In-house counsel should enhance the quality of their legal and advisory services by developing superior writing, speaking, listening, and observing skills
In-house counsel regularly share and receive different types of messages, to and from different audiences, for different purposes. Each type of message, audience, and purpose requires in-house counsel to employ carefully-tailored communications skills, tools, and tactics.
Effective communications practices can help in-house counsel establish positive client and colleague relationships, protect and advance their organizations’ business interests and strategic initiatives, preserve important legal protections and privileges, and contribute to their organizations’ efficient and cost-effective operations.
In contrast, ineffective in-house counsel communications practices can inhibit the development of strong and functional client and colleague relationships, damage corporate interests and squander valuable business opportunities, expose legal advice to unwanted disclosure, and cause misunderstandings, liabilities, and cost-inefficiencies.
Communication skills, tools & tactics
Indeed, much of in-house counsels’ success depends on their effective written, verbal, and non-verbal communication. Although each manner of communicating requires unique skills, tools, and tactics, high-quality in-house counsel communicators bring several traits and practices to all three methods, including:
- clarity and precision of expression and avoidance of legal jargon;
- structure and organization;
- appropriate levels of detail;
- responsiveness and flexibility;
- openness to conflicting information and opinions; and
- practical guidance and alternatives when appropriate.
The primary consumers of in-house counsels’ written communications are business colleagues who may lack legal training. Therefore, in-house counsel should include and correctly use terms that are familiar to business colleagues, such as established organizational acronyms, industry terms of art, and common commercial and financial terms. They should also tailor their communications to the audience’s sophistication, size, and location, and include short but informative summaries, such as in-house counsels’ advice and recommendations. They also should create communications that are as brief as possible, without losing completeness or accuracy.
Good in-house counsel communicators carefully follow the rules of good writing and editing, including carefully choosing words, drafting logically structured sentences and paragraphs, and using proper tense, grammar, and punctuation. They also avoid using informal communications features such as text message abbreviations and emojis.
They also maintain the attorney work product protection and preserve the attorney-client privilege by appropriately labeling their written materials as Attorney Work Product and Privileged and Confidential.
Verbal communications: Speaking
In-house counsel who are speaking in the context of providing legal services to their organizations should prepare in advance the appropriate facts, data, arguments, and documents that they will need. They also should provide an outline of the information they intend to present and identify any decisions they are soliciting, respect listeners’ other time commitments and work responsibilities, and use emotional intelligence.
They should also periodically summarize the information they present, and check-in during and after discussions and presentations to confirm listeners’ comprehension.
In appropriate circumstances, in-house counsel should supplement their verbal communications with written summaries. If those summaries contain legal advice, they should make sure to include appropriate legal protection and privilege notices.
Verbal communications: Listening
Highly effective in-house counsel speakers are also adept listeners who understand that the most fruitful verbal communications occur when the participants freely exchange information and ideas rather than simply lecture one another.
Effective listening skills for in-house counsel include creating an environment that maximizes opportunities for effective communications, listening for comprehension, and looking for speakers’ unstated concerns, issues, and motivations.
In-house counsel should also pay close attention to speakers’ words and actions rather than formulating their responses while their interlocutors are speaking. They also should permit conversations to develop naturally, without overly scripting or steering them, and ask relevant questions at the appropriate times.
Skilled in-house counsel communicators carefully manage and deploy the non-verbal aspects of their communication skills such as their eye contact and facial expressions, stance and posture, and body gestures.
Non-verbal communications can reinforce an in-house counsel’s verbal messages, especially when those messages are difficult, challenging, or controversial. For example, an in-house counsel wanting to convince a reluctant corporate client that a recommended course of action is prudent can support that recommendation by using body language that displays calm and confidence.
Conversely, in-house counsel may inadvertently undercut their own message by avoiding eye contact, using body language that displays uncertainty or inattentiveness, and making impatient or aggressive gestures.
By developing superior written, verbal, and non-verbal communications skills, in-house counsel can improve their performance, advance their departments’ operations, and make greater contributions to their organizations’ results.