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The people vs legalsplaining

The lawyer persona is a sometimes-vital part of life as a counsel. Especially if you’re strutting around a courtroom pontificating to a jury or perched on an oak table discussing the minutiae of a colossal deal. Both are apt situations for a grandiose air and an elegant stream of Latin.

Often, the same lawyer persona that is so vital to other areas of the law is a hindrance to in-house counsel and those who deal with them. It turns a business function that should pride itself on its ability to deliver cross-cutting and simple, easily applicable advice that strikes at the heart of an issue, to one which prides itself on its ability to espouse the full extent of its legal knowledge on demand - albeit in a single sentence.

From an alacritous business enabler to a fumbling handbrake: a legalsplainer.

Legalsplaining: noun informal, the over-explaining, over-analyzing or encroaching into a matter, typically by a lawyer, in a manner which greatly increases complexity.

Shira Sacal, Senior Legal Counsel at Rivalea Australia, believes legalsplaining is one of the principal areas in which in-house counsel need to improve. “It really boils down to understanding your audience, the relevant stakeholders and what they need and how they want you to communicate, because there are some people in the business who don’t want a longer, broader analysis. They just want to be told yes or no; this is the risk. Short, succinct, clear advice."

“Legalsplaining can come up a lot, particularly when we’re new to an industry and we’re working with people who have been in that industry for 20 years," she says. "You need to be careful to not legalsplain to a person who has been in that industry for a while. It’s about learning where we fit in and making sure we’ve developed ourselves without necessarily overstepping the mark."

Kiri-Ana Libbesson, Senior Legal Counsel, at Settlement Services International, believes that legalsplaining is the antithesis of what businesses want from their counsel.  “They don’t want legalese; they don’t want me to complicate things," she says. "Sometimes all they want is legal advice so they can make that informed decision. They want to be trusted with their experience and knowledge. It's important to delineate that or work out if we’re going to give that commercial advice and how we go about it."

While our knowledge and insight are integral to the efficient functioning of an organization, almost more important is the form in which that knowledge is communicated. And this is where that legal persona falls down. You are in a sense communicating in the way you think the organization or an individual expects you to communicate as opposed to communicating in a manner which best serves that individual or organization.

Furthermore, wading unnecessarily into an area in which you are comparatively less of an expert than the person you're speaking with is a sure way to cause that person to lose trust in you.

Sarah Farmer, Corporate Solicitor at Queensland Airports Limited, believes it is important to be selective about when you're the thorn in the side of the business. "Projects and infrastructure would come to me with something they thought was quite simple. They were working to deadlines, and I'd complicate it. I'd raise things they didn't regard as important or relevant. I got the impression they didn't want to come to me because they knew it wasn't going to be a straightforward process."

"I've worked around that by showing them real-life examples of why I'm raising what I'm raising. I'll draw diagrams, write notes in front of them, speak to them in the language they understand. They'll then be okay, she actually knows what she's talking about."

Tailoring your information to the individuals you're communicating with is a sure-fire way to create buy-in, clarify thinking and improve working relationships. Fostering an environment of trust whereby each party feels they are both able to communicate and, most importantly, that their communication is valued.

Remember, an organization doesn't need the full history of tort law. It just wants to know whether it can act, and how speedily while remaining within the law.

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