Law Firm Style Manual: Why You Need One, How to Make One

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Although they are commonplace in publishing, many lawyers may be unfamiliar with the concept of a style manual. Essentially, a style manual (or style guide) is a document that prescribes the “styles” or standards to be implemented when presenting content. In terms of the legal field, a style manual would prescribe the standards to be employed when writing a motion, memorandum, client letter, newsletter, etc. In essence, the use of style manual ensures that a clear and consistent writing style is used in all law firm publications.


A style manual can also be a useful resource for both partners and associates as it makes sure that everyone is on the same page with respect to writing best practices. It can be difficult for a young professional to tell a senior attorney that his or her grammar is incorrect. In addition, it can be difficult for associates to keep track of the various personal preferences of several partners.

For instance, when I was a young associate, a partner and I would always disagree when reviewing my legal briefs—not about the validity of my analysis, but rather about the placement of my commas. Some issues were easily resolved by consulting an authoritative source such as Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, but others, such as the use of serial commas, were open to interpretation or personal choice. Over time, I learned his style preferences and conformed my writing to them. However, every new associate had to endure this same process.

Now working as legal writer, I have grown to appreciate the value of an authoritative resource. With a style manual in place, associates and partners can send a simple email stating that the document has been revised in accordance with the applicable section of the manual. Not only does this help avoid disagreements, but it also ensures the consistency of the firm’s written work product. In the course of my practice, I have seen many versions of the same motion floating around, each reflecting a different editorial style. This can reflect poorly on the firm before both judges and clients.

How Does a Law Firm Create a Style Manual?

First, the style manual need not duplicate the citation rules detailed in The Bluebook or the ALWD Citation Manual. Rather, it should consist of rules regarding mechanics (punctuation, capitalization, and abbreviations) as well as formatting. It is also helpful to provide examples of the rules in action.

The easiest option is to adopt an existing style manual such as The Chicago Manual of Style or The Associated Press Stylebook. Both are available in hard copies or through an online subscription. The important consideration is that it is accessible to everyone in the firm from partners to administrative staff.

Another option is to create a unique style guide that features a mixture of several different style guides and/or the personal preferences of the firm’s management with respect to style and formatting. For example, the manual may outline preferences regarding the capitalization of commonly used terms, spacing and indenting, font size and margins, and the use of the serial comma. I have listed some specific considerations below:

  • How should the firm be referenced? Is it an LLP or an L.L.P.? What abbreviations for the firm name are acceptable?
  • How should the firm’s address be written? For example, should it be written as Suite 1500 or Ste. 1500?
  • Should one space be inserted after a period or two?
  • How should numbers be expressed? For instance, is it 11 or eleven?
  • Should the names of months and states be abbreviated in text? Is it February 5, 2011 or Feb. 5, 2011? Is it Boston, MA or Boston, Massachusetts?

It may also be very helpful to include any stylistic or formatting requirements required by local courts in the style manual as well. For example, some courts have rules regarding fonts, margins, etc. In addition, most style guides also list additional resources that should be consulted when writing. For example, the guide may recommend that the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition, be consulted for matters of spelling.

How Should a Law Firm Implement a Style Manual?

Once a style guide has been developed, the final step is to introduce it to the firm. The style manual should be well organized so that members of the firm will quickly be able to learn and understand the style and apply it to their work. A well-structured table of contents and index are essential. In addition, the guide should be easily accessible. For example, the manual may be distributed to all employees or posted on the firm’s intranet. Since an extensive style manual can be quite detailed, it can be helpful to highlight the most important features as well as answer any frequently asked questions. One staff member, ideally someone involved in the development of the style manual, should serve as a point of contact for questions regarding the manual.

Although the development of a law firm style manual may involve some initial thought and planning, the resulting improvement in writing makes it well worth it.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/delgrossodotcom/3378947881/)

Laura Archambeault is an attorney and legal writer and editor.

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  • This post brings up an important consideration. As a firm grows, it can be difficult to maintain consistency among everyone in an office. Grammar and style are just two of the ways to promote and maintain a professional, consistent firm persona.

  • C Woodby

    “Some issues were easily resolved by consulting an authoritative source such as Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, but others, such as the use of serial commas, were open to interpretation or personal choice.”

    Sure about that? In my copy of Strunk & White, rule #1 is always use the serial comma.