Getting to the point
A mark of an effective lawyer is the advice given, not the number of words it takes to do so, writes Andrew Crossley
We lawyers are a verbose bunch. We talk, we write and we try to express ourselves in the best possible way all the time. But best for who? I know too many lawyers who love the sound of their own voices. They will talk rather than say nothing when nothing need be said; they will write rambling letters that lose the thread and ultimately make no valid point. A big failing of many solicitors is that they jump to the answer before they have been told the problem. Many of us simply do not listen or fully understand the client’s problem at the outset, to the obvious detriment of the client.I learned a valuable lesson early on in my career when, as a young and green lawyer, I was asked to advise the chairman of a substantial organisation that I still act for. He needed some advice about releasing a senior executive. I spent a long time preparing for the meeting and had all the information I wanted to impart carefully logged. I had not been long into my spiel, when he flung up his arms in dismay and screeched: “Too much detail!” I stopped in my tracks and jumped to my conclusion: “Yes, you can dismiss him.”Since that time, my letters to him have been brief and to the point (as all letters should be, if possible). I refer to any potential problems and offer the opportunity to contact me to request further clarification but he, like most of my clients (and doubtless yours), is a busy man who needs a short response and preferably a definitive opinion. Not always possible, but remember, we provide our legal opinion on a particular issue, not the heaven-sent edict on the matter. If we are wrong this does not automatically make us negligent; listen carefully to the instructions, do the research, check any precedents, consider all possible scenarios and bingo – you have an opinion to give. Communicating with the client is the be all and end all of what we do. You might be the best technical lawyer in the world, but you are a worthless commodity if you cannot communicate effectively and confidently with the client. Chances are they will move on, and get someone who does listen and communicate properly.Try not to bog down a client with unnecessary detail. Unless there are specific reasons for doing so, why bother quoting titles of ancient cases or sub-sections of acts that will mean nothing to the client? Perhaps it is pomposity, or trying to show off to the client that you know it all? Perhaps you believe that you are simply being thorough? Either way, if you left the unnecessary detail out, your advice would still be the same. The client would have his advice and would have got there quicker as well. Another common affliction we all suffer from is getting the level of communication right. A short letter of advice without superfluous detail does not have to sound like a Noddy speech (although that would be an improvement on some letters by certain solicitors I have seen). We should not throw in legally technical phrases if they will mean nothing to the client or unless we have explained what they mean. Think about what you write and who you are writing it to. Check again with your original instructions. Are you covering all points, are you adding extra things for your own gratification or are there valid additional issues that you have raised that the client may not have previously thought about?Keep the letter clear, polite and straightforward. Avoid humour at all costs (most lawyers are hopeless comics). When dealing with lawyers for the other side, it is easy to become entrenched with the emotion of the respective clients’ dispute. Remain calm, objective and polite. Disagree with the other side’s lawyer if you need to, but always remember they are doing the same thing you are, so treat them with the same level of respect you would expect to receive in return, even if you do not get treated in the same way.You will spend your entire legal career dealing with other lawyers. If you specialise in a particular field, you will encounter the same lawyers over and over again. The cases you have to deal with will fall into place a great deal easier if you can get along on a personal level and show mutual respect.
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