Make it plain: communicating law to non-lawyers

Bhavisha Mistry shares practical advice and tips from the In-house Division’s recent panel discussion on communicating law to non-lawyers.

On 21 March, the In-house Division held its first ‘Communicating law to non-lawyers’ panel discussion. The panel included in-house lawyers from the fashion retail, construction and pharmaceutical sectors, and a former practising lawyer converted to people training and development. It was a very interactive session.

Communicating the law to non-lawyers is a vital skill for in-house lawyers. It helps to build relationships, which in turn lets you tailor your advice to your client. It helps to make sure your advice is understood and acted upon in the best way.

As in-house lawyers, we are there to help our client meet their business goals. There is no point in giving advice which is going to prevent clients from achieving those goals needlessly.

As Jennifer Barnett, legal counsel, EME at Gutteridge Haskell & Davey put it, if the matter requires a clear ‘no’, then you must say ‘no’ to your client.

The panel agreed that most problems have a solution, or at least options to consider. We should be doing our best to work these out ourselves before contemplating telling the client ‘no’. Be thorough in your research and creative in your approach. It’s more than likely that you will be able to find the solution. You will be delivering a positive response, demonstrating your eagerness to help your client.

Keep things simple, and don’t be pedantic. Explain things in terms that everyone can understand, including those for whom English may be a second language. Think: do you really need to raise that point to achieve your goal? What impression or impact could it have on the other side?   

For example, a client of mine was desperate to get a contract signed. The other side, who was Italian, set the milestone payment date “on consummation of the contract”. I knew that they meant “on signature of the contract”, but I also knew I’d achieve nothing by swapping the words to something more commonplace, so I left it as it was. It helped to avoid any embarrassment, and got the contract signed off quickly.

Advice from the panel

Bhavisha event March 2019Sarah Dowd, partner at Weightmans, remarked that remembering some facts about your client really helps to build the relationship. Understanding their personality and your own can also help to identify where you may need to change your approach. For example, using the colour personality classifications, if you know you are a ‘red’ type of personality (that is, direct and straightforward), you may need to think about your tone in emails and take a ‘softer’ approach to ensure you don’t inadvertently upset the recipient. Re-read your email – could any of it be misinterpreted?

James Iveson, senior in-house counsel at N Brown Group, recommended getting out there and building your profile and that of the legal team. The more you are seen to be getting involved in the business, the more approachable you become. You are also better informed about issues facing the business from the outset. When you build relationships, you have more of an opportunity to demonstrate your skills and be seen to be a trusted adviser to the business.

Ultimately, the better the relationship you have with your client, the more that you will understand their personality and goals, and will be able to tailor your approach to communicate more effectively. A bonus is that your client will be willing to be a bit more lenient on timescales, and hopefully have a better understanding of the issues you are trying to convey. It’s a win-win situation: you benefit from the knowledge you gain from the relationship, which helps you to tailor your approach, and your client benefits from your advice, delivered in a manner that suits them best.

This event is just one of many that the IHD is holding for in-house lawyers across the country this year. They are a great opportunity to meet your peers and share experiences. For me, they offer comfort in discovering that you are not alone in facing many of the peculiar challenges that the in-house role can bring.

I’ll be chairing a seminar on communicating law to non-lawyers on 9 July in Leeds. The event is free, but places are limited, so book now .

Check out our engagement programme for details of further events in your area, or drop us a line if you have any ideas on events you’d like to see us organise.

Bhavisha Mistry is vice-chair of the In-house Division.

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