Why the Best Law Firms Have Style Guides (+ Tips for Starting One)
By Maeva Cifuentes
A law firm might be built of a team of different lawyers, each with their unique style, but the firm as a whole is one: it is a single brand. To turn prospects into clients, you need compelling text that makes people trust you. And when a brand writes in varying styles, tones of voice, and using different grammar rules, people see that firm as unorganized and sometimes even unprofessional. Cue the style guide.
Style guides standardize grammar rules, tones, fonts, and more aspects of any written content. The world, your audience, will judge and perceive your brand or firm based on your style and communication with them. It needs to be consistent. They need to feel like they are dealing with a single entity.
Clients want to work with law firms that understand them, consistently
Let me put it into context for you. Picture this: your client is the director of a B2C startup that connects people who want to learn and practice farming with farmers who are looking for extra help. Given this company’s niche audience, they’ll adapt their style and tone to relate to them.
The company isn’t big enough yet to have an in-house legal department, so they want to consult with an external law firm to make sure they’re complying with GDPR on time for its arrival in May 2018.
They search the web for a law firm that can not only solve their problem, but also one they can relate to and discuss ways to implement compliance in a way that’s in line with the company’s brand. They want somebody who is similar to them and with whom they can have a conversation.
They find you on the internet: one page is exactly what they’re looking for. The tone is friendly, conversational, but still demonstrating authority and credibility. They think you’re the company they want to work with. Skip to the services page, the language becomes archaic, full of legalese, and dry. Are we still looking at the same law firm? Who exactly are we dealing with here?
Most likely, the prospect will move on to another firm that they feel they can trust more.
A Style Guide is for Both Marketing Copy and Drafting
Consistent marketing copy style is essential to a brand, but after you’ve captured a client, you need consistent drafting style to keep them.
Imagine one of your lawyers drafts an excellent, air-tight partnership agreement for a client. A year later, happy with the prior work, the client comes back asking for help on a merger. A different attorney drafts this contract and the style is different – the client doesn’t understand the agreement’s implications. It isn’t written at all the same way the last one was. The deal falls through. You probably lose the client.
These are one of many reasons to keep a style guide. A senior partner might be using long outdated drafting style, and new associates will never have the guts to correct them. Plus, if the associate is drafting for several different partners, it’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the personal style preferences.
If you work with different professional copywriters or drafters, which you most likely do, a style guide will maintain consistency across the line. Do you want your drafters to use plain English or traditional legal style? Do you want them to be easier and clearer to understand for laymen, or does your firm value traditional style and comprehensiveness over clarity?
Your values and mission need to be explained in your style guide.
Okay, you convinced me. But how do I design a style guide?
Which do you want first, the easy solution or the hard one?
Let’s start with the easy one.
If you don’t have the time to prepare your own style guide, you can just have your firm adopt an existing one, like the Oxford Style Manual for general written content or the Oxford Standard for Citation of Legal Authorities (OSCOLA) for legal documents. Ken Adams also has an excellent Manual of Style for Contract Drafting designed for clear and concise writing which I highly recommend. Unless a law firm gives me their specific style guide, I use Ken Adams’s when translating legal documents.
On the other hand, if you want your written documents to emanate your style’s personality, you’ll want to design your own style guide. There are a few things to consider when doing this:
Create a list of dos and don’ts (e.g. don’t use the serial comma, don’t capitalize words like ‘article’ and ‘law’, do use contractions in marketing copy but not in contracts). Your style guide can be but a few pages, and any professional copywriter, translator, or drafter will easily be able to abide to it.
When writing your style guide for marketing copy, it should include your Unique Selling Point, your mission and attitude when working with clients, your tone (casual, formal, friendly, business sharks?), fonts, colors, and anything, up to the letterhead and logo.
If all else fails, you can outsource the designing of your style guide. A professional copywriter can help figure out exactly what your firm needs to stay consistent and professional in all its written communications.
Want to look professional and gain your client’s trust with consistent style? Contact us for a consultation.