Month: February 2016

Ten Things: Writing Skills for In-House Counsel (It’s Different In-House)

As general counsel I saw a lot of writing.  Emails, memos, policies, correspondence, etc.  Most of what I saw produced by my team was well written.  Some of it was not.  Wait, hold on. I take that back.  It was well written for a lawyer but it was not well written for what the business needed.  Here’s an example: one day I received a very long email from a lawyer on my team discussing some litigation risks in a dispute brewing on the horizon.  It was an email we planned to share with our executive team once it was finished.  It began with a very detailed discussion of the facts and the law, including case citations and citations to secondary legal treatises.  There were plenty of Latin phrases (I had to look some of them up in a Black’s Law Dictionary), lots of “Wheretofore’s” and other legal jargon.  There were even a few typos. And, at the very end, was a long summary of everything I had just read along with a squishy conclusion saying essentially, on one hand this but on the other hand that, with no clear recommendation on what to do next, no conclusion about the most likely outcome given the different risks at play, and no mention of next steps.  There was so much information to wade through, it was like trying to find the score of the game in a Grantland Rice column.  I knew that if we sent this out to the senior management, heads would explode long before they got to the end of the email.

I thought I knew what the problem was immediately.  The lawyer who had written it had recently moved in-house from a big law firm.  Sure enough, when I walked down to have a chat with them, I saw a treatise on legal writing on their desk, right next to a copy of “The Bluebook.”  Ah yes, problem confirmed.  I asked him/her to pop down to my conference room to talk about the email.  We sat down and I said, “The first thing you need to do is forget everything they taught you about writing in law school and at the firm.”  Secondly, “And here are some things you need to know to write successfully as an in-house lawyer.”  This edition of Ten Things shares those points with you:

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Ten Things: A 2016 “To Do” List for In-House Counsel

[Note – this edition of “Ten Things” is a reprint of my first article for Thomson Reuter’s “Corporate Counsel Connect” e-magazine.  Starting in January 2016, I agreed to write a monthly column called “The Insider” directed at in-house counsel.  Reprinted with permission of Thomson Reuters]

I was in-house counsel for over 20 years.  One of the hardest tasks I recall was the yearly process of “setting of goals” for the Legal Department, both as a member of the department and as general counsel for two companies.   To me, it feels like there is something inherently difficult about setting Legal Department goals when probably 75% of what the team will work on in the upcoming year is still unknown and won’t really be knowable until it appears on their plate.

Despite these limitations, it is possible to create a useful and measureable set of goals for Legal.  This edition of “Ten Things” sets out a “To Do” list that you can adopt in full or in part as part of your 2016 goal planning (for yourself, for your team, or for the department).  These are all tasks that need to be done, pretty much regardless of the size of your company or the number of attorneys in your Legal Department.  Moreover, they are designed with the CEO and other C-Suite executives in mind so that they can see how the Legal Department is proactively scoping risk to the company and its various lines of business and (more importantly) taking steps to deal with those risks. 

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