How would you handle this sticky situation? One of the partners at a firm continually rejects corrections to his punctuation and grammar errors in articles that are emailed to clients and posted on the firm’s website. His changes go directly against the firm’s house style, not to mention Chicago, AP, and basic rules of grammar.
Without firm management giving authority to the copyeditor/proofreader to override the partner in favor of correct usage, the partner’s material is allowed to go through, even with egregious punctuation and grammar issues — errors that frustrate the firm’s webmaster, knowing that firm clients and other viewers of the website are sure to notice. Letting such errors stand can affect the firm’s reputation and credibility.
What’s a firm to do?
This isn’t limited to a firm’s standard on proofreading, either; there are other areas where this “rogue” behavior occurs. For example, when a partner ignores or refuses to adopt the firmwide email signature. Retaining the “sigline” throughout the firm is essential for brand usage. Oftentimes, IT departments will lock down their email systems so no changes can be made, and neither partners nor staff can opt-out of this aspect of the branding process.
Brand consistency in professional services requires, frankly, consistency. While a client communication, whether a newsletter, white paper, legislative alert, or any other message, should convey the individual partner’s perspective, it must also be written professionally. At the very least, the piece is expected to have proper punctuation, be grammatically correct, and reflect the tone and voice of the firm.
Next time a partner goes rogue, consider these questions and perspectives:
First and foremost: Is this a battle worth fighting?
It’s expected that professional communicators like law firm marketers, especially those who hold a degree in English or journalism — or a firm’s editor or proofreader — will defend professionally written communications. Those folks who are responsible for reviewing material in-house are understandably upset when the firm’s writers use bad grammar or incorrect punctuation, and purposefully ignore internationally accepted — and firm-required — writing style guidelines like AP or Chicago — but might not have the power to go up against an attorney who doesn’t care about such details.
If you can’t get someone in firm management to give you or the firm’s editor/proofreader the authority to make corrections for style and accuracy, one option is to get top-level support for issuing occasional notes about common errors in grammar, punctuation, and usage. If such reminders go to everyone in the firm, the offender won’t feel targeted and might be more likely to comply with being edited. To make them even easier for colleagues to accept, try inserting a touch of humor into such notes.
Still, when you find yourself confronting the firm’s biggest rainmaker or top litigator, it’s not going to be a fair fight. In the long run, this particular battle may not be worth fighting, especially if there is only one rogue writer.
Does your firm have a style guide or brand guidelines document?
If you answered “yes,” this is where you can push back. Most people will back down when presented with an established style guide. Your style guide does not have to address every possible grammar or usage error (that’s why we use the AP and Chicago style manuals), especially when you’re dealing with someone who is merely a poor writer, but it can highlight what the proofreader is seeing as common or frequent errors in material submitted by various members of the firm.
If you answered “no,” here is the reason for — and perfect opportunity to create — a style guide for your firm. Before you start, you’ll want to have management’s commitment that they will support the guide once it’s completed. In addition to establishing consistent brand usage for firm content, it’s an excellent strategy to combat the rogues. So is updating an existing style guide to include items that reflect the errors an individual attorney makes without putting that person in the spotlight — and on the defensive.
Could these errors result in lost revenue for the firm’s business?
When attorneys object to being corrected, you might need to show why those changes are important. You may never know whether errors lose business for the firm, but some prospective clients will draw the conclusion (rightly or wrongly) that “if they’re this sloppy with their own writing, how can I expect them to be better with my business?” We can assume it won’t reflect positively for those prospects or current clients who do pay attention. We’re sure you’ve heard stories of résumés that are not even considered if the candidate’s cover letter contains typos and poor grammar.
Be honest: What is the extent of the damage to the firm’s brand?
If you’re dealing with a one-off situation, the actual damage to the brand is likely to be limited. You might be able to say, “If I let you get away with this, I will have to let everyone break the rules …” A repeat offender who refuses to acknowledge that their writing needs help, though, eventually will harm the firm brand by looking unprofessional and unskilled.
One approach is to say that the obstructive writer’s important thoughts and perspectives will be lost if expressed with errors, and that the editor or proofreader’s role is to make sure those golden words come across as not just insightful but accurate. Flattery can get you there!
An in-house editor or proofreader may feel conflicted about confronting an attorney over something like proper use of the comma, but focusing on the issue as a reflection of firm culture, brand consistency, and general excellence could turn the tide. Using an outside editor or proofreader sometimes can help. To take the pressure off the in-house editor, leverage the value and respect that outside consultants often receive more than their in-house colleagues.
Where can you turn for support?
Having an established set of firm guidelines will be your first stop when looking for support. If management supported that effort, you should be able to ask for their help in supporting your edits to the content that is seen by the public. Remember to focus not on one rogue writer who refuses to be edited, but on the value to the firm as a whole to have guidelines for accurate writing that everyone is expected to follow.
If you feel strongly enough to try to enlist support from the firm’s management, you’ll need some backup that shows the value of accurate usage in terms of credibility and reputation.
For further reading, here are more resources from my friends at Jaffe:
Create Consistency with Law Firm Style Guides
5 Grammar Lessons You Should Rethink
This post originally appeared on The Jaffe Blog on January 23, 2019.