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.

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