Lawrence Evans, an Associate at Board Intelligence and a former City lawyer with Hogan Lovells, Peters & Peters and Barclays Bank, examines how an effective Executive Summary can help lawyers distill detailed legal advice for the board.
Legal documents aren’t known for their brevity. And whilst the best lawyers ensure that their advice is intelligible to the layman, it can still run to many pages and fall prey to legalese. So how can this advice be summarised in a form that is clear, concise and compelling to a board director?
What do the board want?
The discipline of writing concisely is a challenge for us all, but it is perhaps felt most keenly by lawyers when pivoting from writing lengthy legal advice to preparing pithy board papers on the same topic.
Reports for boards and executive teams need to be succinct but comprehensive, and get to the point without missing critical context. This might sound like an impossible task but it’s made a whole lot easier when you know what a best practice Executive Summary looks like.
What makes a good Executive Summary?
How can you write a best practice Executive Summary? And how can it help you, as a trusted legal advisor, prepare information for your clients’ boards which is easy to read, focused on what matters and stimulates the most productive discussion in the boardroom?
In our opinion, Executive Summaries are the most critical – and powerful – part of any report or piece of advice for the board. Although they sit at the front of a paper, they are not just an introduction.
Instead, an Executive Summary should provide a focused snapshot of the entire report that follows, in plain English and in no more than one side of A4, allowing the reader to know where to focus their attention.
We recommend structuring the Executive Summary into four parts:
An Executive Summary should start by setting out the context for the paper, to help the reader understand where the topic fits within the wider landscape of the business and why the advice is going to the board at this point in time. The Context should get the reader nodding along, comfortable with the level of assumed knowledge and should be no more than 3-5 sentences long.
It should then set out the question or questions that the paper addresses. This is essentially the purpose of the advice and should be phrased as actual questions. We recommend limiting the number of questions to five – any more than that and chances are you haven’t identified the overarching questions that the advice is addressing and which the board needs to provide input into.
Once you’ve articulated the questions the advice will answer, you then need to answer each question. This isn’t the place for detail: a high-level answer is all that’s needed, as the main body of the advice is where you’ll provide your explanation.
4. Input Sought
Finally, having set out the Context, Questions and Conclusions of your advice, you should end your Executive Summary by clearly stating what you want back from the reader and by when. For example, are you asking your client’s board to ratify a major decision? Or are you asking them for additional fees? Not only will this help you get value back from the reader, but you’ll also avoid the common complaint of board members that they waste time searching through papers working out what it is they’re being asked to do.
What are the benefits of succinct legal advice?
By preparing a clear and concise Executive Summary, you will make it easy for your client’s board to read, digest and respond to your advice.
Not only will the board be primed to add value where it matters most, but by doing away with legalese and setting out on one page, in plain English, what really matters, you will also set yourself apart from their other professional advisors. Trust us, they’ll thank you for it.
How can I find out more?
For more on Executive Summaries and best practice board information please see Write - our report writing toolkit, designed to help your team write papers that address the questions the board are asking. We also offer report writing training as part of our advisory services.
If you would like to find out more about how Board Intelligence can help your law firm, please email Lawrence using the button below.