What did you mean to say? The art of survey report writing.
Partner, Bentleys Stokes and Lowless | www.bentleys.co.uk
In this article, I take a look at some of the points which underlie good report writing, from the perspective of a lawyer whose job involves reading on a regular basis reports generated by experts and surveyors worldwide in the marine/insurance context.
There is no doubt that a well constructed report makes life easier for everyone - your clients in particular - and minimizes your exposure to complaints/claims about the job that you have done. But this is not about telling you how to write a report or what you should be saying in a particular context. Why not? Because you have been instructed by your clients who are relying on your particular expertise and want to know what it is that you have found out or you think about a particular problem. So, the key aim the whole way through is clear and accurate communication between you and your client, and anyone else who is going to be reading your report. Rather than telling you what to do or to think, therefore, this article is designed to point up some do’s and don’ts and to help you think your way through to a report writing style that suits you and achieves that goal of communication.
The start: who is instructing me?
The obvious point here is that your report should always specify the source of your instructions. By this I mean not just the company providing the instructions, but who it is for whom you are writing your report. If your instructions have come from an insurer - who is the assured? - and are you acting for the assured or just for the insurer? Who your client is will often inform the way you write your report. It is more often than not the case that you are writing a report for people who do not have your expertise or access to the information. You cannot assume that they know and understand all the technical terms or jargon. And sometimes your clients’ actual knowledge or understanding is rather more limited than they would like you to think. I have sat in court as an eminent judge has held up a ship’s general arrangement plan, gestured at the double bottom tanks and said “And so these are the hatch covers?” This was his way of making sure that the expert witnesses did not make assumptions about his technical knowledge or indeed try to take advantage of his lack of it - he wanted clarity in terms that everyone in that courtroom could understand. Think about the extent to which you will need to explain technical terms, and consider adding a glossary as a convenient way of doing that. But the other reason for being clear from the very start about who it is that is instructing you is that your clients may have an agenda which you will have to bear in mind. If you have been asked to attend an on hire survey by an owner, for instance, then they are likely to want a report from you which means that the ship is in a deliverable state and they can start to earn hire. A charterer may have a slightly different agenda. Does this mean that you should write your report to accommodate your clients’ agenda? Absolutely not, and in fact an important aspect of your professionalism is your ability to manage your clients’ expectations. Does it really make sense for an owner and charterer to fall out at delivery, right at the start of a fixture, or is it in the long term going to be better for both parties to start out realistically?
What do they want? Do they really know what they want?
This is not just another aspect of expectation management. How often do you find that you are asked to attend a casualty and “investigate and report”? Make sure that before you get there (ideally) or at the least before you leave that you have discussed and agreed with your client your terms of reference. This may well be a process of evolution and may depend on your initial findings: your clients are likely to be relying on your expertise to guide them as to their requirements. They may not know what they need – they want you to tell them that. What is important is that you and your client understand and agree the scope of your instructions as they evolve. And again, that you record that in your report and identify the issues you have been asked to consider.
What are your clients entitled to expect?
Having identified your clients, their expectations and the scope of your instructions, your clients are entitled to a report from you which has been compiled with reasonable skill and care: an objective standard, which means that it should live up to the standard to be expected from someone who has been asked to do the job which you are doing and who is reasonably competent. Here are some pitfalls to avoid:
Factual investigation – be precise
When reporting your investigation, make sure that your report sets out precisely what it is that you have done. If you carried out an inspection of a cargo space for instance, how did you do it? Did you peer through some small opening or climb down into the hold? How good was the lighting? If you have not done something, say so and why not. Be clear about the way in which you report facts: often you may actually be reporting a version of the facts given to you by someone else. To take a simple example, how can you actually say that the weather was bad if you were not out in it? What you can say of course, is that the ship’s officers reported to you that the ship had encountered bad weather and that the conditions were reported in a particular way in the ship’s logbook. Be conscious that the mere fact of your presence may make people feel under pressure to give you an answer, any answer, just to keep you happy. As a junior lawyer I was sent to sea on a client’s ship to gain a bit of experience of life on board a cargo ship: it was a couple of days before I convinced those on board that I was not snooping for the P&I club, but was just asking questions for my own interest and education! Be clear about what you have been able or allowed to find out. A particular danger is to rely on an assurance received from someone else and to report a feature or characteristic that you have been unable to test or verify. There may be a perfectly good reason for your inability to verify something, for instance cargo preventing access to relevant spaces, but it may be that someone does not want you to test something. If you specify in your report why you were unable to verify a particular fact, then not only will you avoid criticism but you may also assist your client with a fruitful line of future enquiry.
Photographs and diagrams will very often be an incredibly helpful way of explaining what you have investigated and found out. If your camera has a time and date stamp facility, then if possible make sure that it is set correctly. A photographic record of what you have looked at will often make your job of describing what you have done much easier, but beware of relying too much on pictures to tell the story. A photograph of a patch of rust on a frame for instance may support the suggestion that rust was found all over a cargo space, but conversely it may equally support the suggestion that a cargo space was largely free of rust. Which leads on to another point: avoid generalisations. Whilst your job may be to decide and certify whether a ship is generally capable of doing the job planned for it, you will have considered a series of specific points and your report should try to be precise about your findings in respect of those specific points.
Opinion – be careful
If you have been investigating an incident, consider carefully the extent to which you are in a position to offer an opinion on its cause. Have you been able to consider and investigate all the possible contributing factors? Are you basing your opinion on the facts? When writing your report, identify and set out the assumptions you have made and any limitations to the view that you are expressing. If you are regularly instructed as an expert witness for court or arbitration proceedings, you will know that in addition to your professional duty to your client, you will owe a primary and overriding duty to the court or tribunal. In broad terms it is a duty to express an independent view uninfluenced by considerations of your client’s requirements. I would suggest that in fact the ability to keep that independence at the forefront of your mind in all areas of a surveyor’s work is the mark of the true professional. There is no doubt that at times you will perceive a conflict between what your clients would like the answer to be and what you think it is. Will they thank you in the long run if you do not alert them to the bad news at the outset? Will your professional standing be enhanced if you earn a reputation for doing the client’s bidding? These are issues that are well beyond the cope of this article but an independent mindset is something that in my view enhances your report writing.
Structure – be logical
Try to communicate the results of your work in a logical way. Keep facts and opinion clearly differentiated and identified as such. Do create checklists and perhaps document templates for yourself so that when you sit down to compile the report you are communicating in an organised fashion. Your client will thank you for a section setting out your key findings and conclusions either at the end or beginning but make sure that they can understand and relate them to your actions and thought processes set out elsewhere.
The goal: clarity and independence
The foregoing is a series of points which aim to achieve clarity of communication with your client - or indeed anyone else who may in due course read or wish to rely on your report. Clear communication in turn will help you to produce a report which is your professional, independent work product. It is by no means a comprehensive list of suggestions, and you may think they are all terribly obvious. However, I would suggest that they are all points which are usefully borne in mind when you are working on a report and they will help to keep your clients happy, enhance the professionalism of your report and avoid unnecessary complaints and claims.