Brevity is the Soul of Profit: What Lawyers Need to Know About Executive Summaries

Jerry Lawson’s essay Plain English for Lawyers: The Way to a C-Level Executive’s Heart has some good ideas about the best ways to communicate with senior executives. However, there is a key imperative that is not addressed: Value your audience’s time. Clear is good. Clear and concise is better.

Sometimes lawyers—and others trying to sell me professional services—seem to believe that I must treasure their 47-page footnoted memo because their craft is so complex that only something that reads like a technical manual or Ph.D. thesis is adequate to convey their scintillating insights. There is one problem with their approach: I wouldn’t pay for these professional services.

Before I saw the wisdom of abandoning my aerie in academia for the corridors of commerce I had the experience of taking a graduate-level course on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. The professor directed us to take a dense section of the text, digest it into a one-page summary and then explain it to someone who hasn’t read it. Since the text is notoriously difficult this exercise was not exactly a walk in the park. It was one of the most challenging and useful things I have ever done. I took the course twice, and went on to teach the text in my Introduction to Philosophy courses instead of failing over to the simpler Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.

With a little effort Kant can become understandable. So can Section 2-207 of the Uniform Commercial Code. The Battle of the Forms is not more difficult the Critique or even the Groundwork.

As a leader in the technology space I must communicate clearly and concisely every day. Nothing is more difficult than delivering an executive summary to industry leaders and nothing is more painful than listening to a bad one. The 47-page document full of detailed analysis doesn’t fly. The purpose of an executive summary is to boil this down to a few sentences that tell the leader what they want to know.

Amongst technology geeks – or lawyer to lawyer – such a summary could be easy enough: with familiar common groundsome jargon may work just fine. It becomes more challenging with prospects or clients are not geeks or lawyers: you have to speak their language. In either scenario the key is the same: cut to the chase and tell them what they want to hear.

What the Executive Wants to Know

Regardless of whether the prospect or client is an individual or a corporation, leaders make for challenging but important audiences. Leaders tend to be proud, powerful, and pressed for time, so explain what you need to explain quickly. Since leaders are usually decision makers, lawyers must focus on the things that executives want to know:

  1. This is under control.
  2. This makes sense to me.
  3. This is not a waste of my time.

Ask yourself: are you conveying confidence clearly or bogging down the key message?

How to Give Them What They Want

To walk with an executive, you need to walk at his pace. Fortunately, there is science behind the art of science of speaking with an executive. There is a wealth of knowledge and practical tactics from executive coaches and academic curricula. No particular coach or institution has a monopoly on wisdom but advice from material from Ohio University’s MBA program and an article by executive coach Joel Garfinkel make pretty good starting points.

In every case speak succinctly and listen actively.

Many lawyers find listening difficult. You must listen before, during, and after a presentation or meeting. Understanding the prospect or client is at least as important to sticking the landing as understanding the case. React to selective details provided on intake. Pick up on verbal and non-verbal cues during an event. Rinse and repeat as the relationship develops. A relationship that builds upon itself is foundational to retaining clients.

Keep the Receipts

Back to the 47-page document…what about my billable hours? The executive summary doesn’t preclude research and due diligence. Research is the backup and the backbone to the summary, but executives don’t want to read it: they want to know it’s there, they want you to tell them what it says, and they need to believe what you tell them.

In addition to delivering a succinct message, be prepared to answer questions and provide receipts (e.g., a 47-page document).

The Executive Summary

As influencers and decision-makers, executives make for challenging yet important clients. It’s critical for lawyers to understand what they want and tailor messaging to build these relationships. The simple concept is to think like an executive. To make the relationship last, actively listening to this leaders key to retention.

To write this article I needed to think like a lawyer… and I may need to take the “course” again.

Did I make the mark? If not…

“I apologize for such a long letter – I didn’t have time to write a short one.” – Mark Twain

Thanks to Jerry Lawson for making me think about how lawyers can better communicate.

Posted in: Communication Skills, Communications, KM, Leadership, Legal Profession, Management