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?

Are you “using” quotation marks correctly?

quotation-marks-beware-dog-bigger

In the world of punctuation, quotation marks are often misunderstood. They are misused and abused in everything from signs, placards, and product packaging to our Firm’s brochures, newsletters and client alerts.

In fact, there are entire websites dedicated to mocking incorrect usage of quotation marks, such as this one that features pictures of grammatical errors guaranteed to make you smile.

To find out whether your writing could end up on one of these websites, take this quick test. For each question, choose the sentence with correct punctuation.

  1. a) Based in emerging markets, our lawyers do not “parachute in” when issues arise.
    b) Based in emerging markets, our lawyers do not parachute in when issues arise.
  1. a) Investors consider Eastern Europe a hot market for buyouts.
    b) Investors consider Eastern Europe a “hot” market for buyouts.
  1. a) There are ways to compensate sales professionals without crossing the line.
    b) There are ways to compensate sales professionals without “crossing the line.”
  1. a) Karen decided she wasn’t a “good fit” for the organization.
    b) Karen decided she wasn’t a good fit for the organization.
  1. a) George thinks the rule should be “tweaked’ to reflect the new law.
    b) George thinks the rule should be tweaked to reflect the new law.

The answers: B, A, A, B, B. In short, none of these sentences need quotation marks.  Here’s why.

A common mistake that even the most educated people make is thinking that because a word or phrase is an expression or figure of speech, they need to use quotation marks. Phrases like “parachute in,” “crossing the line,” and “good fit” are figures of speech that we use all the time. So are “hot market” and “tweaked.” Readers are familiar with these phrases, so there’s no need to call them out with quotation marks.

Otherwise, we would end up with sentences like this: Professionals who want to “climb the ladder” of success and “make their mark” in their industry need to “hit their targets” and maintain their momentum on the “learning curve” so they don’t “run out of steam.”

Ugh.

I don’t like unnecessary quotation marks because I find them distracting, like clutter in an otherwise tidy room. But they are also grammatically incorrect.

“The primary purpose of punctuation is to convey and clarify meaning,” my friend Erin, a high school English teacher, explains. “People use figurative language all the time and readers understand it as such. Poets don’t put their metaphors in quotation marks, and you don’t need to either.”

In fact, putting quotation marks around common phrases can confuse your readers because one of the correct uses of quotation marks is to signify that you are being ironic or sarcastic, like this:

He took me to his “cabin” in the woods. [The cabin is really a mansion.]

The “experts” told me to take this route. [You do not really think they are experts or you question their judgment as experts.]

In these cases, quotation marks are used as a wink to your readers to let them know you are joking or using a double meaning, just like comedians do when they use air quotes. If you put quotation marks around something, your readers are going to start looking for double meaning, even if you didn’t intend one.

That’s why using quotation marks for figures of speech such as “crossing the line,” and “good fit” could miscue your reader by making them wonder, Wait, what does she really mean by “good fit”?

Another common mistake is using quotation marks for emphasis, like in the picture above. There is no more reason that “dog” should go in quotation marks than there is to write that I really “should” go on a diet. Instead use all caps, bold, italics, underlining or an exclamation point for emphasis, depending on what you’re writing and the style guide you follow.

For example, BEWARE OF DOG! works well for a sign in your front yard. When emailing a friend about your weight problem, use italics:  I really should go on a diet.

Aside from irony, quotation marks are used for four other reasons:

  1. When you’re quoting someone.

“What’s for dinner?” John asked.

  1. When you’re referring to a word as a word.

       Many people don’t like the word “moist.”

  1. When you’re coining a new word or phrase, but only on first use.

During the workshop, students complete “selfwork” assignments designed to make them reflect on their academic goals.

  1. For the titles of magazine or newspaper articles, poems, short stories, songs and individual episodes of TV shows.

One of the best articles I’ve ever read is Anne-Marie Slaughter’s cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”

Other than these reasons, you don’t need quotation marks. Grammar rules are like traffic rules. If we don’t follow them, we risk sending the wrong signal and distracting readers from our message. And who the heck “wants” that?