In our new The Confident Counsel feature, prominent CEE law firm consultant Aaron Muhly will share his thoughts and suggestions on ways lawyers in the region can communicate more effectively, and more profitably, to clients, colleagues, and peers.
Have you ever delegated a writing assignment to a colleague, but when you received his work-product, it was so awful that you completely rewrote it? The fancy word for this is reverse-delegation, and it’s not good.
When you allow your colleagues to re-delegate work to you, you are acting like a CEO who happily accepts a mop from the cleaning staff and starts wiping the floors. You are not fulfilling the supervisory role expected by your firm’s management, and more importantly, you risk upsetting clients by billing for junior work at an inflated rate.
There are ways, however, to escape the nightmare of reverse-delegation, by providing feedback that delivers long-term results.
Beware the Red Pen
You don’t always rewrite the work of your colleagues. Instead, you probably sometimes engage in the “Red Pen Method.”
I had the pleasure of experiencing this method while working as a law firm associate in Chicago. For every writing assignment, I had to provide my supervising partner with a printed-out draft. He would take his red pen and cover my drafts with so many comments and corrections that the paper looked like it came from a crime scene. After he was done, he would toss the paper on my desk and gently remind me “not to be such a jerk to his clients.”
Although you can use this method to help your colleagues fix the problems in current writing assignments, this method isn’t very effective for avoiding problems in future assignments. Imagine that you are an associate receiving a draft email covered in red. You will see that you have some problems to fix, but you probably can’t see which of these problems are the most important (i.e. the problems that you should focus on in future assignments). As a result, you are likely to re-commit the same major mistakes next time.
To avoid this trap, go beyond the red pen and focus your colleagues’ attention on the most important problems in their writing. In other words, sit down with them and point out the specific mistakes driving you crazy. This sounds time-consuming, but in the long run it’s more efficient than doing their work for them.
Choose Mistakes with Solutions
When you pick a mistake, make sure you can provide a practical solution. Supervisors often provide ambiguous and unhelpful solutions to recurring mistakes. For example, have you ever told your colleague that her sentence is too complex? Although your comment might be correct, when she goes back to her desk, how exactly should she solve this problem?
Let me demonstrate how to provide a more practical solution. Read the following text:
If there are creditors’ claims reported within the 40-day period following the publication of the commencement of the liquidation in the Company Gazette, the Opening Balance Sheet must be adjusted accordingly (the “Adjusted Opening Balance Sheet”). New receivables and liabilities, deferrals, valuation reserves, provisions, write downs, adjustments and extraordinary depreciation may also be accounted for in the Adjusted Opening Balance Sheet.
Although you had little problem reading the first sentence in that passage, you didn’t feel good about the second sentence (e.g., you felt lost). With English writing, readers typically get confused if you start your sentence with new or unfamiliar information. To correct this, try starting the second sentence with something familiar, such as an important actor or some words from the previous sentence. If applied to the example above, that leads to this:
If there are creditors’ claims reported within the 40-day period following the publication of the commencement of the liquidation in the Company Gazette, the Opening Balance Sheet must be adjusted accordingly (the “Adjusted Opening Balance Sheet”). The Adjusted Opening Balance Sheet may also account for new receivables and liabilities, deferrals, valuation reserves, provisions, write downs, adjustments and extraordinary depreciation.
Give a Roadmap
Once you help your colleagues understand their major problems and solutions, you want to ensure that they will follow your advice back at their desks. For this reason, give them a roadmap that tells them what to do, step-by-step. For example, tell them, before they push the button to send you a draft email, to take five minutes and do the following:
Identification: For each sentence, underline the words up to your first verb. Did you underline information that is familiar to your reader (i.e., an important actor or words that you discussed in the previous sentence)?
Solution: If your answer is no, do the following: If you are using the passive voice, try using the active voice to place an important actor at the beginning. If you can’t get an important actor in the beginning, search for the words in your sentence that link back to the previous sentence (i.e., words you used in the previous sentence). Restructure your sentence to move these words to the beginning.
Aaron Muhly is an American lawyer who has been training European professionals on clear writing for over 15 years.