There is a strange but undeniable fact about university: you spend a huge amount of time and effort getting in, only to find that a large proportion of your university life is focused on getting out. Or, more accurately, on where to go next.
It is easy to forget, during these few brief years, about preparing yourself for the transition from university to work. With your head down, frantically turning essays while handling multiple applications and interviews, the thought of adjusting to professional life becomes something to deal with ‘later’ – once you actually get there. Preparing for the transition a little earlier, however, can provide you with a vital set of skills for working life: skills that will enable you to step more easily into your new role as a professional.
This article will focus on communication, and take you through a couple of key differences between study and working life. There will also be practical suggestions – ways to adjust your communication now to facilitate the transition later.
Tell them the answer
Take, for example, the standard university essay. A slightly rambling introduction (let’s be honest – it’s usually written before you know what your argument will be), followed by a few lengthy passages setting out an in-depth analysis, before rounding up with a vague conclusion in which you avoid saying anything too bold or specific.
This may be fine in an academic context where your tutors will appreciate (and actually read) the paragraphs of detailed analysis. Try this as a trainee solicitor, however, and your work is likely to be swiftly returned to you with a request to “get to the point”.
This difference of approach is justified when you consider the purpose of each communication. At university points are gained and grades achieved due to the depth of the analysis, the quality of the research and the strength of the argument. In a law firm or other business the recipient of the work (whether this is a client or a colleague) will find it valuable primarily for the message: for the answer itself, supported by analysis.
Detailed references and academic discussions are helpful, but only to get you to a position in which you can confidently deliver a clear, coherent answer to a real problem.
It is not only clients who appreciate a concise answer – your university tutors will also thank you. Try crafting an essay that sets out the answer to the question in the first line or two. Detailed analysis can and should follow, but only offered in support: the key points should have already been made.
“It is not only clients who appreciate a concise answer – your university tutors will also thank you”
The longer the words, the better your writing, right? It is easy to fall into this trap at university, and while it might go down well with a professor it does not always work for business-minded clients. This point, which goes hand-in-hand with the previous one, is crucial for delivering legal advice in a form that enables the client to easily understand the message and put it into action.
The key is to keep your language simple and your sentences short. Try reading your own work aloud – if you need to take a couple of significant breaths during a sentence, break it down. Make sure each sentence serves a purpose – how does it advance the advice? How does it move the answer on? Do you know what each word means? Does anything require a definition? Are there unexplained abbreviations?
On a side note, do not fall for the seductive lure of jargon. Using it might make you feel special but it obscures the message and slows down the reader. Stick to plain English – the content of your message should be impressive enough.
Put it into context
It is not always obvious, as you are trawling through years of old case law, how to find the relevance and apply it to the present for this reader. All too often the message gets obscured – possibly thrown into the final paragraph, if you remember in time. At work, the history of a topic is often only appreciated if it enhances the value of the present matter. Every piece of advice you give has a practical impact: you present it to the client so they can use it right away. You are looking at real problems and giving answers that will be applied in real life. The academic aspect of an issue might underlie the analysis, but it will often remain as a silent support to your conclusion.
Get into the habit of asking yourself why your work matters. What’s the fundamental, unresolved issue at the heart of your efforts? If you are writing an essay, think about the impact of the topics you discuss. If you are organising events on behalf of a club or society, be business-focused and commercially minded.
Do not make the mistake of thinking you will just pick up commercial awareness on the job: it is easy to forget, when you are immersed in the legal and theoretical points, that your advice has to be relevant. Take into account the wider business context in which you are operating and think about how external factors might influence your conclusions.
Eloise Skinner is a trainee at an international law firm. Her next article on transitional skills and tips on how to develop them will be up soon.