Why is house style so important? And what steps can you take to ensure that it ends up unifying, as opposed to dividing your firm?
Many successful smaller firms have consolidated their position by taking over or acquiring other complimentary firms, improving their local presence and the depth of resource available to service clients’ varying needs. (Interested in mergers? This article talks through the fundamentals). Such joining of firms also often enables the combined entity to take on “bigger ticket” pieces of work. However all of these benefits, and many others, can be negated if the combined entities retain their own independent identities.
There are many things firms tend to change to give the perception of being a single, rationalised business: branding and signage, telephone numbers, email addresses and business cards. However one common tell-tale sign that can shatter the “one firm” image is the failure to apply a uniform house style across the combined entity. This might seem like a small detail but, to the recipient of a document, it feels incongruous – similar to an individual one day speaking with a Geordie accent and the next day saying the same thing with a Somerset accent – the audience will struggle to accept it is the same person speaking even if the same thing is being said in both instances. What sort of message does it say to a client about various lawyers’ ability to work together if they cannot even agree on the layout of their documents and correspondence?
What is often surprising is how emotional a conversation about a single firm style can get: Arial 12 or Times New Roman 11? 1.1.1 or 1.1.a? Definitions in quotation marks or not? And that is before any discussion as to whether “hereinafter”, “shall” or any Latin phrase should form part of the firm’s vocabulary! Whilst these points may seem petty, they are a big thing for a person who has used a particular style for many years. They are effectively being asked to change their individual voice and identity for the greater good of the firm. Whilst many firms find adopting a new house style a smooth and simple process, others will find it a difficult subject drawing out tensions between departments and testing the egos of certain lawyers.
But since the end result is worth striving for, firms should persevere. The benefits tend to be significant enough to justify bringing in a consultant to manage the process (especially if there is a risk of conflict between fee earners), working with the relevant people in the firm to carve out a single style and style guide. And once that single voice has been found, it needs to be enforced since there are some people who will be inclined to resist.
So, in summary, a house style is a vital piece of any firm’s branding and going without a single style risks the firm appearing as a series of disparate voices rather that a unified entity.
Four tips when developing a house style:
- Consider ensuring your style complies with the UK Document Excellence Group (UKEG) to maintain standard style naming (without changing the unique appearance of your firm’s documents) in order to avoid the formatting problems firms often experience when they collaborate on legal agreements using Microsoft Word and therefore make document production more efficient.
- Take time to get it right and don’t rush the process. Changes require a degree of internal training and IT involvement so it is best to get it right first time. For this reason consider using a house style consultant.
- Carefully manage the rollout of a new firm style. Make an event of its introduction and formally present it to staff in person to ensure that everybody is aware of its existence, its importance and how much effort has been put into developing it.
- Policing of style is difficult, time-consuming and unpopular so softer means of encouraging compliance (or making non-compliance difficult) tend to work best, for example using the “YourStyle” function in LexisPSL, which automatically delivers precedents in a firm’s house style thereby requiring any deviations from house style to be very deliberate.
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About the author
James is a Corporate Lawyer with extensive experience of M&A, equity capital markets, joint ventures, private equity and, more generally, on corporate and regulatory matters. He joined LexisNexis in April 2014 and works with the owners, managers and fee earners at law firms of all sizes to ensure they make the most of their online subscriptions, including LexisPSL.