Legal writing can be, for lack of a better description, legalese – stilted, ponderous and opaque. However, behind all that seeming pomposity is a clear way of thinking centered on facts, corroborated evidence and credible sources.
Writing for general public consumption, as journalists do, requires a more comfortable, inclusive style, using words that are commonly understood, phrases that paint pictures and sentences that convey a point with clarity.
The best of both worlds is when writers think like lawyers and write like journalists. Thinking like a lawyer and writing like a journalist is an example of activating both the left and right sides of the brain. This is how public affairs professionals should communicate.
Thinking like a lawyer doesn’t have to crimp your writing or speaking style. Thinking like a lawyer can add order and authority to what you write. Thinking like a lawyer can narrow the focus of what you write and sharpen your key messages. Thinking like a lawyer can make your argument more believable and persuasive.
Training to become a lawyer involves learning how to conduct research, interpret the law, build a case and defend an interest. Those can be valuable insights for public affairs professionals as they write advocacy pieces, op-eds and testimony that seek to inform and persuade.
A key principle in legal thinking is establishing a solid foundation for assertions. Legal thought can be fairly portrayed as rational, logical and linear. Facts aren’t Christmas tree ornaments; they are building blocks. Arraying facts in support of a position diminishes ambiguity, provides clarity and creates confidence in what’s being asserted. This is exactly the job description of public affairs professionals.
Public affairs professionals don’t do their job in front of judges. But they in effect do their jobs in front of juries that may be neighborhood associations, interest groups or townhall meeting audiences. Orderly presentations conveyed in plainspoken language and accompanied by credible written or visual evidence can convince juries in a courtroom – and “juries” anywhere else.
Another useful trait of legal training is understanding the value of dialogue and learning by listening. This is must-have skill for successful public affairs professionals.
Legal training has drawbacks for communicating broadly. Lawyers tend to downplay emotive forces, overlook creative options and ignore inspirational themes. Those may have little place in a courtroom, but they have a definite place in the court of public opinion. In their writing, journalists report on topics evoking emotional and inspirational responses. They look for creative way to tell their stories.
There are lawyers who are good writers and effective speakers. They understand the powerful combination of legal thinking and journalistic writing. Public affairs professionals should emulate that same combination to inform, persuade and defend their clients’ interests.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.