Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Law firms should use more videos and less text (apparently)

On their websites, that is.

law firm video

From the Solicitors Journal 13/10/14:

Websites of the UK's top 200 law firms are forgetting the 'user experience'

The country's top firms are ignoring the significant power of video to attract clients, a new report has suggested.

According to mmadigital, only 28 per cent of content is read on an average web page, compared to video which typically holds the attention of a viewer for two minutes.

Hmmm. Are potential clients really going to sit and watch a video on a law firm’s website and be swayed by that? That’s not a rhetorical question – I really don’t know. Maybe they are. But it seems a trifle strange to me.

Unsophisticated would-be clients will just use Google to find a law firm in their area (or a national centre churning out legal services factory style) and be principally concerned with obtaining the lowest price – ringing around if necessary. Medium sized businesses looking to instruct a firm may do a bit of their own research, but tend to be heavily swayed by past experience and the recommendations of others. Large, corporate clients aren’t going to choose to instruct a firm by looking at a firm’s website. Those kind of gigs are won through nepotism, networking and a lot of schmoozing (and sometimes a mixture of all three). So who is likely to choose a solicitor by watching videos on the web?

It’s a mystery.

Firms with video on their websites are 50 times more likely to appear on the first page of Google.

Oh cripes. Time to get embedding those videos folks!

Monday, 6 October 2014

Law firm abandons desk phones…

The end of the world will follow shortly after.

lawyer headsetA solicitor speaking to a client in a soon-to-be-realised dystopia

From Roll On Friday 28/09/14:

“CMS Cameron McKenna is getting rid of landlines in its London office.

Next year the firm's City staff are moving to new premises on Cannon Street, where they will use a mobile phone and a headset to connect to a Microsoft product called Lync, freeing themselves from the tyranny of wires.”

Oh let the good Lord help us.  A law firm embracing technology.  That never ends well.

Ok - now I’ve got that customary knee-jerk reaction out of the way, I accept that this isn’t exactly ground-breaking news.  However, it does make me nervous about the encroachment of technology into the work-life balance of people generally, but particularly lawyers.

Granted - getting rid of a desk phone isn’t going to kill anyone.  I can’t imagine there are many lawyers who don’t currently have a work-issued mobile phone either.  But what scares me is that tying a person to a mobile phone might be just one step away from senior partners and clients daring to think that fee earners are on round-the-clock call for them personally.  

Oh wait - they already think that, don’t they?

By the by, I’ve never really got on with phone headsets.  The nearest I got to embracing one was a short stint using a Bluetooth ear thing about three or four years ago.  I quickly abandoned it after a couple of days’ use.  I’m not sure which influenced that decision more: finding the thing hard to operate, or the fact it risked making me feel like a taxi driver!

Maybe what also alarms me about this story is that I hate the thought of lawyers sat at their desks with headsets on, clucking away like a warehouse full of battery hens. It’s bad enough when colleagues choose to pace about in the office talking on their mobile (apparently pacing helps some people to think).  I don’t like having to contend with any kind of phone at work, quite frankly, but having a deskphone with a receiver you can slam down occasionally works wonders for stress management.  Whipping your headset off and lobbing it at your nearest colleague the wall just isn’t the same thing.  

As I see it, lawyers shouldn’t be relegated to legally trained call centre operatives - even in a world where clients are ‘users of legal services’ and solicitors are just an increasingly unpopular grade of fee earner.

Ditching the deskphone could be a slippery slope, folks.  And that scares me.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

How to use commas

 How to use commas

I was reading recently about an interesting US case which concerned, amongst other things, the use of a comma in a contract.  It formed part of the volcano of litigation that has erupted following the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Although the case concerned US law, the principle that punctuation can have a material bearing on the interpretation of legal documents applies as readily in England and Wales as it does on t’other side of the pond.

The case turned on whether a comma was missing from a clause in the contract. The clause had a markedly different meaning with the comma missing compared to when the comma was added.

