What’s the key to good writing?

It turns out that it’s also the key to giving great speeches.

And to making great pitches for new business.

And to impressing clients, and your boss, and anyone else who matters to you.

Now that I think about it, it’s not a bad guide to planning your business development activities, ginning up theses for your articles, and plotting your blog posts. It would be a great way to design your firm’s website, too.

Eureka! The key to all professional success on earth!

And, of course, it’s just common sense . . . .

Do not think about what you want to say. Think about what the other guy needs to hear.

(I’ve actually mentioned this topic tangentially in at least two of my previous columns at Above the Law. But I’d never put it all together before. And 2011 was so long ago, anyway. And, in any event, the advice is so important that it’s worth repeating.)

What do partners at law firms say when they’re pitching business at beauty contests?

They say what matters to them: “We recently hired six laterals in California. We divide our firm into four practice areas: litigation, corporate, real estate, and tax. We went to extraordinarily fancy schools, and we did remarkably well there. Therefore, you should hire us!”

What does the potential client need to hear?

First: If you recently won a case (or closed a transaction) in the very area in which we’re considering retaining you, and you came up with an idea that is not simply the usual pablum, then we’re curious guys. Tell us about that. (I know, I know: It’s much harder to generate novel ideas than it is to pontificate about where you went to school. I didn’t say this was easy; I said only that it was the key to all professional success on earth.)

If you don’t know before the beauty contest how you can contribute to the client’s cause, then I have a second suggestion: Ask the client to describe the difficult aspects of its situation. After hearing the description, suggest a brilliant way of solving the problem. Presto! You’re hired! (Again, I didn’t say this was easy; brilliance is hard to come by. But you have no chance of impressing a potential client if you simply drone on about how your firm is organized, whereas you have a minuscule chance of impressing a potential client if you listen carefully to the client’s problem and then pray for a thunderbolt. In this situation, minuscule is much better than zero; it’s the numerator, not the denominator, that matters here.)

That’s how you think about what the other guy needs to hear at beauty contests. But my advice isn’t limited in scope; it’s universal!

Think about drafting a memo to your CEO seeking authority to settle a lawsuit. What information should the settlement memo convey?

Perhaps you should inflict on the CEO what you want to say: “We recently handled an impossible case. Really impossible. I personally attended the mediation. I didn’t let our outside counsel say a word. I was fierce. No fewer than three times during the course of the mediation, I shouted at opposing counsel: ‘So’s your mama!’ No one could’ve gotten a better deal for us than I’ve negotiated! Please authorize $1 million in settlement authority for this case.”

Or perhaps the CEO needs to read what the CEO needs to read: “We are seeking your approval of $1 million in settlement authority for the Iago case, pending in [specify state or country] and involving [specify business unit involved]. The case is currently reserved at $750,000, so your approval of this request will have a $250,000 financial effect this quarter. Finance is aware that we are making this request and has incorporated it into this quarter’s projections. [Identify by names senior person in the business unit and perhaps finance, or whoever] support settling in this amount, and I recommend that you approve this request.

“In a nutshell: [You then get one or two short paragraphs to describe the case.]

“[Say something about how much you could reasonably expect to lose at trial. Say something about anticipated defense costs through trial. Then, stop.]”

Which memo does the CEO prefer to receive? Naturally, it’s the one that ignores your inner six-year-old and instead tells the CEO what he needs to hear.

Is my advice truly universal? Of course it is.

How does the advice apply to ginning up theses for your speaking engagements?

Ask yourself this question: Why have you been invited to speak?

Option one: To demonstrate your brilliance, whether or not the audience understands a word of what you say.

Option two: The audience has a need to learn helpful information about a topic. If you provide that information, tucking in your brilliant insights in plain English along the way, you will have given the audience what it needs (and incidentally demonstrated your competence).

Articles? Same deal.

Materials for online publications? Same deal: What should today’s blog post (or the new issue of the firm newsletter) say?

Option one (seemingly used by most lawyers): “Truk acident on I-95! Hire me!”

Option two (seemingly used by most lawyers at elite firms): “Last month, our state’s Supreme Court handed down a new opinion. In this article, we describe the facts of the case in painful detail, regurgitate the court’s reasoning, and conclude that the Supreme Court recently decided a case.”

Option three: “Yesterday, our state’s Supreme Court handed down an opinion that gives employers a new defense against wage-and-hour class actions. Employers should immediately take three steps to make maximum use of this new change in the law. . . . ”

I understand: Options one and two are easy; option three is hard.

But I didn’t promise ease here; I promised only professional success on earth.

And the key to that success is actually easy beyond belief: Don’t think about what you want to say; think about what the other guy needs to hear.


Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at [email protected].


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