Get to the point already

Often when I advocate that our lawyers and marketing and business development staff write more like journalists, I evoke a blog post written by Mark Herrmann, Deputy General Counsel at Aon, a London-based global insurance company.

In his post, Herrmann explains why he deletes the majority of the legal alerts he receives from big law firms

A typical alert is purely descriptive. It tells me that a case came down; the case said X; and therefore a case came down. Only at the very end does the author provide a paragraph or two of analysis.

What does Herrmann want instead? He gives an example:

One lawyer sent me an email that said: The S.D.N.Y. just handed down an opinion that says in-house lawyers with bar licenses on ‘inactive’ status are not attorneys within the meaning of the attorney-client privilege. And the court held that the corporation itself could not claim the privilege because it had made no effort to learn the lawyer’s bar status.

Consider doing this to protect yourself from that result:

1. Send an email to all of your in-house lawyers asking them to confirm that their licenses are on ‘active’ status.

2. Show an administrative assistant how to find the state bar websites showing the bar status of each lawyer and have the assistant confirm that each lawyer is active.

3. Put a reminder on the assistant’s calendar to check the bar status of each lawyer annually.

The author then provided a link to the court decision. What did Herrmann think of this approach?

Perfect! The lawyer told me what mattered, suggested an easy way to avoid the problem and invited me to read more only if I cared to.

In other words, Herrmann would read more alerts if they were short, focused and instructive — alerts that get to the point.

Why should we listen to Herrmann? Because as in-house counsel at a major corporation, he’s our audience. What we know about our audience is that they are busy, on-the-go executives who get a lot of email and do much of their reading on mobile devices.

That makes it even more important that we sum up whatever legal development we are writing about quickly and succinctly, like a journalist would in the first paragraph of a news story. Yet many of our alerts, blog posts, and newsletter articles start like this:

In July 2008, more than 10 years after Hong Kong’s Equal Opportunities Commission introduced its first consultation paper on race discrimination, the Race Discrimination Ordinance was gazetted. Since the gazettal of the RDO, there has been extensive public consultation undertaken in respect to the Code of Practice on Employment under the Race Discrimination Ordinance, which has resulted in heated debate and a number of significant amendments to the original draft. The substantive provisions of the RDO, as well as the Code, finally came into force on 10 July 2009.

Oy.

What is the most important information in the paragraph? The date the Race Discrimination Ordinance was gazetted? That it was gazetted (whatever that means) 10 years after the EOC introduced its first consultation paper? That the original draft sparked public debate and resulted in amendments to the ordinance?

No. What really matters is that Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance is now in effect (which isn’t mentioned until the last sentence) and how it will impact clients (which isn’t mentioned at all). That’s the news. The first two sentences are what journalists call “throat clearing,” unnecessary background or empty rhetoric that doesn’t say anything distinctive. We often use throat clearing when we’re not sure what we want to say or how to start an article.

To avoid throat clearing, use the inverted pyramid, a writing structure drilled into journalists from the beginning of their careers. Using the inverted pyramid, you start with the most important information — the who, what, where, when and why — and progress to the lesser details.

It’s the opposite of how many of us were taught to write in school by beginning with the background information, stating the various issues, and ending with a conclusion. The inverted pyramid flips this on its head by starting with the conclusion. The idea is that readers can get the main point or major news by reading the first few sentences of an article and only have to read on if they are interested in knowing more.

In the newsroom, reporters who don’t write their stories this way are accused of “burying the lead.” To avoid this infraction, ask yourself these questions before writing:

  1. Who is my audience?
  2. What do they most need to know about this legal development?
  3. How will it impact their business?
  4. What should they do about it?

To demonstrate how to write a legal alert more like a news story, I rewrote the alert about Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance. Here’s my opening paragraph:

Effective this month, Hong Kong’s race discrimination law imposes new obligations on employers to prevent race discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The new law, called the Race Discrimination Ordinance, holds companies liable for acts of racial discrimination by their employees unless they can demonstrate they have taken practical steps to prevent these acts.

After starting with the most important information, I go on to briefly explain the major requirements of the new ordinance, the consequences for companies if they don’t comply, and what they should do to avoid penalties. (To read my full revision of this alert, go here.)

If you are thinking, Well, I don’t have to worry about this because I don’t write legal alerts or I don’t work at a law firm, think again. Getting to the point is important for anyone writing anything, including email. The more throat clearing you do, the more background you provide before making your point or request, the less likely your reader will be to stay with you.

So try it. Start at the end. Make the inverted pyramid your friend. Ask yourself, What would Mark Herrmann want to know? Remember the cardinal rule of good writing: don’t bore your audience with extraneous details. Their attention spans will thank you.

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