With the comma missing, the clause read:

“[…] as additional insureds in each of [Transocean's] policies, except Worker's Compensation for liabilities assumed by [Transocean] under the terms of this Contract."

With it added, the clause read:

“[…] as additional insureds in each of [Transocean's] policies, except Worker's Compensation, for liabilities assumed by [Transocean] under the terms of this Contract."

It’s a great illustration of the fact that, sometimes, use of punctuation can be absolutely critical. In this case, it was critical to the tune of $750,000,000!

That got me thinking even further (it does happen occasionally!). My recent post on the written communication skills of young lawyers focused on, amongst other things, poor sentence structure in the writing of lawyers to be. A big part of that poor sentence structure is the misuse of commas.

So how difficult is it to educate yourself about how to use commas correctly?  Not very difficult, as it turns out.

Two seconds on Google turned up a very useful guide produced by the University of Bristol.

Here are a few excerpts from their guide on commas.

The comma is a much misused and often over used piece of punctuation.

Here, here!

1. To separate the elements in a list of three or more items

The potion included peanuts, pop-tarts, bran flakes and coleslaw.

There appears to be some debate about whether or not to include a comma to separate the last two items in the series. [Use of a comma in this situation is known as an Oxford comma. Conventionally, it is normal] to omit the comma before the final 'and' unless there is a danger that the last two items in the series will merge and become indistinguishable without the comma.

His favourite puddings were black forest gateau, apple strudel, and jelly and ice cream.

Using an Oxford comma after the word ‘crumble’ is the sentence above is advisable so as to indicate that the jelly and ice cream is a single item.

2. Before certain conjunctions

A comma should be used before these conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so to separate two independent clauses. They are called co-ordinating conjunctions.

She was a fantastic cook, but she would never be as good as her mother-in-law.

He hated his neighbours, so he never invited them round.

A common mistake is to put the comma after the conjunction.

3. To separate introductory elements in a sentence

Use a comma to separate introductory elements in a sentence from the main part of that sentence.

Given the appalling weather conditions, Jonny was lucky to make it home alive.

As the night drew to a close, the revellers wandered home.

4. To separate parenthetical elements in a sentence (i.e. to serve as brackets)

A comma is used to set off parenthetical elements in a sentence. The parenthetical element is part of the sentence that can be removed without changing the essential meaning of the sentence.

Sarah, the most intelligent pupil in the class, was always late for school.

The pyramids, one of the wonders of the ancient world, lie just outside Cairo.

If you are using a comma to do this, it is important that the aside is opened and closed with a comma. A common mistake is to omit the second comma.

Eagled-eyed readers will have no doubt noticed that the case of the missing comma, mentioned above, concerns a comma used in just this situation. (The use of commas in my previous sentence is another example of it, of course.) Permission to roll your eyes: granted.

Be right back

Paul Rylance, in the excellent Writing and Drafting in Legal Practice, provides another example of the pitfalls of poor comma use:

“A counter-notice must be given to the landlord, who may, or may not, be the immediate landlord who served notice terminating the tenancy and must be given within two months of the landlord’s notice.”

So, is it the “immediate landlord who served the notice” or just the “immediate landlord”?  It should have been the latter.

A better handling of it would have been to use brackets – as shown below:

“A counter-notice must be given to the landlord (who may, or may not, be the immediate landlord) who served notice terminating the tenancy and must be given within two months of the landlord’s notice.”

Personally, I’m not sure you really need the commas within the brackets after “may” and “not”, but I’ll defer to Paul’s better judgement on this one.

5. To separate direct speech or quoted elements from the rest of the sentence

Commas are used to separate direct speech or quoted elements from the rest of a sentence. Use a comma to separate the quoted material from the rest of the sentence.

"That house there," he whispered, "is where I grew up."

6. Commas are used to separate elements in a sentence that express contrast

He was first attracted by her charming personality, not her stunning looks.

She is intelligent, not pretty.

He thought the building was enormous, but ugly.

