There are lots of things that are different about practicing law at a law firm versus inside of a company. But perhaps the biggest difference, and the one most likely to determine your level of success as an in-house corporate lawyer, is your ability to tailor your speaking and writing to a business audience. In this article, I will share a few tips from my experience in the trenches on how to do just that.
Keep your writing short and punchy.
As you’ll learn very quickly in-house, the business does not have time to read a 5000-word treatise on the economic loss doctrine or the quirks of indemnity under conflicts of law principles. They need answers fast and usually won’t read past the first few lines of an email.
You should cover yourself, for sure, by papering your internal file or including attachments in your email, but always assume that nobody is reading past the first few bullet points. Try writing a longer email to yourself or your file first, and then cutting it down into shorter bullet points from there. When in doubt, KISS!
Speak to the point.
There is nothing worse than being on a conference call with a long-winded lawyer who gets lost in the weeds of his or her legal analysis. Start out with a short summary of the issue – “this is a pretty typical contract” or “this claim has some merit, but I think we can get rid of it quickly” – and then have a handful of sound bytes ready to back up your conclusions.
Typically when I get ready to present on a conference call I will write out those bullets by hand and keep them in front of me when it’s my turn to speak. Like my most important tip for a phone screen interview, do not ramble! To wrap things up, I’ll usually indicate I’m done by saying something like “if anyone has questions about specific issues I didn’t touch on, or would like me to go into more detail on anything, please let me know.”
Know your audience.
This might be pretty obvious, but I think it’s a critical consideration. You might speak frequently to internal clients who are at a certain level in the corporate hierarchy. But you might only get the opportunity to speak on a call with SVPs or your GC a handful of times each year (if that). So it’s critical to know who will be on the conference call or WebEx and that you prepare (or over-prepare, as the case may be) accordingly. And never assume that a senior business person isn’t listening or isn’t on the call – I’ve been on countless conference calls where the most senior person is quiet for an hour and then will unleash a barrage of questions out of thin air. Prepare to impress and don’t let your guard down!
Be careful using PowerPoint.
Personally, I like using PowerPoint to give presentations. I try and use a lot of visual aids – photos, charts, etc. – to break the ice and get people thinking. But it’s a dangerous game because far too many people will lean on the slides like a crutch, reading directly off the slides or preparing dense, impossible-to-read bullet points that put the audience to sleep.
Don’t be that lawyer! Prepare an outline of your talk first and then work on the slides with the 10/20/30 rule (10 slides, 20 minutes, no smaller than 30-point fonts). That rule might not work for every presentation, but it should be enough to get you on the right track.
Speaking from pre-prepared bullet points is fine, but don’t just read off of a script. I did this a few times at the outset of my legal career and it put my audience to sleep. If you can’t freestyle off a set of talking points, then maybe you don’t know your material well enough to be presenting on it in the first place!
What do you think of these tips? Have we missed any? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!