My gift to you

With the holiday season fast approaching, I think it’s high time I unveiled the new Training page I’ve created for this blog, so readers like you can quickly find answers to all your writing questions. The Training page lists the 25 posts I have written so far categorized by topic:

  • My Top 5 Writing Tips (hands down the best way to improve your writing)
  • Keep Them Reading (for those interested in extra credit)
  • Formatting Tricks (because it’s not just what you say, but how you say it)
  • Punctuation and Capitalization (because we use way too much of it, often improperly)
  • Specific Types of Writing (tips for specific materials like client alerts, newsletters, lawyer bios, deals lists, client emails, and more)

For those of you who recently subscribed to The Writing Habit, the Training page is a great place to find posts you may have missed in the early days of the blog. For longtime subscribers, think of the Training page as a library you can visit to refresh your knowledge or find inspiration. Bookmark the link for your own future reference and share it with others to quickly let them know what The Writing Habit is about.

As future posts appear on the blog, I will update the Training page so you can continue to view all of the topics in one place. In 2018, you can expect to gain even more writing wisdom, particularly about how to develop high-quality thought leadership content, an offering that is increasingly critical for professional services firms to execute well if they want to remain competitive.

So, stay tuned and … you’re welcome!

It’s okay to be human – the power of tone

A few years ago my son, Owen, failed a hearing test. He was 3 years old at the time, and when I picked him up from daycare, his teacher handed me a sheet of paper with two line graphs showing that he had passed in his right ear but borderline failed in his left ear.

Borderline failed?

I was surprised. This was a kid as healthy as a horse with no signs of a speech impediment or hearing loss except when I was telling him it was time to turn off Thomas and Friends and take a bath. The teacher assured me that it could just be ear wax or congestion from a cold. It was nothing to worry about, right?

That line graph led to a round of visits to the pediatrician, who prescribed ear drops to dissolve ear wax build up. After bath time, I would hold Owen down on our bed while my husband put drops in his ear and Owen squirmed and tried to push his hand away. He had to lie on his side for 10 minutes while the drops dissolved, not an easy task for an active toddler.

Six months later Owen failed the hearing test again. Borderline failed. In his left ear. We took him to a specialist – a pediatric otolaryngologist (try saying that three times fast).

Using an otoscope longer than I had ever seen, the ear specialist found the culprit: fluid in Owen’s left ear. He grilled me on Owen’s health. Did he have allergies? Earaches? Did he get a lot of colds? Had I noticed any issues with his speech? Did he sometimes seem not to hear me?

“Only when I tell him it’s time for bed,” I said. “When I say the words ‘ice cream,’ he comes running right away.”

The ear specialist prescribed a steroid, one that I’d have to spray in front of Owen’s nose and have him sniff into his nasal passage. Yeah, right. Have you ever tried to teach a 3-year-old how to inhale through his nose?  It’s a messy, confusing proposition. (“Breathe in, not out!”)

Back at the doctor’s office a few weeks later, the ear specialist looked in Owen’s ear again. The fluid was still there. He sat back in his chair and listed our options:

  1. leave it and the fluid could drain on its own
  2. implant ear tubes

I knew about ear tube surgery from friends whose kids had had chronic colds and earaches. It was a minor surgery, one of the quickest you could have, but it did require putting the child under anesthesia and signing all of those papers saying you understood the risk of death.

This was an unusual case, the ear specialist said. Usually kids with fluid in their ears display symptoms. Owen didn’t have any besides barely failing a hearing test in one ear. Twice.

“It could go either way,” the doctor said. “You could leave it and see what happens or go ahead and get the surgery. It’s entirely up to you.”

He paused.

“If it were my kid, I’d probably do the ear tubes.”

Those were the magic words.

I looked at the doctor, sizing him up. He was 40ish with an earnest, clean-shaven face. He had two children a few years older than Owen. He wasn’t just a doctor, he was a dad. He talked to me parent-to-parent and gave me actual advice rather than throwing a lot of technical ear terms at me and listing the pros and cons.

If it were my kid…

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about writing client alerts and how important it is for lawyers to not only analyze a legal development, but also tell clients what they should do about it. In that post I gave this advice: Get to the point, use plain language, and provide useful action steps.

After reflecting on my experience with Owen’s ear specialist, I have some additional advice: Just be a person. Write your client alert, memo or any communication from the place of, This is what I know about this legal or business issue, and if I were you, here’s what I’d do.

Answering the question, What would I do if I were in this situation? will enable you to give better advice. You’ll no longer stand high above the issue stroking your chin and trying to sound smart. You will be standing in the shoes of a general counsel, employment lawyer or tax director at a multinational company facing the same time and budget constraints as they do. You will start to understand what clients mean when they say things like this in our post-matter reviews:

I sometimes felt I was being given too much detail that I was not able to understand. All I really needed to know was if there was going to be a cash flow impact or whether there were major risks to the project.

You will stop yourself from writing long reports that say, “On the one hand this, but on the other hand that.” Instead, you might say something like, “In an ideal world you would do X, but I think if you do Y, you’ll be okay.” You will start giving clients what they want: commercial advice.

Being human also means being conversational. In the writing world, we call this “tone.” This does not mean casual. It does not mean starting emails to clients with “Hey guys!” and ending with “C U later.” It means you sound like a human being, not a robot, when you write. You use common language and choose shorter, simpler words like “get” instead of “obtain” and “use” instead of “utilize.”

One of our banking and financing partners explained his approach to writing for clients like this:

I try to picture the general counsel on a four-hour flight. What they really want to do is watch the in-flight movie, but they know they’ve got my memo in their bag. When they take it out and start to review it, do I want them to get engaged in the material or give up and watch the movie? That’s why I write memos like I’m talking to them on the page.

It’s a scary proposition to use plain language and offer a clear opinion about what a client should do. What if you sound like a simpleton? What if you turn out to be wrong?

That’s a tough one.  As experts, no matter our specialty, we do the best we can given the information and knowledge we have at the time. If we’re wrong we can admit it, learn from it and move on. In my experience, those who are willing to make mistakes and learn from them often provide the most valuable advice. And clients tend to appreciate those willing to put their necks out and take a firm stance. I mean really. How refreshing to hear a clear “yes” or “no.”

Providing clear advice and standing behind that advice has become so important to clients that they are increasingly requesting risk-sharing pricing models with outside counsel. These models provide fee reductions if a transaction falls through and incentives like success fees if we achieve the desired outcome.

If it were my kid…

At a recent practice group retreat, I was listening to partners Ben Allgrove and Theo Ling talk about our new global innovation program. As they described how our lawyers would work with clients, IT specialists and other business, government and academic experts to find solutions for clients that go beyond providing legal advice, a message emerged: If our firm is going to pursue innovation, we also have to embrace failure.

That’s not an easy proposition for a risk-averse bunch.

But in my experience, the fear of failure, like most fears, is often unfounded. It is simply head chatter that tries to protect us from taking risks but has no real bearing on the actual outcome. Think about some of the things you’ve worried about recently. How many of those worries came true?

When we do fail, I find it helpful to take an objective view of the situation and evaluate what worked and what didn’t and adjust accordingly. You win some, you lose some. No big deal. Because guess what? You’re a human being. So you might as well let yourself sound like one.

Besides that, it fosters connection. We simply don’t feel connected to those who write paragraphs we have to read five times before understanding what they’re trying to say. We don’t feel connected to experts who give us an opinion that lacks the sense they know what it’s like to be in the situation we’re in.

So try it. Try writing a client alert or memo like you were talking to your mom. Try drafting an email to partners that simply says what you want to say. Try having a clear point of view on a client issue that shows you’re not simply restating what the law says, but also have their best interests in mind.

