Garner’s business writing basics

Bryan Garner just shared this video of five writing tips. It’s a great start to writing better in your job, whatever it is. I, for one, will try to use weouryou, and your more.

As Garner states, good business writing “is a skill you must cultivate to succeed.” William Zinsser made much the same point in On Writing Well:

Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts. Remember that what you write is often the only chance you’ll get to present yourself to someone whose business or money or good will you need. If what you write is ornate, or pompous, or fuzzy, that’s how you’ll be perceived. The reader has no other choice.

Most lawyer-writing is muddled. Not just in court, but in emails, letters, and legal documents. This is a big part of the legal profession’s negative image; our clients can’t understand us. Is it any wonder they think we’re arrogant and pompous?

For example, wills and trusts (the documents I work with) are chock-full of jargon and vagueries. This should not be. We should all have wills we can read and understand without a $200/hour interpreter. If estate planning documents were drafted in plain language, fewer people would need to hire a lawyer for probate or trust administration when it comes time to actually use those documents. That might be bad for repeat business, but it’s good for clients.

I want to be a lawyer who always writes and speaks in a way my clients can understand. As Zinsser pointed out, that takes hard work and hard thinking. (It will probably be a while before I can muster the time and energy to edit multiple 30-page trusts.)

Thankfully, that’s just the kind of work and thinking I enjoy most.

Bar associations are missing a big opportunity

Bar associations are missing a big opportunity. Their members have a need: to turn the practice of law into a successful business. Doing so is a real challenge for many solo and small firm attorneys.

So far bar associations have tried to address this need by playing it safe. They’ve added practice advisors, who give members free one-on-one advice and answer questions about running a firm. This is thinking too small. It’s nice to have help deciding on practice management software or what to pay a new associate, but those decisions do not a successful business make.

A successful business is exactly what many new private companies offer lawyers. These companies have figured out what it takes to make a law firm make money. They’ve figured out all the systems and details and wrapped it up in a tidy package. All the lawyer has to do is follow the system, and he’ll be successful. Lots of lawyers are willing to pay lots of money for that.

I know because I used to work in my bar’s book division. When deciding whether to accept my current job and return to practicing law in a small firm, I asked for details about the business—I wanted to make sure it was set up to succeed. What my employer showed me was Lawyers With Purpose, an estate planning business-in-a-box group he pays for. I was skeptical at first, but quickly saw that it provided a well-thought-out business model, complete with detailed systems for everything—processes for marketing, processes for referrals, processes for the legal work, etc. Everything was clearly done by someone who knew how to run a firm as a business, and that reassured me greatly. It just required following the system.

Bar associations need a new source of revenue. Revenue from traditional books is falling; pressure to keep dues low is higher than ever. Members won’t pay $200-300 for books and CLE, yet they will pay many times that each month for a successful business model. Seems like a no-brainer.

Of course, developing this kind of product is hard and risky. This business is all or nothing; either you have a complete system figured out or you have nothing to offer. It would take multiple bar employees months or years to put it all together. That’s a big leap to take.

The payoff, though, would be huge—for both the bar association and its members. Bar associations already have a wealth of knowledge about practicing law, and ready access to member-volunteers who are experts in their areas of practice. No one is in a better position to figure out what it takes to be a successful law firm doing x type of legal work. It just requires investigating: find the successful practices and figure out what makes them tick.

Imagine a bar association that could offer its members, as a package deal, a successful and well-thought-out family, criminal, estate planning, consumer, small business, personal injury, or civil litigation practice model. Not only would this be a source of revenue for bar associations and a useful service to members, but it would also raise the quality of representation and service for the public. It would give the bar association a way to directly influence how law is practiced in its state. It’s a win-win for everybody.

It’s a big challenge, too. But the concept has already been proven by private businesses all over the country. It’s not a question of will it work, but of making it work.

I hope bar associations will take the risk and try to make it work.