Honing Your Communication Skills Outside of the Legal Environment
General Communication and Plain English
Outside of a law firm and the law courts, we need to communicate with clients, lay persons and business associates. How do you communicate clearly without resorting to legal jargon to make yourself understood? Good communication is the bridge between confusion and clarity. Do you know that 13 October is International Plain English Day? Yes, it does exist. The type of legal writing that litigation lawyers are accustomed to does not necessarily work in day to day communication or in a corporate setting.
I once thought that such a style of “legal writing” would make me look sophisticated. In fact, it did the exact opposite for me in my role as an in-house legal counsel. The business teams are not going to be impressed at long sentences filled with legal jargon and Latin phrases. Your message will undoubtedly get lost in your verbiage. I have since stopped using, “inter alia” and double negatives.
“Speak properly, and in as few words as you can, but always plainly; for the end of speech is not ostentation, but to be understood. – William Penn.
When we speak to a layman or to business counterparts, we ought to simplify our message to them. Even if it is a point of law, I urge you to keep it as simple as possible, in plain English.
There was a time when a draft contract I reviewed, provided for termination only under certain circumstances and did not provide for termination for convenience. I had to explain to the business team what that means for us – it simply means that the parties will not be able to terminate the contract without a specific reason. However, the person I was speaking to was a technical guy and this was how I explained it, “It means you cannot any how terminate one” in local slang. Yes, I broke the unspoken rule of speaking in formal English – and that is what we do when the situation calls for it – we break such rules.
Know Your Audience
Law school generally prepares its students for litigation. In litigation, submissions are written in lengthy sentences to prove a point that could be done in half a sentence. Sometimes, a point is repeated just to get it across to the Court. That may not quite work in an in-house or other settings outside of litigation.
Although we used to speak “normally” before we entered law school, law school has a tendency to change that. Some of us adopt “that” speaking style even in normal conversations with friends and family, in social functions and sometimes, even with our crush.
Crush: I love you!
Mathew, a fresh law graduate: Do you have evidence to support your statement?
During my litigation support days, I read a case where the Judge made a comment about the accused person, “You are no babe in the woods”. For a few years thereafter, I picked up some idioms and started using them because I thought it made me look “sophisticated”. So, one time I used the phrase, “lock, stock and barrel” with a business colleague to explain that we cannot accept all the terms in the contract as it is. He turned and looked at me with confusion. I did not look sophisticated at all and in fact, quite the contrary.
I spent some years unlearning the “lawyer way of writing and speaking” and that has helped me lose less friends, and win the trust of my business colleagues, some of whom I have forged a strong friendship with.
Apart from writing and speaking in plain English, allow your communication to go beyond legal insights and opinions. For example, it could be about certain technicalities of the operation of the chemical plant. Even if you may not fully comprehend the operations in the beginning, not restricting yourself only to all matters legal and being willing to learn the technicalities of the business (e.g. how a machine works) will greatly improve your relationship with the business team and earn their trust.
I have seen articles on the internet that say, “How to write e-mails like a lawyer”. No, I do not always want to write like a lawyer. It is about finding a balance and that comes with experience.
I once came across an IT lawyer who wrote really long e-mails, repeating the same points only with different words. If you think you cannot help it, it would be best to pick up the phone to speak and provide a summary later on in e-mail to re-cap the conversation.
Keep your e-mail short where possible and do not repeat points – you lose the attention of the person very early on in your e-mail if your sentences are too long. Working with colleagues from a country where English is not the native language has taught me to keep my sentences short and straight to the point. Be concise. Be precise.
Do not forget your “Please” and “Thank you”. Personally, when I am replying to an e-mail, I start the e-mail thanking the sender where it makes sense to do so – instead of saying thank you at the end of the email – which sometimes look “robotic” don’t you think?
Thanks for the e-mail / Thank you for the details you have provided / Thank you for the efforts to go through the contract on your end first.”
It helps to not only say “Thank you” but to add specifically what we are thanking the other person for – “Thank you for the time taken to read the document”, “Thank you for the detailed explanation” – this would show that the sender’s efforts are actually being acknowledged and appreciated. It also shows your genuine interest in any given matter.
I vividly recall an e-mail that I sent in my first in-house role that was along these lines, “Dear [.], Please be informed that you are required to attend at a meeting on …” I was fresh out of law firm and it definitely took time to wean myself from such vocabulary.
Okay, let’s move on now, forget that I ever wrote like that. So several years later, I would write something like this:
“Dear [.], I was wondering whether you are available for a meeting this Friday at, say, 1.30pm? Otherwise, please let us have your preferred date and timing to discuss the contract you sent through.”
“Dear [.], please advise whether we could schedule a meeting this Friday at 1.30pm to go over the contract you had sent through as there are couple of issues that requires commercial input. Please advise a suitable date/time for you if Friday 1.30pm does not work. Thanks much!”
Break Some Rules
While we risk being caught by the grammar police for using “please” and “kindly” in a sentence, I use it anyway, deliberately and consciously because the difficulty that comes with e-mails is that we run a risk of it being read in an unfriendly tone or we may come off as sounding rude. Thus, if we need to break some grammar rules to soften the tone – I would go with it.
It helps to be business friendly in your e-mail – speak like you would to a business partner, not an opposing counsel in court.
In a Business Environment
Your conduct in a business/corporate environment such as meeting your internal corporate clients matters. Even if you are not an extrovert, make an effort to make small talk – it helps create a favourable impression and paves the way for the ensuing discussion to be smoother.
I am no image consultant but I have seen in-house legal counsel speaking to their business counterparts as if they are cross-examining a witness on the stand, with narrowed eyes, arms crossed at the chest and a frown on the forehead. Confidence and carrying yourself well is one thing, looking like you are about to make your witness break down in the stand is another.
Instead, make a conscious effort to be aware of your body language and posture. Dropping your shoulders a little, relaxing your arms, tilting your head slightly and intermittent nodding while you speak or listen would project sincerity and makes the other person more at ease and more open to sharing information with you.
Understanding the Workplace and Corporate Culture
I have seen lawyers half-joke that they would be happy to work at Facebook or Google because they could walk in with their jeans and plain black t-shirt and not be judged for it!
I have worked across various types of organisations and have been exposed to people of different nationalities and culture – the lovely perks of working for a multi-national company. I have worked with the Americans, Australians, Burmese, the Europeans, Germans, Indians, Japanese, Koreans, Malaysians, Filipinos, Singaporeans, Thai, and Vietnamese. The exposure has taught me to embrace diversity and tackle any communication challenges.
Each organisation I worked with carried with it its own unique culture, motto, vision, and values. In my first weeks in any organisation, I would take ample time to learn about the organisation, study the organisation chart, think through their motto and corporate goals, familiarize myself with their regional offices and find out who I should talk to. In addition to all of these, I also took time to understand the products or services offered by the organisation and delved into the technicalities and commercial aspects, which is an on-going learning process. Above all, I made the time to understand the culture of the organisation’s headquarters and with that, I was better equipped to manoeuvre my communication with my colleagues. It is important to adapt yourself to the customs of the people who come from a particular country and who identify themselves with a certain culture.
So, have you been able to switch up your vocabulary and way of speaking depending on who you are speaking to? I think this is an important life skill we could all keep working on regardless of whether we are in practice or in-house!