If it were my kid…

As for Owen, the surgery was a success. A few months after they implanted ear tubes the size of the smallest macaroni noodles you could imagine, the fluid drained and he passed his hearing test. In both ears. He’s healthy and happy and asking me questions like, “Mommy, do monsters go potty?”

Somehow, however, he still doesn’t hear me when I tell him it’s time for bed.

Writing client alerts that stand out

I’m baaaaaaaaaack! Yes, it’s been awhile. Thank you for your patience while I’ve been engulfed by other projects and trying to figure out how to get more hours in a day. Turns out I only get the same number as everyone else. What a shame. I was hoping to find the loophole.

So…client alerts. I was conducting a webinar on this topic for some of our business development, marketing and communications professionals the other day and it took me back to six years ago when I first developed the training.

I had been with the firm for about a year when our CMO asked me to review some of our client alerts to see how we could improve them. My first challenge was to figure out who even wrote our client alerts, how they were distributed and how many we sent out each year. As you know, getting your arms around who does what at a firm as large as ours can be a formidable task, especially when you’re new.

My research revealed that mostly lawyers write client alerts and BD and marketing are in charge of distributing them. So I settled myself into a big cushy chair to read a cross-section of alerts from various regions and practice groups to identify patterns. This is what I found:

  • Headlines didn’t grab my attention.
  • News was buried.
  • Opening paragraphs were dense and hard to understand.
  • Many were too long (15-plus pages).
  • Most lacked any kind of practical advice.

That last issue was the biggest problem in my mind. I mean why explain a new legal development to clients without providing tips for what to do about it? That’s like me writing this entire blog post critiquing our client alerts and then saying, “Good luck!” without offering any suggestions on how to improve them.

Yet that’s precisely what so many client alerts do. It’s not just me who’s noticed. Clients and prospects — the very audience we are trying to inform and impress with our knowledge — have taken note as well. One general counsel has gone so far as to write a parody of the client alerts he receives from big law firms to demonstrate how formulaic and unhelpful they can be.

In his parody, featured on the Above the Law legal blog, Aon Chief Counsel Mark Herrmann offers this advice to those interested in writing a client alert he may actually read:

Say something — anything — that isn’t the usual pabulum. Perhaps: “The new law may have an unintended consequence” — and identify it. Or: “This law may interact with another law in an important way.” Or: “An industry association has announced that it will be filing a constitutional challenge to certain provisions in the law. If your corporation is interested in supporting that effort, call X.” But, unless you enjoy being perceived as one of the crowd, please don’t tell us only that “a law was passed; you should obey it; we can help.” Been there; heard that; not impressed.

So, yeah. We need to take a step back and make sure we are giving clients the information they want in an alert. Let’s start by defining what a client alert is and what it’s intended to do. Here’s my take:

What a client alert is: A client alert is a short news bulletin that informs clients of a significant legal development that will affect their business — typically a new law, regulation, policy or major case.

Purpose: The purpose of a client alert is to explain how a legal development will affect clients and what steps they should take as a result of that development. The alert should provide practical information, not a legal analysis.

Based on this definition and purpose, here are my tips for writing clients alerts:

1. Write it like a news story.

When writing a client alert, you are not a lawyer, you are a news reporter. You are telling someone what happened, which means you need to get to the point. Right away. In the first sentence. Forget about the background, defined terms and lengthy name of the new law or policy. Those should come later. I’ll show you why.

Read this opening paragraph of a client alert, and try to identify what the news is.

In July 2008, more than 10 years after the Equal Opportunities Commission (“EOC”) introduced its first consultation paper on race discrimination, the Race Discrimination Ordinance (“RDO”) was gazetted (published by the government). Since the gazettal of the RDO, there has been extensive public consultation undertaken in respect of the Code of Practice on Employment under the Race Discrimination Ordinance (“Code”), which has resulted in heated debate and a number of significant amendments to the original draft. The substantive provisions of the RDO, as well as the Code, finally came into force on 10 July 2009.

Did you find the news? Where is it? Yep, buried in the last sentence.

It took the author 76 words to get to the news that the Race Discrimination Ordinance had taken effect. And let’s look at those 76 words for a second. Do we care that the RDO took effect 10 years after the first consultation paper? Is it important for readers to know that the process of developing the race discrimination law sparked heated debate? And that significant amendments were made to the original draft?

No, not really. Those are background details that can go farther down in the story. If I’m a busy employment lawyer at a company in Hong Kong, I want to know three things:

  • What happened?
  • How does it affect me or my company?
  • What should we do about it?

Instead, you want to start with the news (what happened) like this:

Effective this month, Hong Kong’s race discrimination law imposes new obligations on employers to prevent race discrimination and harassment in the workplace. The new law, called the Race Discrimination Ordinance, holds companies liable for acts of racial discrimination by their employees, even if they didn’t know about the conduct. The only way employers can avoid liability is to demonstrate they have taken practical steps to avoid discrimination and harassment in their hiring and management processes.

Then explain how it affects your audience, like this:

Failing to take steps to comply with the RDO puts your company at risk of litigation. The new ordinance allows job applicants and employees to file race discrimination complaints with the Equal Opportunity Commission, which has the power to conduct investigations and facilitate settlements. Grievants can also file claims in district court, which has the power to invalidate contracts that violate the RDO, order you to reinstate or promote an employee and award punitive and exemplary damages.

In this second paragraph, I’m essentially saying, “Hey, employers. If you don’t pay attention to the RDO, these are the potential consequences.” That information is most likely to get their attention and keep them reading to find out what they need to do to comply with the new law.

Also notice how much easier the sentences are to read when they’re not peppered with lots of dates, legalese and defined terms like (“EOC”), (“RDO”) and (“Code”). The date on the alert is sufficient to tell readers when the event happened (assuming you’re writing about it within the same month, which I hope you are), and you should avoid using defined terms in alerts because they’re distracting and unnecessary. An alert is a client communication, not a legal contract.

Using this “get to the point” structure respects your audience’s time. Don’t make them wait 76 words for the news. You risk losing them.

2. State the news concisely in your headline.

Headlines are one of the most important aspects of any news story because they often determine whether someone will read on. The headline for the alert we’ve been discussing was this:

Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance and Code of Practice on Employment — Now Fully Operational

The good thing about this headline is that it does state the news about the new ordinance. However, there’s an easier way to say it. Instead of using a wordy phrase like “now fully operational,” why not simply say “takes effect”? Then your headline would be:

Hong Kong’s Race Discrimination Ordinance Takes Effect

Now it’s half of the original length. (Note that I also shortened the ordinance name to make the headline even more concise.)

As I explain in my post on how to write catchy headlines, using verbs in your headlines will make them stronger and more likely to pique curiosity. A headline that says “Cross-Border M&A rises 20%” is much more likely to get a reader’s attention than “Trends in Cross-Border M&A.”

The verb “rises” gives the first headline a sense of momentum. It also forces you to say exactly what the cross-border M&A trend is. Providing that detail is more likely to make a reader wonder, 20%? Hmmm…why did it rise 20%? and read on to find out. In headline writing, reader curiosity is your best friend.

3. Provide practical advice

Okay, this is where you get to be lawyers. This is when you use your knowledge and expertise to look at the legal development and put it in perspective for clients. It’s the time to, as Mark Herrmann urges, think about things like whether the new law or policy may have unintended consequences or interact with another law in an important way. As a member of our target audience, Mark gave us some great advice on how to differentiate our alerts from the pack. So let’s follow it.

At the very least, provide some tips about what actions clients should take in response to the development you’re writing about. And make sure they go beyond the standard “consult with legal counsel” or “review your policies to make sure they comply with the new law.”

Those tips are too vague to be of much help. They also fail to show that you’re a creative, innovative thinker who offers clients practical advice that will help them solve their business problems. You’re not going to just tell them what they can hear from anyone else.

