Mind your (written) language

Posted by Jim Hitch, chief executive of Legal Futures Associate Casedo

Hitch: Law is arguably the last redoubt of formal English

There is, rightfully, an awful lot of talk about communication being key in business. I’ve spent many years sitting opposite legal professionals. These days it’s to demonstrate the wonders of our software product, whereas in the past it was perhaps on the face of it more mundane, but in fact quite the opposite: as an English language trainer.

I spent many years with lawyers seconded from overseas branches into the big law firms headquartered in the City, including at least two of the magic circle. My business wasn’t focused on law, and I came to realise that whilst many issues were the same across the board, there were some that were most acute amongst legal professionals.

Why? Because law is arguably the last redoubt of formal English.

As America does, so the rest of the English-speaking world does, albeit delayed. Think of the open-plan office, for example. One of the stories of the post-war era has been that of informality (see dress-down Fridays). With the arrival of email, we began to use first names and write much more as we speak, though writing will always be, particularly in English, a very poor copy of spoken language).

The law being the law, there is no room for what some consider to be a slide to the dark side, certainly not in legal texts, but now lawyers have to learn to navigate between an English for legal matters and an English for communication.

Sure, there has always been some distinction between the two, but these days they are acute and can make a real difference to the ability to communicate effectively, which includes efficiently. And, of course, there is now a plethora of communication mediums, some of which are now well established. Though perhaps law-by-Twitter is not quite yet a thing, it could one day be just that.

It’s been several years since I taught, and things will have moved on, but some organisations were smart enough to have met this challenge head on. Though not law, KPMG had an in-house guide on how to write effectively, a copy of which a student of mine slipped me one day, a hugely valuable resource that I used for several years.

It was not aimed at anyone in particular, and certainly not ‘the less educated’; my experience showed me that, in this matter, the opposite was often true.

Remember, I was teaching non-native English speakers, so they always deferred to their boss on language matters, with some poor results. My clients, of course, had learnt English through its written form (as we generally do other languages), which nevers helps.

I recall working at one of the established digital media firms with a very senior French person whose boss complained of her lack of written ability.

When she showed me examples of her emails, I thought they were good and the penny only dropped when she showed me copies of the boss’ emails: beautifully constructed paragraphs, sentences lines long making several points at a time, and barely an abbreviating apostrophe in sight.

Not only was this approach taking the boss at least twice as long to write what they needed to communicate, it left the recipients spending much longer trying to interpret what was needed. This wasn’t because the writing was unclear, but simply because it was, for want of a better word, literary.

Recipients needed to read every email several times to understand it properly. Their broad nature meant they could not be dealt with, and so ‘ticked off’, easily, but had to be worked through over time, almost deciphered.

Whilst this might be seen as all very well when dealing with in-office minions (it’s not), this can be catastrophic when dealing with clients, particularly prospective clients.

Many legal professionals are justifiably proud of their language skills, but this shouldn’t get in the way of communication, the key to which is making oneself understood efficiently and clearly.

A quick check on Twitter and you can see that many have embraced a more pithy era, but there are still those out their whose rightful pride as wordsmiths fails them.


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