8 Tips on Effective Communication with Non-Lawyers

  • February 11, 2022
  • KJ Chong

8 Tips on Effective Communication with Non-Lawyers

Communicating effectively is half the challenge when working in-house. The shorter, the better in most cases, but there are other issues you might want to consider. While normal course in private practice may be to send a thorough PDF memo on the law, this might not be the best way to get your message across in an organization.

Here are 8 tips to consider.

1. Think about how your co-workers will engage in what you send them.

Recently I drafted some instructions on forms that were required for a compliance program. My first draft was essentially an explanation of what each form was. A colleague of mine explained how this would not be easily understood by the users. Instead, we re-drafted the explanation so that it became a step-by-step guide on the situations the users would find themselves in, followed by which form to send and where to send it.

This is just an example of thinking about the end user. Your co-workers will read emails before the attachments. You can use your attachments as the back-up for your main message in the body of your emails. Where possible, provide a summary in a few lines of why it is important to read that attachment.

2. Make a visual of what you want to communicate.

I made a PowerPoint for a compliance training seminar and I sought feedback from our office administrator. I was surprised when she told me to use more pictures. It reminded me of when my father, a non-lawyer, once asked me why my law school materials had no pictures.

While you might think that your word choice is dazzling (I sure did), your co-workers will probably not. While images and graphs may not make a difference in the actual content, it will make a difference in how long you hold your audience’s attention.

For instance, some of your non-legal co-workers may be used to seeing information in Excel, so you could use that to organize items in a negotiation list, dividing them under certain themes, with each being colour coded. Some might use Gantt charts, so you could lay project management that way to show how long a project will take and what components will hold up progress. You might think about presenting cost comparisons in a table to aid decision making.

If a picture really is worth a thousand words, it certainly would be worth the time to make it. Besides, no one really wants to read a thousand words.

3. Tailor your messaging method to the receiver.

Once you have worked with your co-workers long enough, you will see that which people will never read your emails while which ones will look at every line. Use this knowledge to decide whether an email will suffice or whether you need to pick up the phone.

4. Provide a preliminary phone call on your advice.

By calling to advise on your preliminary thoughts, you may be more helpful for those who do not have the time (or willpower) to read your long emails. This call may also help adjust your advice so it is more on point and you may learn of new facts that could affect your advice. You can create more rapport on a voice call than through numerous emails.

5. Create a list of action items for next steps.

I like lists. Where possible, a summary call to action at the end of your email will be helpful and often gets an immediate response.

6. Use your PDF memo on the law when you need to refer back to your advice.

The PDF memo still has a place! It is helpful when you need to keep your thoughts in one location. Keeping your reasoning in one document, rather than in a string of 10 emails, will be more effective months or years later or for a corporate record of decision making.

7. If you are leaving a voicemail, put your phone number at the beginning of your message.

A trick I once learned from business school was to leave your name and phone number immediately after the beep, followed by your long voice message. It means someone listening to your message will not have to listen to the whole message again to call you back.

8. If you need a response over the phone, call. If you need it in writing, write.

In a previous non-legal role, a colleague once taught me that people respond in the way you initially contact them. This has almost always worked for me. Sometimes you need the phone call to get the tone of your counterparty and the responses that will not be put down in writing. The opposite is also true, and can be useful if you need proof of what was told to you later on. The next time you really need a response over the phone or in writing, plan what method you will use to contact the recipient.

With these tips in your toolbox, I hope your communications will be more effective. And don’t forget to seek feedback where possible so you can continually improve. With better communication, you will be more helpful to your client and find your work more rewarding!

KJ Chong is General Counsel at BroadGrain Commodities Inc. Connect with her on LinkedIn.