4. Use the client alert template

If you want a framework to help you implement these tips, I’d recommend using the client alert template I created to help lawyers and business services professionals write stronger headlines, get to the news quickly and include practical tips. The template (only accessible to Baker McKenzie employees) follows a four-section structure with instructions for what to include in each section. The sections include:

  • Headline
  • Section 1: What’s changed
  • Section 2: What it means for you
  • Section 3: Actions to take
  • Section 4: Read more (optional)

For most alerts, you should only use the first three sections. Only — and I repeat, only — use section 4 when you need to provide additional context about the new law, policy or case for clients who want the nitty gritty details (most don’t). As an alternative, consider ending the alert with something like, “If you’d like further details about this development you can read the law/policy/case here” and link to it. (Bonus tip: don’t say “Click here.” That’s old school.)

In addition to the template, I’ve also created a Quick Start Guide on how to use the template and a sample alert to show you what the finished product looks like when you follow it. You can find these materials on BakerWorld.

Going forward, I highly recommend using the template to write client alerts rather than sitting in a dark room, staring at a blinking cursor with no one else to talk to. If you’re still not convinced that you need help, here’s a testimonial from one lawyer who used the template:

I found the template really helped me to focus my thoughts and get over that initial hump of staring at a blank screen. Because of that, I think the first draft only took me about an hour, whereas usually it is a much longer process. Thank you very much.

So, give the template a try and let me know if it helps you gain more hours in your day. I think I just might have found the loophole.

Alyssa’s top six email marketing tips

When it comes to email marketing, Alyssa Miller often uses herself as a case study to determine which emails clients will open – and which ones they won’t. As Baker McKenzie’s global manager of marketing technology and training, Alyssa has noticed she will spend hours on websites like Self and Prevention clicking on all the links.

Why? Because the headlines catch her attention:

Seven Foods You Should Never Eat for Breakfast
Why Red Wine Gives You Headaches
Does Drinking Soda Really Cause Diabetes?

Okay, so we work at a law firm, and it’s not like they teach headline writing in law or business school. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use proven techniques for writing headlines that pique a reader’s curiosity – tricks that I reveal in this post.

Aside from the importance of catchy headlines and self observation, Alyssa has learned a few things about the ideal frequency, length, imagery and distribution of email campaigns during her 10 years managing our Firm’s email marketing tool.

For this post, I talked to Alyssa about how to get more people to read our email campaigns and whether she really avoids Prevention magazine’s seven black-listed breakfast foods. I know I’m guilty of eating at least two of them, but Alyssa assures me that she avoids all seven.

I’m not sure how much we can trust someone who only eats bananas and almond butter for breakfast, but here we go nonetheless.

1. Survey your audience.

Ever wonder what your clients want to read about and how often? Ask them. When Alyssa started producing the Firm’s alumni newsletter five years ago, she sent it out quarterly with six to eight stories in each issue. After a few years of reviewing the analytics, she noticed that people tended to read the first few stories but not those farther down on the list.

So Alyssa sent out a short survey asking those who hadn’t viewed the newsletter in at least six months whether they still wanted to be on the alumni newsletter distribution list (otherwise known as an “opt-in survey”). If their answer was “yes,” she asked what types of topics they were interested in and how often they’d like to receive the newsletter.

Based on the responses, Alyssa started sending out the newsletter every month and limiting the content to one or two stories with news about notable alumni, alumni events and local office information. “The survey indicated they wanted to receive more custom news rather than information that we repurpose from our firm’s website, so we try to draft original content,” Alyssa says.

After she made these changes, view rates of the alumni newsletter rose from 60% to 80%.

2. Become friends with analytics

Aside from surveys, you can also use metrics to find out what topics appeal to your audience most. If, for example, you send out a newsletter with six stories each month, you can review which articles got the most clicks going back three to five issues and then use that information to give your readers more of what they want in the future. “Most people who send email campaigns look at their view rates but not their click-through rates,” Alyssa says.

Although it can be daunting at first to wade through months of metrics, every click tells you what a reader likes. That’s why Alyssa recommends learning as much as you can about how to benchmark your open rates with industry standards (20% is the average for professional services) and how to boost your statistics.

3. Be chunky.

It’s not every day that someone tells you to “be chunky,” particularly when you’re trying to avoid eating cereal for breakfast. But for email marketing, it works. This means organizing your content into bite-sized pieces so it’s easy to scan. Think bullet points, glance boxes and short paragraphs.

For newsletters, it means listing a brief synopsis of each article with “Read more” links instead of putting the full articles on the main page. It’s not only less overwhelming to your readers because it reduces scrolling, but it also creates links for each article, which enables you to track which parts of your newsletter readers are clicking on most. Yep, we’re back to metrics.

Being chunky also makes content less daunting for those reading it on their smart phones – an important audience considering that 50% of all emails are read on mobile devices, according to a 2016 IBM Email Marketing Metrics Benchmark Study.

The good news is that since the launch of our rebranding in December, all of our email marketing templates are now mobile responsive. “That means you put your content into one template and it changes to render perfectly no matter what device you’re viewing it on,” Alyssa says.

How’s that for service?

4. Choose striking imagery.

Maybe 10 years ago clip art and images of businessmen shaking hands were all the rage, but the world has moved on. Gone are the days when you should be using pictures of currency in your finance newsletters. Let go of the literal and go for the metaphor. “Look for images that are colorful, sophisticated, and not literally representative of the topic,” Alyssa says. Here’s an example of imagery she chose for a LinkedIn webinar promotion:

When searching for your own imagery on iStock or ThinkStock, here’s a cool tip that will help: Put “abstract” into the search field along with your topic, as in “banking abstract” to get more creative results. I had never heard of this trick before Alyssa told me about it. When I tried it, the search returned much slicker images.

5. Clean out your distribution list.

I know, I know, you inherited your contact list from the person who had your job before you and the person before that person and beyond. It’s ballooned to 10,000 contacts, and you don’t have time to go through it. It’s like we’re asking you to organize your garage or storage unit. I can hear the groans from here.

But here’s the thing: Cleaning out your distribution list is the number one thing you can do to  increase your view rates. At least that’s what Alyssa claims. “It’s a manually intensive process but it’s worth it,” she says. “You end up with a smaller, more targeted list and you’re no longer sending content to people who don’t want to read it.”

To perform this task, first buy your favorite candy (okay, maybe your favorite alcoholic beverage). Second, review your distribution list and put the people who are regularly opening your campaigns to one side. Third, look for people who haven’t opened any of your campaigns for a specific timeframe, such as one year. Take a deep breath (and a bite of candy or swig of drink) and delete them from your list. Finally, send the rest of your contacts a brief opt-in survey, and use their responses (or lack of response) to determine who else to delete.

“People tend to think that bigger is better, but that’s not the case with email marketing,” Alyssa says. “Think about the email communications that you receive. Do you read the ones that aren’t relevant to you? No.”

6. Send your campaign early in the week.

Email marketing services like Customer.io and Mailchimp have made a science of finding the perfect time to send email campaigns. According to their research, the best time to send your campaign depends on your content, audience and intent. For example, do you want your audience to just read your communication or respond?

The best time to distribute informative newsletters or blogs is at the beginning of the week (Monday through Wednesday) between noon and 4 pm. The best time to send emails you want readers to respond to is toward the end of the week, either early in the morning our late at night (from 6 am to 8 am and 8 pm to midnight). Email marketing researchers explain why in this infographic.

Given that many of our Firm’s email campaign audiences are based in different time zones across the world, the precise time isn’t as important. But Alyssa has noticed that emails sent earlier in the week do get higher open rates.

“It’s good to know the general rule, but you’ll learn more by looking at your own reporting to see when people are viewing your campaigns the most,” she says.

Yep, there we go again talking about metrics.

Extra credit: A/B testing.

For those overachievers out there who have already cleaned up your distribution lists, chunked up your content and made it a habit to select striking imagery, there are other techniques you can use to find out what will make more readers open your campaigns.

