What Did You Say???

by Erik Cummins on September 28, 2011

Recently at a networking event, I met an attorney who spoke to me at length about his “very complex” practice. Unfortunately for me and for my new lawyer friend, he littered his side of the conversation with jargon, legalese, terms of art and marketing doublespeak. While I understand legal terminology pretty well and can usually decipher what attorneys are saying or writing, I left this chance meeting not only not knowing what he actually did but also frustrated with the whole experience. Worse than that, but marketing doublespeak usually turns me off instead of making the sale.

Two weeks ago, I attended a discussion with several GC panelists and they reiterated what I often hear from in house counsel. “I want my lawyers to tell me in clear and concise language what my problem is and how I can solve it.” Seems like a pretty simple request. Sadly, many outside counsel are so locked inside their scholarly, ivory towers or so removed from anything beyond their narrow niche practices, that they simply can’t talk to laymen or non-specialists in terms that “normal” people might understand. Of course, some lawyers may take pride in being so erudite, complicated, obscure and condescending in their discussions about topics “only they would or could understand.” Yet, I think that this approach actually does a disservice to their practices, their clients and their business development efforts.

I don’t suggest attorneys “dumb it down,” but I do think it helps to spell things out in terms most people can understand. I remember one editor of mine always stressing that I should write my legal affairs articles so that non-lawyers could understand them. In other words, “If you can’t explain it to your grandmother, you aren’t doing your job.”

As a reporter, I remember fondly an intellectual property attorney who was a frequent source in complicated IP decisions. The reason why I liked him? When I asked him on deadline if he could “put it in a nutshell for me,” he always managed to do so, very quickly. And he would get quoted in the process. Eventually, he got a reputation among his peers as “Fast Eddie” because he was always on top of breaking news and in the paper.

Here’s another analogy. Suppose you have a really odd sound emanating from under the hood of your car. You take the car into the shop and ask for a diagnosis. Some mechanics will leave your head spinning with all kinds of crazy lingo and you won’t know exactly what the problem is or what you need to do. But you will know that it will cost you a lot of money — whatever the heck it is.

Of course, if I don’t understand what’s going on, I will usually take my car for a second opinion. Who wants to spend money on something that makes no sense? That risks being soaked for a lot of money, particularly when much simpler solutions could be employed. If a mechanic or doctor or IT tech or lawyer tells me in simple terms how I can solve my problem, I immediately feel a sense of relief. “Oh, I get it. Yes, let’s fix it.” I also feel that I have received true value for the money I am spending. The same thing goes for GCs with complicated problems. “Tell me we’ll be OK and why, and I’ll be glad to spend the money.” If you can do that, they will likely hire you again.

Sounds reasonable, right?

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