I think commas used in this situation are ripe for abuse. Providing both clauses of the sentence are very short and it’s genuine contrast that’s being expressed, I think it’s fine. However, it doesn’t take much for these situations to slip firmly into semi-colon territory.

7. Commas are used for typographical reasons to separate dates and years, towns and counties etc.

His home was in Streatham, East London.

My father was born on March 13, 1949.

8. Commas are used to separate several adjectives

The old, ramshackle, dilapidated house had a charm of its own.

That rather dull-looking, badly-dressed, clumsy man is actually a university professor.

Rylance identifies some other instances where commas should be used:

[9.] In reported speech, to mark a person addressed. For instance, “thank you, your honour”.

[10.]  Usually after a phrase that begins with a present participle (-ing). For instance, “standing to address the court, he began his speech”.
[11.]  To mark off words and phrases such as “therefore”, “however”, “of course” and “for instance”. Depending on where in the sentence the comma appears, use of a comma in these circumstances can be very similar to a pair of parenthesises or to separate an introductory phrase from the rest of the sentence.

I believe that the comma is probably the most abused piece of punctuation in English and it’s a problem which seems to be getting worse, not better.

The comma can be a particularly difficult piece of punctuation to get to grips with. I think there are a number of reasons for this.

First, there are a multitude of ways in which commas can be correctly used (with some similarity between those categories in certain instances).

Secondly, there’s a degree of discretion as to where commas can be used correctly. Rylance notes the existence of a ‘catch-all’ category for using commas:

“[…] to insert a pause into a sentence so as to break it up into articulate phrases or clauses. The test […] is to read the whole sentence, noting where the voice naturally pauses.”

For the record, that absolutely shouldn’t be taken as carte blanche for whacking in commas hither and thither, just because your voice might pause naturally there.

Thirdly, there are a number of conflicting authorities on correct comma usage. Those authorities are probably best treated as guides rather than absolute rules; providing you don’t stray too far from them, you should be fine.

I think most people’s writing can benefit from some careful consideration of proper punctuation from time to time (mine included).  And you might just find that reflecting on your use of commas when you’re at a loss in the office on a quiet afternoon is time very well spent.  It’s just a pity you can’t get CPD points for it!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Know the Risks of Cheap Cosmetic Surgery while Travelling Abroad

Guest Post

cosmetic surgerySo you’ve decided you want cosmetic surgery, or are at least seriously considering it. We imagine you’ve also heard about the op-and-holiday packages that companies promise across the world. It’s true that you can potentially undergo cosmetic surgery at a lower price abroad, but like most things, you often get what you pay for.

Of course, there are highly-skilled plastic surgeons wherever you are in the world, but if you’re looking for cheap deals, it’s likely that you’ll go under the knife in a country where the rules and guidelines aren’t very strict.

Safer in the UK?
Although not every surgical operation is going to be entirely risk-free, if complications arise in the UK, the surgeon is bound by a duty of care to provide follow-up treatments. However, abroad, sometimes what you get is what you get. In the UK, clinics won’t often have a representative that you can go to. However, as documented by this Wrexham based solicitor, in an incident regarding a crooked nose, they said that ‘you may gain compensation if it is possible to reveal that the doctor did something wrong which a competent doctor would have done.’

Beware of the holiday sell. Often, people are suckered into deals where they never meet the surgeon and receive professional advice before the op. You should want to see some of his or her previous work. Cosmetic surgery is a very serious business and should be treated as such. Bear in mind that you may be able to have a holiday before your surgery, but after, you won’t be allowed to drink, lie in the sun, or partake in energetic activities (and you probably won’t want to either).

It’s so important that you can have a follow-up appointment and extra treatment. You need to have all this worked out before you leave the country because it’s unlikely that you’ll receive the attention you need, when you’re back home. If there is a serious problem, you might have to travel back to have it fixed! Or cough up for a UK plastic surgeon. After all that expenditure, you might have saved money by getting cosmetic surgery in the UK to begin with!