One is called A/B testing in which you divide your distribution list into two separate groups and set up your campaign one way for one group and another way for the second group, such as by using different email subject lines for each. Then you can see which campaign gets a higher view rate.

As much as we try to make email marketing a science, it’s a lot of trial and error. So play around a little to see what works. “We can always get better at finding out what people want to read and using data to figure it out,” Alyssa says.

Amen. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to grab some green juice and a breakfast sandwich.

Five things to lose this year

We’re nearly a month into the new year, and I’m sure you have been hard at work on your resolutions. I have already lost 10 pounds, quit procrastinating and cleaned out all of my closets. (Okay, so maybe I’ve only cleaned out the closets.)

This year I thought I would not only make my own New Year’s resolutions, but also add some to your list as well. What can I say? I’m a giver.

I thought the start of a new year would be a good time to introduce you to more changes we’ve made to our Firm’s standards for spelling, capitalization, punctuation and grammar. Those standards are encapsulated in the A-Z Style Guide that we in global marketing developed as part of our rebranding launch last month, way back in 2016 when I still had messy closets.

Since the Firm was already already updating its logo, we thought it would be a good time to revisit our stylebook to see if it needed refreshing. So, I actually read all 50 pages and put together a committee of expert writers from around the Firm to weigh in on what to keep, delete and change.

As a result, I am happy to announce that 2017 is the year you can drop a lot more than just 10 pounds (or kilos) and the ampersand in “Baker & McKenzie.” Here’s a list of other things to lose:

1. Courtesy titles. No longer will our lawyer bios and press releases read like scripts from “Downton Abbey.” Unless this level of formality is customary in your market, follow this guidance in the A-Z Style Guide on how to refer to members of our Firm:

courtesy titles  
Avoid courtesy titles such as “Mr.,” “Ms.” or “Mrs.” in lawyer CVs, press releases and other Firm communications because they are overly formal and gender-specific. Instead, use full names on first reference and first names in later references.

Example: Julie Alexander is a partner in the Global Banking & Finance Practice. For more than 20 years, Julie has helped clients secure financing for major projects.

2. The periods in “am” and “pm.” When I sent around an email to our Firm’s marketing, business development, knowledge management and communications professionals a few months ago asking for feedback on the changes they’d like to see made to our stylebook, many advocated omitting any punctuation that wasn’t necessary for clarity or comprehension. That included the periods in “a.m.” and “p.m.” When I researched this issue, I found that most US style guides require the periods. However, in the UK the Economist Style Guide omits them. Since style is often a matter of choice rather than right and wrong, our committee opted to go with the Brits on this one for simplicity sake. Here is our new Firm standard:

am/pm 
Use lowercase and no periods. Add a space between the number and “am” or “pm” and use a colon in the time instead of a period. Omit zeros unless the time requires specific minutes.

Examples: 8 am, 1 pm, 3:15 pm, 9:30 pm

3. The periods in “eg” and “ie.” To be consistent, we also decided to omit the periods in “eg” and “ie” in accordance with the Economist Style Guide. My preference is to avoid using these abbreviations altogether because they are often misused and mistaken for each other. Plus, why use Latin when you can just use the English translations like I’ve done in the alternative examples below? But I’ll leave that choice to you.

eg/ie
Use lowercase and no periods, followed by a comma. The term “eg” means “for example” and is followed by one or more examples. The term “ie” means “that is” and signals you are providing more precise information. Whenever possible, avoid confusion by simply using “for example” or “such as” instead of “eg” and “that is” or “in other words” in place of “ie.” Those phrases are easier to read and comprehend.

Correct: Contribution requests include direct grants to nonprofit organizations and donations to support charity events, eg, fund-raising dinners and golf outings.
or
Contribution requests include direct grants to nonprofit organizations and donations to support charity events, such as fund-raising dinners and golf outings.

Correct: We will establish a separate program to nurture aspirational clients, ie, clients with the potential to generate deep and lasting relationships.
or
We will establish a separate program to nurture aspirational clients, that is, clients with the potential to generate deep and lasting relationships.

4. The “man” in “chairman.” As part of our Global Diversity & Inclusion Committee’s efforts to encourage the Firm to use gender-neutral language, Paul Rawlinson decided to take the title of “global chair” instead of “global chairman.” We are also avoiding the use of gender-specific salutations like “Dear Sirs” or “Dear Sir or Madam.” In fact, the A-Z Style Guide has a whole new entry on how to make your writing more inclusive:

diversity and inclusion
In all communications we run the risk of inadvertently using language or making references that could offend, alienate or exclude people on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, religion or family status. To avoid these pitfalls, apply the following standards:

  • Gender-neutral pronouns: Since English does not have a singular pronoun that includes both sexes, it can be difficult to avoid using wordy, gender-specific phrases like “he or she,” “him or her” and “his or hers” to comply with grammar rules. Whenever possible, we recommend using these workarounds. But when rewriting the sentence to avoid gendered pronouns would be too awkward, we permit the use of “they,” “them” and “their” as singular pronouns.
  • Names: Avoid making assumptions about people’s gender on the basis of their names. Many names, such as “Alex” or “Laurence,” are used by both men and women. Use internet searches or other means to determine someone’s sex to avoid using the wrong gender pronoun or making other references that could be offensive.
  • Occupations and titles: Use gender-neutral language for occupational and professional titles, such as “flight attendant” instead of “stewardess” and “representative” instead of “congressman.” See this list for other alternatives.
  • Salutations: Avoid using gender-specific salutations such as “Dear Sirs” or “Dear Sir or Madam.” Instead, use neutral terms like “Dear Colleagues” or address the company, as in “To: Acme Construction Company.” Also consider using the person’s name if you know it, as in “Dear Alex.”
  • Sports: Avoid using sports analogies in writing and presentations because many are culture- and gender-specific.

5. Spelling out common acronyms. Some acronyms are so well known that there’s no need to spell them out on first reference. The A-Z Style Guide includes a list of those acronyms, which include: CEO, CV, HR, M&A, IP, IPO, US and UK.

On a related note, we also adopted the AP style of simply spelling out the full names of laws, government agencies, organizations, committees, etc., on first reference and using the acronyms on second and subsequent references. This means you do not, I repeat, do not need to put that acronym in parentheses or parentheses and quotation marks next to the first reference. Here’s an example from the A-Z Style Guide:

acronyms
Avoid putting acronyms in parentheses next to first references. Instead, spell out the name on first reference, then use the acronym in subsequent references. It’s typically obvious to readers what an acronym refers to if you’ve spelled it out on first reference.

Correct: The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibits companies from making illegal payments to government officials. When doing business with state-owned entities, companies have a higher risk of violating the FCPA.

Incorrect: The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) prohibits companies from making illegal payments to government officials. When doing business with state-owned entities, companies have a higher risk of violating the FCPA.

This is a style change I would love to see our lawyers and business professionals embrace in all writing except for legal documents that require these types of citations. I like this rule because it helps streamline copy, making it much easier to read. It’s why newspapers and magazines around the world follow this convention. Our Firm’s writing tends to be wordy and overly punctuated, so if there’s anything we can cut out to make our sentences clearer, I’m all for it.

Not convinced? Just read this opening paragraph from one of our client alerts:

This client alert summarizes the final rule published in the Federal Register on May 16, 2011,  by the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (“DDTC”) to amend the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, 22 C.F.R. Part 120 et seq. (“ITAR”) with regard to transfers of unclassified ITAR-controlled technology to dual national and third-country national employees (“DTCNs”) of foreign end-users.

Here’s how I rewrote it without the acronyms and other details that can be included in subsequent paragraphs:

This client alert summarizes the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls’ final rule amending the International Traffic in Arms Regulations on transfers of unclassified technology to dual national and third-country national employees of foreign end-users.

