Manchester City Council

Cheshire East Council

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Faith, hope and clarity

Contract 2 iStock 000003466551XSmall 146x219Lawyers in Local Government (LLG) is fortunate to have talented and expert lawyers operating at all local government levels. And these make a visibly positive difference to their authorities and communities.

But, like the Greek myth beast of old, local authority law is a hydra of many heads. So LLG has created Special Activity Areas (SAAs) for each key legal discipline, each having a lead officer and deputy (alternate).

SAA leads are national spokespersons – the face of LLG in their areas. So they clearly need to be seen as high profile movers and shakers in that space; not only vital reference points for LLG members but also key contacts for Government, LGA, media and the range of other stakeholders. For without visible SAA leads (and also active and visible general members), LLG would simply be hiding its bright lights beneath bus-sized bushels.

But for SAA leads as well as for all LLG members, one effective way of getting your profile desirably high and enhancing your personal ‘share price’ is to write useful and readable articles. These might be practice notes for colleagues nationally (through the LLG website and SAA networks) or pieces for publication, say through Local Government Lawyer.

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However, whatever you choose to write clearly needs to do the business. In other words gets your message across message attractively, concisely and compellingly. Like everything else in life, that requires some thought and prep before you let your virtual pen anywhere near electronic paper.

Why do it?

Amongst other things, to:

  • Communicate knowledge and/or good practice to your colleagues and relevant stakeholders;
  • Consolidate your own knowledge. For there’s nothing concentrates the mind to accuracy like writing for publication;
  • Create a knowledge bank for yourself and LLG Members;
  • Heighten your profile and that of LLG – hopefully in a good way!

What to write

That of course is up to you. But it should obviously be something of interest to your target audience. Perhaps some practical experience you want to share. Or a significant legal development. Or a practice guide. Or an interesting conference you attended. Whatever. But in your personal judgement, something you believe your colleagues across the country would benefit from - and preferably also enjoy. For an article can be as wearyingly worthy as you like. But if it’s not readable (see below) it’s likely to suffer the fate of Thomas Gray’s elegiac flower: "born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air".

To whom – target audience

Presumably your target audience will predominantly be LLG members. Any form of communication is effectively of course a conversation. You need to imagine someone on the other side who’s busy, pressured and doesn’t have to read your piece but will do so if it looks useful and reads attractively.  It’s not of course a committee report, nor is it legal advice. It’s an article or practice note and needs to be framed and written accordingly, tailored to the particular audience at which it is aimed. The acid test is would you read it if you saw it written by someone else?

Readability

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to write about, break the spell and start writing. Get it down on electronic paper in all its rough and uncut form. Then you can start your self-edit process to make it readable and attractively eye-catching. Some tips:

  • Don’t bite off more than your audience can reasonably chew. If you want to write a book, go and write it. But an article shouldn’t usually be very lengthy unless the subject matter reasonably requires it.
  • Create an eye-catching opening – if your audience doesn’t notice the product it will stay on the shelf.
  • Short sentences with all unnecessary words weeded out. Long sentences are fine in Dickensian novels but don’t usually play well in legal articles aimed at busy people. You certainly don’t want your audience phoning the fire brigade seeking help in disentanglement from some particularly dense subordinate clauses!
  • Keep your language simple but telling. Clarity may not begin at home, but needs to be a guiding principle of your writing.
  • When you’ve produced a first draft, stand up and scan read it as though the piece were written by someone else. You’ll then get a feel for how it reads, whether you’ve made your points explicably and in the right place and whether the piece coheres attractively.
  • Create a strong ending – a conclusion that concludes and, like a well-made play, leaves the audience feeling that the article has done the job it set out to do.

In legal writing the art is translating complex concepts into simple and accessible form. Your piece may involve considerable effort. But it should look as though it was written without a second thought. As they invariably say down the pub: "Ars est celare artem". Which doesn’t of course mean "Arthur fell down the cellar on his backside". But: "It is art to conceal art".

Conclusion

You need to have faith in what you’re doing (believability and authenticity are essential) and then hope you’ve struck the right note with your target audience. And for all of us, you win some, you lose some. But to conclude, I’m sure St. Paul won’t mind my misquoting his famous letter to the Corinthians on love: "And now abideth faith, hope and clarity. . .but the greatest of these is clarity".

Dr Nicholas Dobson is a Consultant with Freeths LLP specialising in local and public law. He is also Communications Officer for Lawyers in Local Government. Nick can be contacted on 0845 017 7620 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

© Nicholas Dobson

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