Communication, persuasion and problem-solving for in-house lawyers
In-house lawyers soon learn the importance of communication, persuasion and problem-solving in carrying out their role, whether they’re a junior lawyer or a General Counsel.
They are key aspects of how effective individual lawyers, and the wider team, are in providing the legal service to their organisation. Here we look at 10 key elements of each.
- You may be a technical expert but if you cannot engage your audience in a way that gets your advice across, then that technical expertise is largely wasted.
- We adopt different communication styles depending on the audience. How you communicate in a board meeting is likely to be different from how you communicate in a team meeting.
- Some people communicate better in writing and others verbally. In-house lawyers need to master both as they are called upon to advise in both formats.
- Few are naturally gifted communicators. Rather, it’s a skill that you can learn and improve via practice and training.
- A challenge for many lawyers, when putting their advice in writing, is deciding what to leave out. This may be out of fear of omitting relevant information or perhaps simply a desire to demonstrate our expertise. Either way, it’s unlikely to win you plaudits. Clients want advice that they can understand and act on.
- Writing ‘short’ is a learned skill. It requires a focus on the key message(s) and to prioritise these ahead of less critical information, which we may omit or relegate to an appendix, for example.
- It also means using language that your audience understands. This will vary. Written advice or a report for colleagues with high technical knowledge will likely incorporate terms and acronyms with which they are familiar. But they may be less familiar with the legal risks which will need to be set out in a way that makes practical sense and where the implications of different courses of action are clear.
- For reports and formatted written advice, it helps to focus first on the wider picture by setting your advice in the business or organisational context. Always use executive summaries and headings and clearly set out legal risks, options and recommended actions, where relevant. Keep it as short as possible. If you’re worried about leaving out important detail, use a technical addendum.
- To familiarise clients with legal risk, it may help to incorporate a legal risk impact summary or chart in written advice. This would typically identify the impact on different business areas of particular legal risks and courses of actions, including by percentage score if helpful to the client (suitably caveated, of course).
- Those new to in-house are often surprised how often they are asked for their advice (or perhaps ‘just a view’) verbally, sometimes in informal settings. You may find that you are put ‘on the spot’ in a meeting or asked to summarise the legal position. This is often not easy. How do you approach it?
- Prepare. It really helps to know the relevant law in detail and particularly how it impacts the organisation in context. The more you can prepare in advance of a meeting, the better.
- Practice. Learn and practice the key legal position and impact. Use prompt cards, if helpful. Update, as necessary.
- Listen and Question. You cannot advise unless you know the details, so use meetings to get the information you require. Better to ask the ‘silly’ question than to be unsure.
- Focus on the key issues and avoid unnecessary detail. Brevity will often be appreciated.
- Be certain. Clients appreciate certainty. Express your views with confidence.
- But if you don’t know, say so. Try not to prevaricate. If you need more time on a key point, say why. The better prepared you are, the more credibility you’ll have.
- It’s an aspect of communication that is key to the lawyer’s role. You will often be in a situation where you are seeking to persuade others to a particular view or course of action. The need to persuade others may arise in a number of situations. For example, when giving legal advice; when negotiating for resources; when hiring new people; or when implementing change.
- Your power to persuade and influence begins outside the meeting room or before you write your advice. In-house lawyers are close to their clients so they’re able to build credibility, trust and rapport, key components of being persuasive.
- You can build rapport through having a good network and strong relationships. We are more likely to trust those we know and like. If you want to persuade a business committee, for example, it really helps if you’ve taken time to get to know the individuals and understand their business and concerns.
- It also helps if you’re seen as approachable and willing to help. It’s much more difficult to be persuasive if you’re thought of as reclusive and dismissive.
- Your audience needs to be interested in what you’re communicating. You may be liked, trusted and credible but you need to use language they understand and be clear about why the issue in hand matters. If you’re advising on a major legal risk, for example, you need people to get the problem early and understand clearly the implications of acting or not acting in a particular way.