Okay, still not terribly sexy but surely you lost five pounds (or kilos) just reading it. I guarantee you will lose at least another five pounds if you start following these new rules from the A-Z Style Guide. It will also make life easier for your readers.

Welcome to 2017. I hope you feel lighter already.

Grammar lessons from a train ride

el-signI was riding home on the “L” after a long day at work, staring off into space instead of at my phone like usual, when this sign next to the exit doors caught my attention.

For those of you who don’t know Chicago, the “L” is what we call our subway system. Sometimes spelled “el,” the name is short for “elevated train” after what it looked like when it was first built in 1892. The “L” is the second oldest and third busiest transit system in the US. (I couldn’t help but give you some trivia to make you sound smart at cocktail parties. It is the holiday season.)

But back to the sign. As I studied it, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the logic behind which words were capitalized and which were left lowercase. I kept trying to find some sort of pattern. When I couldn’t find one, a phrase commonly uttered by my 4-year-old son came to mind, What the heck? 

Let’s start out by noting that from a grammar perspective, none of the words on this sign should be capitalized besides the first word of each sentence. Not to mention the fact that the fifth instruction “Danger, High Voltage at Track Level,” isn’t even a sentence, which makes the list lack parallelism, another indication of poor writing.

For those of you who may remember my post on bullet points, parallelism requires that if the first item in your list starts with a verb, all items should start with verbs. If the first item starts with a noun, all items should start with nouns. If the first item is a phrase, all items should be phrases. If the first item is a sentence, all items should be sentences. You get the picture. It means being consistent so that a list is easy to read.

As long as we’re here, let’s set aside the capitalization issue for a minute and address the lack of parallelism in the CTA sign. We’ll start by identifying where the verbs are to determine whether they are used consistently. I’ve bolded them below.

In case of an emergency:

  1. Follow Instructions.
  2. Remain on Train.
  3. Do not Open Doors.
  4. Move to Another Car.
  5. If in Danger, help others.
  6. Exit as Instructed.
  7. Danger, High Voltage at Track Level.

As you can see, items 1, 2, 3, 4 and 6 are parallel because they all start with verbs. But number 5 doesn’t even make sense. “If in Danger, help others”? How can you help others when you’re in danger? Doesn’t the airline industry tell us to put on our own oxygen masks first? I think the Chicago Transit Authority really means, “Help others in danger.” Now the instruction is clear and parallel because it starts with a verb like the others.

Now what about number 7? It’s a fragment, not a sentence, and it doesn’t even have a verb. So it lacks parallelism in two ways. The good news is both issues can be easily fixed by starting that phrase with a verb, which will turn it into a sentence. Something like, “Beware of high-voltage tracks” or “Avoid electrocution, you idiot.”

So now our sign reads:

In case of an emergency:

  1. Follow Instructions.
  2. Remain on Train.
  3. Do not Open Doors. 
  4. Move to Another Car.
  5. Help others in Danger.
  6. Exit as Instructed.
  7. Beware of High-Voltage Tracks.

See how much easier it is to read?

Now that we’ve fixed the CTA’s parallelism problem (free of charge, I might add), let’s revisit the capitalization issue. As I said before, none of these words should be capitalized except the first word of each sentence, but let’s try and see what failed logic the writer could have been following. Here’s the original sign wording again. I’ve bolded the words that the CTA capitalized.

  1. Follow Instructions.
  2. Remain on Train.
  3. Do not Open Doors.
  4. Move to Another Car.
  5. If in Danger, help others.
  6. Exit as Instructed.
  7. Danger, High Voltage at Track Level.

Most people know not to capitalize prepositions and conjunctions of three letters or fewer, such as “on,” “to,” “in,” “as” and “of” in book and other publication titles. I’d like to give the CTA the benefit of the doubt and assume they were just mistakenly applying that rule to their list, even though no book titles were involved. At least then they were following a rule. But I suspect that’s not actually what’s happening here.

My guess? They’re using capitalization for emphasis. Many people make the mistake of capitalizing common nouns and verbs to give them greater emphasis. But then why not also capitalize words like “help” or “others”? Those also seem like important words to highlight. I mean, if you’re going to be grammatically incorrect, at least be consistent about it.

This is why I found this sign puzzling. And it does raise a larger question: Why is too much capitalization a problem?

I’m so glad you asked.

In short, it’s distracting. Using anything in excess, including bold, italics, underlining, dashes and different colored fonts can overwhelm your reader and detract from your message. I explain this point further in my entry about capitalization in the new-and-improved A-Z Style Guide now available on BakerWorld. (Yes, it’s finally done and ready for mass consumption!)

Here’s that entry:

capitalization
Avoid overcapitalization. Capital letters slow readers down, and having too many capitalized words detracts from the words that are truly important. Save capital letters for proper nouns and professional titles before a person’s name. Apply these standards:

  • Capitalize the proper names of organizations, political parties, treaties, acts and laws. Use lowercase when referring to them in shorthand form later.

Examples:
“Labour Party” and later “the party”
“International Monetary Fund” and later “the fund”
“the CAN-SPAM Act” and later “the act”

  • Capitalize the proper names of governmental agencies, departments and offices, but use lowercase to refer to governments in general.

Examples:
The Russian Federation, the Chicago City Council, the British Parliament
the federal government, the city council, the parliament

This rule is simple, yet very hard for our Firm to follow. We like to capitalize common nouns for the same reason I suspect the CTA was capitalizing random words, although we are more consistent about it.

Like I speculated in my post on whether we should continue to capitalize “Firm,” I think we overcapitalize because it’s common practice to capitalize common nouns in legal documents such as contracts and letters of engagement to emphasize them.

When you’re trained in law school to write sentences like, “This contract is between Smith, Evans and Jones (hereafter referred to as ‘the Firm’) and ABC Company Inc. (hereafter known as ‘Company’)” it’s only natural to start capitalizing common nouns in non-legal documents, even if it is grammatically incorrect. Then anyone who works with lawyers starts doing it, too.

But I’m here to advocate for the little guy: lowercase. Someone has to. For example, I often see confusion about when to capitalize the names of practice and industry groups.

Here’s the rule: Only capitalize these terms when they are part of proper names, such as the official names of our practice or industry groups. When you are referring to them in general, use lowercase. Here are some examples:

Correct: The Global Tax Practice is ranked Band 1 by Chambers Global.
Incorrect: Our Tax Practice is ranked Band 1 by Chambers Global.

“Tax Practice” in the second sentence should be lowercase because it’s not the official name of the group.

Correct: Our tax practice is ranked Band 1 by Chambers Global.

The same rule applies to subpractice groups.

Correct: The Global Transfer Pricing Subpractice Group will host a seminar in May.
Incorrect: Our Transfer Pricing Subpractice will host a seminar in May.

In the second sentence, “transfer pricing subpractice” should be lowercase. The same goes for phrases like “our employment team” and “our corporate compliance lawyers” (not “our Employment Team” or “our Corporate Compliance lawyers”).

Using lowercase to refer to your employment team or corporate compliance lawyers does not make them any less important. It just means you are properly following grammar rules that dictate not capitalizing common nouns when used in a general sense, but only when they are part of an official name or title.

Now that we’ve dipped our toe in the proper capitalization pool, here’s the big one: professional titles. Oh, how we love to capitalize them even when we shouldn’t.

Here’s the rule from, you guessed it, the A-Z Guide:

professional titles
Do not capitalize professional titles unless they immediately precede the name of the person who holds the position. This includes titles such as “chair,” “partner,” “general counsel” and “associate” in our press releases, proposals and other communications.

Correct: Paul Rawlinson is chair of the Firm’s Executive Committee.
Incorrect: Paul Rawlinson is Chair of the Firm’s Executive Committee.

Correct: The Executive Committee is led by Chair Paul Rawlinson.
Incorrect: The Executive Committee is led by chair Paul Rawlinson.