Minimise The Risks
This isn’t something you should do on a whim. Research the procedure for a very long time before you consider doing it. You have to meet your surgeon and make sure that he or she is the right one for you. Make sure they are fully registered and highly recommended.

Find out how cosmetic surgery is regulated in the country you plan to visit and ascertain how well these standards are enforced. Really, your surgeon should be able to speak English well, so you can understand their advice and they can respond to your concerns and questions.

Think Of The Worst
Things may go very wrong! This is something you have to face up to and you must consider the risks involved. What kind of insurance arrangements does the clinic have? Will your travel insurance cover any of this? It really is worth getting some straight advice legally and medically in this country, before you consider going abroad for cosmetic surgery.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Why have Microsoft removed numbered comments from Word 2013?

Word 2013 Splash Screen

On the whole, I’m quite fan of the latest version of Microsoft Office – Office 365. There are some features which are genuinely useful and which represent a significant improvement to those found in earlier versions of office.

One such feature is the ‘Simple Markup’ view in tracked changes. This can make navigating a document littered with countless tracked changes much easier and is a nice halfway house between the previous view options of essentially all or nothing.

Sometimes, though, Microsoft makes crazy retrogressive steps by removing useful functionality. I don’t know whether this is in a bid to simplify a complicated product, that they’ve got sick of a particular bit of code or whether it stems from some misguided focus group reporting it should be removed on the grounds of obsolescence.

A prime example of this is the removal of self-numbering comment balloons from Word 2013. Oh yes. With previous versions of Word, inserting a comment balloon would automatically prefix it with the author’s initials, followed by a number (starting, funnily enough, at one).

Word 2007 Comment
How things used to be…

In the latest version of Word, however, only the author’s name appears.  That makes referring to specific comments made by the same author rather tricky.

For lawyers, self-numbering comments were really useful and saved heaps of time when referring back to specific comments within a document. Yes, it’s true that you can use the numbering function to insert numbers manually, but it’s a poor substitute.  And having to waste time adding the numbers manually really grates on me.

So, please, Microsoft… bring back self-numbering comments to Word.

Pretty please….?

Or should I dust off that copy of WordPerfect again?

Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Windows Store is unspeakably bad

Oh – and it’s also riddled with rogue apps.

Hopeless Windows StoreAll and sundry in the tech world have reported that Microsoft is finally doing the honourable thing and having a clean out of their much maligned Windows Store.

Paul Thurrott picks up the story in his inimitable style as part of this week’s WinInfo Short Takes:

Microsoft finally cracks down on deceptive Windows Store apps

Microsoft[…] [has a] policy of "store stuffing," in which for four years now it has approved virtually any app a developer—professional or otherwise—has thrown at the Windows Phone Store or Windows Store, resulting in mountains of crap. […] Microsoft is promoting these stores as safe, safer than downloading desktop applications from unknown sources on the web. But when the supposedly curated Microsoft stores include bogus and even scam apps of all kinds, why would anyone trust these stores, or trust Microsoft when it says it's going to fix things now? Microsoft. This started happening FOUR YEARS AGO. Shame on you.

That’s a good point well made and all that, but it’s kind of assuming that there are at least some decent apps in the Windows Store to begin with. And I’m not sure there are.

I appreciate I might be biased here. I’ve realised for a while now that I’m an old school PC user who will be forever tied to the Windows desktop and I’m proud to eschew modern style (read: Fisher Price) apps that treat you like a five year old in favour of the more conventional, full-featured applications.

I’ve used a Surface 2 for eight months or so now. It’s ‘all-right-to-quite-good’ (yes, that is an adjective) for watching stuff while commuting, comes with a full version of Microsoft Office and, if you pay extra, a physical keyboard which doubles up as a protective cover – perfect for getting that occasional bit of work done when travelling home. (Actually, the cover bit is absolute crap; unless you’re happy to let that thing get battered to death, you’re going to need a dedicated cover or sleeve.)