- Timing is often important. If it’s an urgent legal issue, it cannot wait. But if you’re negotiating for resources, say, there may be a best time or situation to make your pitch. This will allow you to build your case by getting to know the decision makers and the rules and limitations on what can be agreed.
- Your arguments need to be logical, of course, to build a persuasive case. It also helps to build consensus by signalling those things that are common ground whilst highlighting matters for decision and their relative urgency and business impact.
- It’s useful to get to meetings early when you can as this allows you to speak to others and perhaps pick up useful information before the formalities begin. It also allows you to flag points that may be trickier and perhaps get some consensus for a way forward. It’s also helpful to check with your legal colleagues whether there are any legal points or concerns that may be raised at the meeting, of which you’re unaware.
- The more senior the business meeting the more unlikely it often is for new or difficult legal issues to be aired for the first time. Usually, they will have been raised, and often resolved, in advance. But if you need to be persuasive in a challenging situation, a difficult meeting, for example, it helps to be positive, confident and stay calm. Indeed, many will look to the lawyer in the room to be the voice of calm reason, if others are not. You’ll also need to be assertive – sure of your position and confident in making your case.
- Be persistent and resilient. Don’t be put off. This is particularly true in the context of legal advice, say where your advice is challenged. If you cannot persuade someone, you may need to find other ways to persuade the decision makers. This might mean building a consensus among your network or, in difficult cases, escalating the issue up the management chain, or even to the board.
- Problem-solving is a core legal skill. Lawyers love a problem. An in-house legal function is almost guaranteed to attract problems from around the organisation, some having little connection with the law.
- The attraction of working in-house is that you are close to the workings of the organisation and to your business colleagues. This can be challenging in terms of managing workflow to ensure that you are not swamped and are dealing with what matters most while, at the same time, ensuring that routine or repeat issues are dealt with.
- It also means looking for ways to uncover and answer the ‘real question’ which isn’t always the one you’re presented with due to incomplete information or a lack of context.
- Having uncovered the real issue, the challenge is in how to solve it in a way that is helpful to the client, given that they won’t be looking for a beautifully crafted analysis of the problem. What they want to know is how they can take action. This requires your legal analysis skills, as well as the ability to put the relevant law into the business context and to communicate in a way that clearly highlights risks and best options so that the client can decide how to proceed in the light of the legal position.
- Problem-solving is often more nuanced in the in-house context in that you are looking for ways to be constructive, whilst spotting and highlighting real legal or business risks.
- Problems will often be referred to you in circumstances where the instructions are ‘light’ and where you’ll need to get more information before you can advise. This is where having good business knowledge and contacts across the organisation can really help as you will often need to call on these to get to the heart of an issue.
- If you’re asked a question that you think isn’t really the right one in that it doesn’t factor in wider business issues, how far do you go in answering the wider point? It may help to remember who your client is. It’s not the manager or executive you’re dealing with but rather the organisation itself. This pushes you to ask about the wider business goals, particularly if there’s a mismatch between what you’re being told and your understanding of the bigger picture.
- The more you’re seen as a trusted business partner, the more likely you are to be involved in wider business issues, some of which may only touch on pure legal points. You should see this as a compliment as people value your input and judgement. At the same time, you’ll be conscious that your role requires you to also take a step back to ensure that those legal points and legal risks are not being downplayed in the enthusiasm to reach a business goal and are addressed properly.
- It may not always be appropriate for you to solve a problem. This may be because it’s been wrongly escalated or because it’s not really a legal problem at all. While it can be rewarding to be involved in wider business discussions, you will almost certainly need to apply filters to avoid being swamped with matters that undermine your effectiveness.
- The in-house lawyer often has the advantage of seeing problems across the organisation. This highlights an important part of their role i.e., joining the dots by putting colleagues together to solve problems and collaborating to not only deal with the problem at hand but also to head off similar problems arising in the future.
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