Correct: The client was advised by Jaime Trujillo, a partner in our Bogota office.
Incorrect: The client was advised by Jaime Trujillo, a Partner in our Bogota office.

Correct: We contacted the general counsel to discuss the case.
Incorrect: We contacted the General Counsel to discuss the case.

This rule was part of our Firm’s stylebook long before I started working here seven years ago, and yet it’s very, very hard for us to follow. Somehow I guess it feels like we’re not paying someone proper respect if we’re not capitalizing her or his title in all references.

But here’s something to make you feel better: Even “the pope” isn’t capitalized. Neither is “the president” or “prime minister” unless those titles directly precede their names. This is what it looks like when written correctly:

Today Prime Minister Theresa May met with EU officials. During that meeting, the prime minister reaffirmed her intentions to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of March.

Throughout his public life, Pope Francis has been noted for his humility. Born in Buenos Aires, the pope is the first from South America.

Crazy, right? It may feel unnatural at first, but I promise it will get easier. Just think of that CTA sign and how important it is not to distract your readers, particularly when they’re trying to avoid electrocution during an emergency evacuation.

For more capitalization rules, see the “academic titles,” “capabilities/services,” “headings/headlines” and “publication titles” entries in the A-Z Style Guide.  Also see the guide’s “Common capitalization errors” list on page 37. Happy holidays!

Those gosh darn apostrophes

apostrophe-1
My daughter’s name is Tess. She’s cute and all, but the fact that we named her “Tess” poses punctuation challenges. When making her name possessive, should it be “Tess’ birthday party” or “Tess’s birthday party?”

If you think there’s an easy answer, you’re wrong. We could skirt the issue entirely by calling her by her full name: Tessa. But I only call her that when she’s in trouble. Given that she’s 2 years old and her hobbies are pouring water on the bathroom floor and drawing on the couch, I call her “Tessa” quite often. I have found the “a” at the end provides nice, forceful emphasis when yelling, “Tess-AH!!”

But I digress.

Where were we? Oh, right. Apostrophes. I’ve been researching apostrophes lately because, as you might have heard, I’m revising our Firm’s stylebook. When I googled “apostrophe after s” the top search result was Grammarbook.com, which provides this guidance:

Many common nouns end in the letter “s” (lens, cactus, bus, etc.) So do a lot of proper nouns (Mr. Jones, Texas, Christmas). There are conflicting policies and theories about how to show possession when writing such nouns. There is no right answer, the best advice is to choose a formula and stay consistent.

Fair enough. Just pick one method and stick with it. But which one to choose? I dug deeper to see what the prominent style guides suggest. Currently the Baker McKenzie Stylebook tells users to consult the Associated Press Stylebook for rules on possessive forms but provides little further guidance.

The AP Stylebook suggests adding only an apostrophe when making most singular nouns that end in “s” possessive. So we would write “Tess’ birthday party.” The Chicago Manual of Style, however, suggests adding an apostrophe and an “s,” as in “Tess’s birthday party.”

I have no idea why the AP editors chose one way and the Chicago Manual editors chose the other, but I’m guessing it was a matter of aesthetics. Maybe the AP editors thought the extra “s” looked extraneous and the Chicago Manual editors thought the apostrophe looked lonely.

Again, this is an issue of style, not grammar, because both ways are correct. You’re only required to be consistent. Since the Americans couldn’t agree, I looked to the British.

The Economist Style Guide sides with the Chicago Manual of Style: add an apostrophe “s” after singular words or names that end in “s,” as in “the boss’s office,” “the caucus’s position,” “St. James’s Palace” and “Mr. Jones’s house.”

But when using plural nouns that end in “s” you just add an apostrophe, as in “the bosses’ offices,” “the caucuses’ positions” and “the Joneses’ house.” You also omit the additional “s” for the possessive of plural names that take a singular verb, such as Reuters’, Barclays’ and Siemens’, as well as in phrases like “the United States’ economic policy” and “the Philippines’ next president.”

Oh boy. I guess I could remember those exceptions, but does it have to be so complicated? It reminds me of high school French class when we’d spend 45 minutes learning a new grammar rule and then the last 10 minutes of class reviewing two pages of exceptions.

Why are there always exceptions? I would groan to our teacher, whose name was Mr. Polkinghorn. Funny name for a French teacher, right? Funny name in general, right?

But I digress. Again. Probably because apostrophes aren’t behaving themselves and being simple and straightforward, which is how I like most things, particularly language.

So which method to adopt for our Firm’s stylebook? I have no idea. Frankly, I prefer “Tess’ party” to “Tess’s party” because it looks less cluttered to me. And we all know how I feel about clutter.

So that would mean we’d adopt AP style. But of course, there’s a catch. AP style says don’t add an additional “s” after the apostrophe in proper nouns like “Tess” but do add an apostrophe and an “s” to common nouns ending in “s” unless the next word begins with “s.”

Say what? That would mean that Tess’ party would remain “Tess’ party” because it’s a singular proper noun, but for singular common nouns like “boss” or “witness” the correct usage would be “the boss’s office” and “the witness’s testimony” with an additional “s.” Unless, like I said, the next word ends in “s,” in which case you would just write “the boss’ sister” and “the witness’ story.”

I think my head just exploded. AP provides no explanation for this exception. Mr. Polkinghorn never did either. “Just memorize it,” he would say.

At this point I’m leaning toward adopting the Chicago Manual/Economist style because it seems simpler: add an apostrophe “s” if it’s a singular noun no matter what (sorry Tess!) but add only an apostrophe for plural nouns that end in “s.”

There. Done. But I don’t know, what do you think?

Before you start mulling that over, stay with me for a moment because I’m about to give you a definitive answer on one aspect of using apostrophes. How refreshing.

Here’s the rule: Do not, I repeat, do not use apostrophes to make words plural, including acronyms, abbreviations and numbers, such as decades and centuries. Just add an “s.”

Correct: CEOs, IPOs, CVs, 20s, 747s, 1800s, 2010s
Incorrect: CEO’s, IPO’s, CV’s, 20’s, 747’s 1800’s, 2010’s

The reason using apostrophes is grammatically incorrect in this context is simple (thank God). Apostrophes have two basic jobs: to show possession (the cat’s meow) and to denote missing letters (“can’t” as a contraction for “cannot”).

In the context above, you are talking about more than one CEO or IPO, so like other singular nouns, such as “cat,” you simply add “s” to make it plural: The CEOs gathered for the annual conference. The number of IPOs doubled this year.

You would only write “CEO’s” if you were referring to something belonging to one CEO, as in “the CEO’s strategy.” In this case, adding an apostrophe “s” would be correct. If you were referring to strategies belonging to multiple CEOs, you would write, “the CEOs’ strategies.” I know, isn’t this fun?

Decades and centuries are the same. You are making them plural, not denoting ownership or replacing missing letters. So no apostrophe is needed: “The 1990s were a time of great expansion,” not “the 1990’s were a time of great expansion.”

Now that you know this well-kept secret, you will see apostrophes used and abused everywhere. There’s a reason there’s an Apostrophe Protection Society.

Of course, there is one tiny exception to the rule about not using apostrophes in the plural form of acronyms and abbreviations. (Here comes Mr. Polkinghorn again.) You do use an apostrophe to pluralize single-letter abbreviations, as in “She got all A’s on her report card” or “mind your p’s and q’s.”

This one actually makes sense because not including an apostrophe could make the word unclear to readers: Does she mean “As” or A’s”?  “ps” or “p’s”?  But for any other abbreviation of two or more letters: no apostrophe.

That brings me to my last apostrophes tip. It’s about plural possessives, which are important to get right because they are so often written incorrectly. When writing plural possessives, always make the word plural first; then make it possessive using the apostrophe rules above.