Actually, while I’m in the mood for engaging in full and frank disclosure, I might as well admit that whenever I have my laptop with me on the train, I’ll always crack that out to get work done, rather than trying to cope with the rather cramped Surface 2 Typecover keyboard.

But I digress.

One thing that has always shocked me with the Surface (and Windows 8 generally) is just how spectacularly full of crap the Windows Store is. Like all Surface users, I inevitably tinkered with the Fresh Paint app on a couple of occasions in the early days, thought ‘well, that’s something I suppose, but I’m not much of an artist’ and then never opened it up again.

I’ve gone back and looked at the Windows Store quite frequently over the last few months, but I’ve never found any remotely tempting apps (free or otherwise) lurking in there. Ultimately, I guess I’d much rather use services through a web browser than downloading a one-trick-pony app.

Even worse, when you need to find something specific in the Windows Store, say a half decent media player which doesn’t screw you over with excessive ads, needless functionality or require a permanent internet connection, you’re out of luck.

(I had to go through this painful experience recently when Microsoft updated their ‘Metro’ Video app such that it will only now play content if you’re connected to the internet. That’s a bit of a pisser when you’re stuck on the train and rely on your Surface to watch videos. After trying a bizarre mixture of media player apps from the Windows Store, which ranged between ridiculous and unusable, I’m using the built-in ‘Photos’ app to play movies now.)

Here’s the clincher. When I got my Surface, it came with a £25 voucher from Microsoft which I could spend on paid apps of my choice in the Windows Store. After eight months of nosing around in there and finding nothing, I finally got sick of seeing that damn voucher kicking about, so I tossed it out with the recycling – unopened and unredeemed.

I think that tells you all you need to know.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Young lawyers’ written communication skills

… aren’t up to much – apparently.

Young lawyer drafting a note of advice
From Young Lawyer 30/07/14:

The number of training contracts available has risen, yet the calibre of candidates is unremarkable [.]

The number of LPC registrations has dropped for a second year running, while the number of training contracts on offer has risen. You may think that candidates can now afford to be more optimistic. However, speaking with law firm recruiters, it seems that many candidates still have a way to go before catching the golden training contract snitch.

I don’t know why I’m so uncomfortable with the word “snitch” but I am. It’s always made me slightly nauseous and involuntarily pull a ‘I’m-eating-raw-lemon’ face. Strange.

One aspect still of great concern to a number of firms during the recruitment process is poor written expression. A recruiter in one City law firm said: “It makes me so sad to read these applications. Their academics are very good, but they use text speak and can’t structure sentences properly.”

That doesn’t surprise me. By no means do I hold myself out as a paragon when it comes to the correct use of English, but even I’m shocked at the sentence structure that some of my younger colleagues trot out. I’ve seen large block paragraphs of text punctuated only by a string of commas presented proudly as ‘finished work’.  Besides being awkward and embarrassing for the reader, it makes the author look downright incompetent.

I remember from my schooldays being taught about good sentence structure and having lessons focused on using different types of punctuation correctly, but I know a lot of others my age who claim their English lessons never strayed into those topics (perhaps they were off sick those days!). 

I think the general standard of English usage in the UK is clear proof that proper sentence structure needs to be actively taught in schools, rather than assuming that pupils will pick it up naturally at some point.

For me, it’s clear the time has arrived to go back to first principles and teach the mechanics of basic English to kids and to only focus on exploring those less-used nuances (iambic pentameter anyone?) once those basics have been mastered.

As Paul Rylance notes in his excellent book, Writing and Drafting in Legal Practice, “good writing is clear thinking on paper”.  If the lawyers of tomorrow aren’t properly equipped to practise that, I dread to think of the standard of written legal advice that’ll be churned out in the years to come.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, a one day elective module on the professional skills course focused on ‘effective written communication’ or whatever won’t cure 15 years’ worth of bad habits, I’m afraid. This stuff should start at the earliest stages of primary school and it needs to get itself firmly back on the curriculum ASAP.