mean that you should put your bottom line up front. Take a lesson from journalists and lead with the lede. If you bury the answer too far, the client will get lost or give up.
That point is more important than ever in the digital age. Like it or not, many of your clients will read your advice on their phones. They may give your message only a glance before moving on to the next message. You, therefore, have to get your point across in the space of an e-mail preview window. Though that won’t always be possible, aiming for it will help tame your verbosity (see Rule 2).
And keep your eye on formatting. Businesspeople are more likely to read something when it looks inviting. They like white space, short paragraphs, and clean lines. In other words, they like the opposite of what they usually see from their lawyers. Legal writing too often looks like a slog: blocks of text stretch for pages and pages, littered with incomprehensible quotations and citations.
You should strip all that junk out. Break up paragraphs into manageable chunks. Paraphrase instead of quoting. And delete every legal citation. Nothing turns nonlawyers off more quickly than strings of unfamiliar abbreviations and numbers. Yes, you spent a fortune learning the Bluebook. No, no one cares.
Rule 2: Keep it brief. American businesspeople are under siege. They were busy even before technology made it possible to bombard them around the clock. Now, with modern technology, they’re constantly juggling competing demands. You’re lucky if you can get a sliver of their attention.
That means less will always be more. But it’s one thing to say you should aim for brevity; it’s another to achieve it. How can you separate the essential from the dispensable? Try these three tricks:
- First, strip out empty words. You know them when you see them: significant, very, essentially, meaningful. They seldom add anything to your message, and they often drain valuable words of their strength. A significant development is usually nothing but a development, and a very bad ruling is often no worse than a bad Use words only when they move your message forward.
- Second, learn your subject matter cold. People usually slide toward prolixity when they write about unfamiliar topics. They waste half their words working their thoughts out on the page. That’s a fine way to learn, but it’s no way to communicate. Instead, study your subject and develop your ideas first. Take lots of notes. Start writing in earnest only when you know your subject backward and forward.
- Third, don’t fear bullet points. Some lawyers find them informal or gimmicky. But they’re great for separating ideas, highlighting distinctions, or creating checklists. Even better, businesspeople are comfortable with them. They see bullets every day in reports, e-mails, and memos, so they’ll feel immediately at home seeing them in your advice. Remember: communication is about the audience’s comfort level, not yours.
Rule 3: Keep it engaging. Every time you write, you compete for your reader’s attention. There’s always something else to focus on: a report lying on the desk, the ping of fresh e-mails, a spouse’s latest text message. So if you want to maintain the reader’s focus, you have to earn it. You do that by making the message engaging and personal.
Start by writing in the second person, using you, your, and yours. The second person has two obvious benefits. First, it brings the reader into your message, which helps her follow your logic. Second, it helps you focus on the reader’s needs. If you’re constantly referring to the reader, you’re probably keeping her in mind while you’re writing.
You should also illustrate your point with concrete examples. When possible, use examples the reader might encounter in real life. Writing to a district manager about wage-and-hour issues? Explain your point by showing what it means for employees clocking in and out of the manager’s distribution center. That kind of example takes work: you’ll have to figure out what context will be familiar and how your advice fits in. But ultimately, that’s what good writing is about: investing time so your reader doesn’t have to.
More to the point, when you invest that kind of time, you earn the reader’s trust. And that’s just what in-house writing should do: build the reader’s trust by giving her what she needs. Writing for an in-house audience should be ruthlessly practical. Every time you write, you should ask whether your message is useful, whether it’s brief, and whether it’s engaging. Hit all three, and you’re well on your way to transforming the way you communicate.
About the Author
Alex MacDonald is editor in chief of the Practice Tips Series. He is a graduate of the William & Mary School of Law and works as an employment attorney for Instacart. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.