Singular: company     Plural: companies      Plural possessive: companies’ stock
Singular: woman        Plural: women            Plural possessive: women’s rights
Singular: Mr. Jones    Plural: the Joneses      Plural possessive: the Joneses’ house
Singular: Obama        Plural: the Obamas    Plural possessive: the Obamas’ daughters
Singular: boss             Plural: the bosses       Plural possessive: the bosses’ offices

Following this rule will help you avoid mistakes such as “womens’ rights,” “the Jones’ house” and “the Obama’s daughters.”

Remember: Be the change you want to see in the world. And let me know if you’d like to be invited to Tess’ (Tess’s?) birthday party.

Firm vs. firm: the vote is in

People waiting to vote

While we’re still in the season of voting, I thought I would announce the results of the informal poll I took to determine whether now was the time to stop capitalizing “Firm,” as part of my efforts to revise our stylebook. Here is the tally:

Don’t capitalize: 24
Do capitalize: 21
Total votes: 45

Now I realize this isn’t the best voter turnout given that we have 13,000 people in our Firm. Despite the small sample size, however, the responses I got were revealing. Some people expressed ambiguity on the matter. But those who had opinions felt strongly about them. Here is a sample of those responses. I’m withholding the names to protect the innocent but including the titles and locations of the respondents to provide context.

DON’T CAPITALIZE

“There is simply no reason to capitalize it. It is not a proper noun, and adding the capital seems pompous and self-aggrandizing.”
Senior knowledge management professional, Europe

“I think it’s self important, grammatically incorrect and not aligned with the idea of a more approachable new brand.”
Senior marketing professional, Asia Pacific

“UK-based firms don’t usually capitalize ‘firm’ and US-based ones do. It’s not a proper noun as far as I’m concerned.”
Senior business development professional, Europe

“The capitalization of ‘firm’ makes us sounds like a John Grisham novel, and not in a flattering way. It also comes off as internally focused and self centered.”
Senior BD professional, North America

“Capitalizing seems dated.”
BD professional, Asia Pacific

DO CAPITALIZE

“Definitely capitalize ‘Firm.’ It’s a proper collective, just like us! A well-mannered horde, eager to deliver sound legal advice.”
BD professional, Asia Pacific

“I think it makes perfect sense to use ‘Firm’ just as we would say ‘Court’ to refer to a specific court of justice or ‘Client’ to refer to our client, as opposed to someone else’s. I don’t agree that our reasonable pride in our Firm would be off-putting to readers. What’s wrong with a smidgen of pride in the place you spend most of your day and week and month and year?”
Senior BD professional, Asia Pacific

“Lawyers use the Firm for the same reason they wear a suit and tie to a meeting where the clients are wearing blue jeans and t-shirts, and for the same reason that bank buildings are built with granite and Greek columns. Abraham Lincoln was wrong. A lawyer’s stock in trade is not time; it is trust. A bank building is made of granite to communicate stability and permanence so that depositors will trust that their money is safe even though we all know that is a fiction. Lawyers wear suits to communicate trust. Use of the phrase ‘the Firm’ may be pretentious but it subtly implies permanence, gravitas and trust. When in doubt, it is better to be overdressed than underdressed.”
Partner, North America

So there you have it: a sense of where both sides are coming from. This response, however, was my favorite:

“As for Firm vs. firm, I think that’s a battle you’re not going to win (sorry to say). We definitely do over-capitalize things here, but that one is so entrenched in our culture that it would take an act of God to get even the majority of people to switch.”
BD professional, North America

An act of God? Now we’re talking. I love this response because this person is basically saying, “It’s so hopeless, I’m not even going to vote.” Those are fighting words to me. Usually when someone tells me, “You’re never going to be able to do that,” my reaction is, “Oh yeah, watch me!” In fact, that character trait was the theme of an anecdote my mom told at the rehearsal dinner before my wedding.

Yet I’ve come far enough in my personal and professional development to know that my knee jerk reaction to push harder, make my point more loudly, isn’t always the most constructive. Like I’ve said before, you have to pick your battles. Or so I’ve heard.

So here’s the verdict: we’re going to keep “Firm” the way it is – capitalized. Here’s why.

Even though not capitalizing won the popular vote by a slim margin, there doesn’t seem to be a large enough groundswell to inspire the “act of God” it would take to get a majority to comply. Moreover, although I heard from a handful of partners, I didn’t hear from enough to feel comfortable making a change that is basically about their image – how we present them to clients, potential talent and the rest of the legal market.

By the way, the low partner response rate is partly my fault because I only polled people who read my blog and those on the BDMC and KM email distribution lists. Call me crazy, but I didn’t think I’d get permission to put this question to the entire partnership. I also didn’t think it warranted that level of attention but could spark an intriguing debate if I raised the issue on my blog. The purpose was to challenge the convention and start a conversation.

Mission accomplished.

In the same email exchanges with BDMC and KM, I also asked whether we should drop courtesy titles like “Mr.” and “Ms.” in press releases and lawyer bios and use the percentage symbol instead of spelling out “percent.” The responses were overwhelmingly in favor of changing those practices.

“The Mr. and Ms. in our CVs are not popular among our lawyers,” a senior BD and marketing professional from Asia Pacific wrote. “Most prefer to change their bios to refer to themselves by first name, which results in an explanation from us about style guidelines! That would be a welcome change.”

So for those two issues, I’m going with the will of the people. As for giving up on my dreams of a lowercase “firm,” what can I say? I’m an editor before my time.

The takeaway is that how you use language matters. What you do and do not capitalize sends a message to your readers. Depending on who those readers are, they may find it perfectly acceptable or somewhat off-putting. In our case, most of our readers are lawyers, in-house counsel at big companies, so maybe we’re okay … for now.

Yet as we continue to seek a wider audience — senior executives, investment bankers and other professionals who don’t live in the formal world of law, not to mention millennials — we may want to revisit this issue. For now, we’re standing Firm.

Should we capitalize “Firm”?

seawise giantSomeone smart once said you have to pick your battles. That’s particularly true at Baker & McKenzie, where trying to effect change can feel like attempting to shift the direction of the Seawise Giant – the largest oil tanker ever built.  Twice as long as the Titanic, she had a rudder that alone weighed 230 tons.

Yet I can’t help but try. As part of our rebranding efforts, I’ve been asked to update our Firm’s Stylebook (yes, we have one). That means revisiting weighty issues such as whether to use courtesy titles like “Mr.” and “Ms.” in lawyer bios and whether to spell out “percent” for percentages or use the symbol instead.

It also means evaluating whether we should continue to capitalize “Firm” when referring to Baker & McKenzie. When I joined the Firm seven years ago, I thought this was one of the oddest style rules I had ever heard. “Firm” is not a proper noun. Why would you capitalize it?

The answer I got was that it refers to a proper noun. So if you say, “I joined the Firm seven years ago,” you should capitalize “firm” because it’s standing in for Baker & McKenzie, which is a proper noun.

Say what?

As a general rule, words that are part of a company name are capitalized but not when used by themselves, even when you’re referring to a particular company.

For example, you would capitalize “bank” when talking about Standard Chartered Bank but not when writing, “The bank has been very profitable in recent years.”

Along the same lines, you would capitalize McDonald’s in a sentence because it’s the name of a restaurant, which makes it a proper noun. But you would not capitalize “restaurant” in a sentence like, “The restaurant is the largest fast-food chain in the world,” even though you’re referring to McDonald’s.

Pronouns follow the same logic. As a general rule, we do not capitalize pronouns even though they stand in for people’s names.  For example, it’s correct to  write, “Are you going to the conference with Maria?” But it’s incorrect to write, “Are you going to the conference with Her?”

The quirky thing about the English language is that we do capitalize the pronoun “I,” which deviates from the rule. When I noticed this exception, I did some research to find out why. The answer? No one really knows.

