5 Written Communication Skills for In-House Counsel

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You are not writing a law review article or an appellate brief. You are not being graded by a law professor. Instead, you are communicating to an audience that wants the bottom line explained in a clear and concise manner...

Good writing skills are important for one’s success in any management level job and are crucial for the success of a general counsel or for anyone reporting up the line to the general counsel.

This article offers five communication skills and methods necessary for the successful in-house counsel. These are suggestions for internal communications in general, rather than for technical legal writing, such as drafting complex contracts. Although some of the applicable skills and methods are the same, the latter should be the subject of a separate article.

1. Organize Your Writing

Stating that one should organize written communication may seem like pointing out the obvious, but unfortunately good writing organization is lost on many in-house attorneys, who in the process may lose their audience. Legal writing is no different than basic composition in this regard. One needs to introduce the subject of the writing, give necessary background, define the issues, provide a resolution to the issues and provide discussion for clarity. The conclusions must reiterate the most important points, and include resolutions to the issues. In using this process the writer will fulfill the basic purpose of the writing—get the audience to understand the issues involved and how they should be resolved. What good is your advice if it is not presented in an effective and understandable manner?

2. Keep Your Verbiage Simple and Cultural

The broad swath of the audience for in-house legal communications is not made up of a group of legal scholars who are interested in the finer points of the law. You are not writing a law review article or an appellate brief.  You are not being graded by a law professor. Instead,  you are communicating to an audience that wants the bottom line explained  in a clear and concise manner.  You will lose your audience if you write in an overly technical manner. In the process you will lose your opportunity to effectively communicate your view of what the true factual and legal issues are and how they should be resolved.

Put yourself in the shoes of a company executive who is well educated in the business world, but with only a general understanding of legal concepts.

Write the pure legal portion of your presentation using only very basic legal rules and concepts. You can always provide follow up written or oral communications if any readers want to know the finer points of the law.  By way of example, in a real estate transaction, your audience wants to know that in purchasing a piece of land the company will receive good legal title, not all the details and legal rationale of how you arrived at that conclusion, including a rendition of all the old English real estate law rules you learned in law school.

By the same token, an awareness and use of the company’s cultural jargon is sometimes helpful.  If there are short cuts to be used to make your writing shorter, such as terminology unique to the company itself, that is well understood within the company, then by all means incorporate these terms into your writing.  Your writing can therefore be shorter, while more effectively communicating an understanding of the subject matter.

3. Keep Your Writing Short and Interesting

Short and succinct communications are vital to maintaining your effectiveness in internal company legal communications. Make your writings as short as possible, without losing the most important points of your communications. In order to do that, not only will the organization skills discussed above be important, but your own mastering of the subject matter will be crucial. Your thorough understanding of the relevant facts, the legal issues to be resolved and how the issues should be resolved will give you the ability to shorten the presentation.  It is well known that the better one understands a subject, the simpler one can present the subject.  This gives you the ability to filter out of your communication all that is not that important, while still effectively presenting your message.

The longer your writing piece, the more chance you will lose your audience before all vital elements of the message can be presented. Also, try to keep your presentation interesting to the reader by utilizing the writing skills you have learned outside of the legal field. The more interesting the writing the more likely the reader will remain focused. Vary your vocabulary without repeating words, don’t use run on sentences or paragraphs, use subject titles within the writing and give practical examples, where appropriate.

4. Write Like a Confidant and Target Your Audience

Internal clients want their attorney to show confidence, politeness, modesty, loyalty, and confidentiality. These characteristics should be present in written communications...

In order to successfully carry out your in-house counsel role, your internal clients will want to see you exhibit certain characteristics in general and these characteristics should be shown in your writing.  Internal clients want their attorney to show confidence, politeness, modesty, loyalty, and confidentiality. These characteristics should be present in written communications. You are not writing to legal scholars, but you are writing to well-educated and experienced business professionals. You should take into account that although your audience wants you to be well organized and succinct, it does not want to be patronized. Although your writing should be as short as possible and get to the point without undue use of legal jargon, your readers want all the important issues addressed ,with a full explanation of how the issues are to be resolved, while avoiding unnecessary disclosure of or discussion of confidential or sensitive items.

The skilled in-house legal writer also knows to target his or her message depending on the type of internal audience being reached.  Your company’s CEO and senior officers are not going to want the detail that those reporting to them will want. In some cases, because of the level and working style of the executive, written communication is unwanted and inappropriate. The executive may be too busy to read written communication. In that case, the oral communication should follow most of the concepts discussed in this article, with the length of the communication or explanation gauged to meet the particular needs or desires of the executive involved.  Where written communication is appropriate, one should consider giving the bottom line communication in one piece (such as an email cover message or executive summary), while providing a more detailed explanation if desired (via attachment or discussion following the executive summary).

5. Offer Solutions, Don’t Present Problems

Although your internal clients want to be aware of the relevant issues and the potential exposure of a contemplated course of action, they want a recommended solution to the problem, not just a presentation that problems or issues exist.  Although in-house counsel would not be doing his or her duty without pointing out the probable legal issues and probable exposure involved in a planned or past course of action, the most important piece of the legal communication is the recommended solution.

Nobody wants the problems pointed out without the suggested solution.  This is true with regard to proposed transactions, questions on operational entities, dealing with problematic claims or personnel decisions, and a wide array of other matters.  Let your communications show that you are a problem solver.

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In order to be successful, an in-house attorney must be a good communicator.  In order to be a good communicator, one must develop and exhibit good writing skills.  Organize your writings. Keep the wording simple and in line with the company’s culture.  Target your audience with confident, humble, ethical and interesting writing. Present solutions, not just problems or issues.

[Walt Metz serves as Associate General Counsel in Merchandising, Marketing and Supply Chain at Walmart Legal. Previously, Walt has served several other companies as in-house counsel, including five years as the General Counsel for Americold Realty Trust/Americold Logistics. This article reflects his personal views and is not intended to necessarily reflect the views of any of his current or past employers. His LinkedIn profile can be accessed here. His other articles published by JD Supra can be accessed here.

JD Supra's In-House Perspective series provides in-house counsel a platform upon which to share their views and thought leadership on issues of the day, including industry news and legal developments, relationships with outside counsel, and law practice matters. To write for this series, contact news@jdsupra.com]