The best guess of linguists is that “i” looked sad and lonely all by itself because it’s one of the only words in the English language besides “a” that is just one letter. So writers started to capitalize it to make it stand out. As far as historians can tell, “I” has been capitalized in the English language since Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s.

So there you go. Your history lesson for the day.

Aside from the exception of capitalizing the almighty “I,” however, the English language is pretty consistent about when to capitalize (proper nouns, yes) and when not to capitalize (common nouns and pronouns, no). Which is why I was confused the first time I saw “Firm” capitalized throughout our internal communications and client materials.

The other rationale I got for why we do this is to distinguish our firm from other firms and make it clear we are referring to Baker & McKenzie.

Say what?

That’s just silly. If you’re worried about clarity, all you have to do is write, “our firm” instead of “the firm.” For example, you would say, “Our firm was founded in 1949” instead of “The Firm was founded in 1949.”

I think the real reason we capitalize “Firm” is because it’s a common practice in legal documents such as contracts and engagement letters. We are, after all, a law firm. In her blog post, “Please Stop Capitalizing ‘Firm,’” business strategist Michelle Golden explains:

I think the reason accountants and lawyers excessively capitalize has to do with legal documents. You know, “This contract is between Smith, Evans and Jones (hereafter referred to as “the Firm”) and ABC Company, Inc. (hereafter known as “Company”).

So firms got used to capitalizing both words, “Firm” and “Company” throughout documents and started applying that to every type of document including brochures, websites and proposals.

Golden goes on to plead with accountants and lawyers to stop this practice because it’s grammatically incorrect. But that’s not the only reason we should stop.

How you treat language sends a message to your reader. When you capitalize something, you are saying, “This is important.” You are saying, “This isn’t just any mountain, this is Mount Kilimanjaro.” You are saying, “This isn’t just any hotel. This is the Plaza Hotel.”

So by capitalizing “Firm” we are not just deviating from the grammar rule, we are saying, “We’re not just any firm, we’re the Firm.” That conveys a message of self-importance, which can be off-putting to our readers.

And maybe we’re fine with that. Maybe we feel it’s important to talk about ourselves with some additional pride. It’s not my preference. But then, I’m only one passenger among many on this oil tanker.

I raised the Firm capitalization issue with the committee I put together to review our stylebook, which I named the Supercool Stylebook Committee, otherwise known as SSC (every committee needs an acronym, right?)

One of the SSC members warned me not to go there because we’d never get everyone in the Firm to agree to stop capitalizing “Firm.” He’s probably right. I don’t want to die on that hill either (as we Americans say about battles not worth fighting). There are larger issues to expend my energy on, better reasons for trying to shift the direction of the Seaside Giant.

Nevertheless, in the name of democracy, I put the question to you, my dear readers. As a member of the Firm, do you think we should we keep capitalizing “Firm”? And if so, why?

Meet your new best friend

Two women taking picture of themselves with a digital camera

One of my goals in life is to help anyone who writes realize that verbs are their best friend. Not nouns, adjectives, adverbs or prepositions. Not alliteration, similes or metaphors.

Verbs!

Verbs are your best friend for three reasons:

1. They give sentences power.
2. They make you sound confident.
3. They keep sentences simple.

And yet we often do the same thing to verbs that we do to our family and friends — try to make them something they’re not. Raise your hand if you’ve ever tried to change someone else. (You can’t see me, but I’m raising my hand.) Raise your hand if it worked. (Both hands remain by my side.)

Sigh.

How do we try to change verbs? By turning them into nouns. We write things like, “We provide advice on tax structuring” instead of “We advise on tax structuring.” We say we “act in consultation with local firms” rather than we “consult with local firms.” And we “assist with the preparation of distribution agreements” instead of “preparing distribution agreements.”

Double sigh.

When I was editing more than 100 office and practice group descriptions for the launch of our Firm’s new website, I lost track of the number of times I turned noun phrases back into their original verb form. That’s how pervasive this problem is. The good news is it’s easy to fix once you’re aware of it.

Many words start life as strong, healthy verbs. Words like advise, consult, determine, develop, identify, implement, integrate, notify, prepare, provide and separate. Yet over time we have converted them into nouns, particularly in legal and business writing, creating wordy, overly formal phrases like this:

we determine → we aid in the determination of
we develop → we assist with the development of
we identify → we assist with the identification of
we implement → we aid in the implementation of
we integrate → we help with the integration of
we notify → we aid in the notification of
we provide → we aid in the provision of
we separate → we assist with the separation of

I should note that turning verbs into noun phrases is grammatically correct. And in some cases, it’s perfectly appropriate to use the noun form of a verb, such as in phrases like “the separation of church and state.” But in the context I’m talking about, it’s just not strong writing to use a noun when you could tap into the power of a verb instead.

It’s like when you talk a friend into changing some aspect of their behavior you don’t like, and even when they do, you get the sense they’re only doing it for your benefit. The modification is not coming from their own desire to change, but from their desire to avoid further disapproval. They become stilted, watered-down versions of themselves. The same thing happens to verbs.

“Verbs are the most important part of any sentence,” writing consultant Paddy O’Connor explains in a proposal-writing guide he developed for Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. “The more verbs you use (especially active verbs), the more persuasive your writing and the more confident you sound. When your writing is packed with heavy noun phrases based on a verb, any power your writing might have had is trapped beneath these smothered verbs.”

When you take this passive approach to writing, you are not only smothering verbs, but also making your sentences longer than they need to be. Doing this once or twice may be fine, but paragraph after paragraph of long-winded sentences makes for arduous reading and you run the risk that readers will stop reading.

“Abstract nouns don’t just suck the life out of your writing, they are also the main reason your sentences are so long,” O’Connor writes. “Every time you turn a simple verb into a noun phrase you need to find another verb to support it.”

What he means is that when you turn the verb “prepare” into the noun phrase, “the preparation of” you have to add another verb to the sentence because “prepare” is no longer a verb.

For example, it’s grammatically correct to say, “we prepare employee visas.” But if you change “prepare” to a noun, you can’t say, “we the preparation of employee visas.” You must add another verb so the sentence makes sense, such as, “we assist with the preparation of employee visas.” Now your sentence is eight words instead of four.

Why use more words than you need to?

My guess is that people think it sounds more professional or respectful to use formal phrases like “with the preparation of.” Yet when you think about it, what’s unprofessional or disrespectful about saying, “We prepare employee visas”?

It’s a simple, clear, direct sentence. My hunch is that clients would welcome sentences like this because they are quicker to read and easier to understand.

So here’s the rule: if the root of a noun is a verb, stick with the verb. You do not provide guidance, you guide. You do not aid in the development of corporate compliance programs, you develop corporate compliance programs. You do not assist in the notification of government agencies, you notify them.

Let’s practice with the following sentence:

We would be delighted to assist you with the integration of the acquired entity.

Which verb got turned into a noun?

Answer: integrate. As in, “We would be delighted assist you with the integration of the acquired entity.

How do we change this back into the original verb?

We would be delighted to help you integrate the acquired entity.

Did you lose any sense of decorum? No, you sound like one human being talking to another using proper English.

Let’s try another one:

Addressing people issues is critical to the successful implementation of any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, post-transaction integration or restructuring.

Which verb got turned into a noun?

Answer: implement. As in, “Addressing people issues is critical to the successful implementation of any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, post-transaction integration or restructuring.”

How do we change this back to the verb form?

Addressing people issues is critical to successfully implementing any business change, whether it’s an acquisition, disposal, spinoff, posttransaction integration or restructuring.

Now your sentence has momentum. Someone is doing something instead of someone being engaged in the doing of something. Much better.

I realize it may take a while to get the hang of this, and it may feel uncomfortable to use simple, direct language. Rest assured that after writing this way for awhile, it will feel like second nature. Before you know it, you and verbs will have become best friends.