Is poor formatting of documents a good thing or bad thing?

Have you ever heard a colleague make negative comments about the quality of another law firm’s legal document?  The number of typos or the misaligned paragraphs or inconsistent numbering or giant gaps on the page?  It’s frustrating because when you try and amend it, the paragraphs move around and the numbering seems to get more erratic.

That begs the question as to whether other lawyers are saying it about your documents.  And more importantly, whether clients are saying it … and how does that affect their confidence in your skills.  People notice your formatting, just like you notice other people’s.

Good lawyers train for years in how to be detailed, how to be precise.  They train how to advise clients on very specific areas of law in extremely high value transactions, where an error can cost millions.  So the detail is vital.

Is how you look meeting expectations?

Law is a competitive market, and expectations of the firm of its lawyers, and in turn the clients of the firm, are high.

Lawyers grow up using Word through school, university and law school and, when they join a law firm, they will generally be working in their own documents.  This is often because secretaries are working for a lot of people and there is a need for self-sufficiency.  I can be particularly stressful when a secretary has gone home or when there is a lot going on in the middle of a complex transaction.

Of course, this means that lawyers are expected to not only be great lawyers in providing quality service and valuable advice to clients but also be proficient in preparing and formatting complex documents in Microsoft Word.

Expectation is high among clients too.  And rightly so.  Clients pay substantial fees for their lawyers’ advice, and their expectation is that the work product itself should also be of high quality as well.

So if the document format isn’t up to par or if numbering and cross-references are incorrect, it shows a lack of attention to detail which affects a law firm’s reputation.  Indeed, incorrect clause numbers and “error” cross-references could materially affect the meaning of the agreement.

Creating your house style will ensure your teams are keeping to the rules of documents and keeping you on brand.

Poor document formatting and construction is costing time

When stress levels are high, the hour is late and a deadline is looming, the smallest things in a Word document can distract from the main task in a lawyer’s hands.  That is delivering accurate and detailed legal advice and a quality service to the client.

It could be gap on the page or that the words in a paragraph seem to have a life of their own.  Perhaps the sub-clause numbering insists on starting at (d) instead of (a), or there are a bunch of cross-references which now say “Error”.  Or the font keeps “flipping back” when you keep changing it from Arial to Calibri.  Some of these will no doubt resonate.

It stands to reason that lawyers could gain a great deal from knowing more about Microsoft Word – the software they are using all day every day.

  • Lawyers benefit from the confidence and ease with which they are managing their workload, particularly if they are managing their own documents.
  • Clients will not only get great legal advice, but a well-formatted and consistent work product that reflects the care that the lawyer has taken in giving that advice.
  • Law firm owners and managers will have less non-chargeable time to write off on transactions with capped fees.
  • Family and friends get more time because instead of being in the office at 7pm, the Word-savvy lawyer is having dinner with the family or is in the pub!

Training and learning for self-sufficiency

If all that sounds like a no-brainer, the even better news is that it is very easily achieved.

Training that focuses on the areas that cause the greatest number of issues is where the training should target.  Those made-up Word “hacks” that get passed around may well end up causing much bigger problems further down the line.  We have our very own training “hacks” and online learning courses to put you on the right path.

If you didn’t know it, there are literally hundreds of shortcuts and tricks that Microsoft has save lawyer time, while still using the software correctly.

Self-sufficiency is going to be key in the post-COVID era.  The self-sufficient lawyer is one who is confident, not stressed, earning fees and meeting targets, and always meets their deadlines … which brings very happy clients and law firm managers.

And that’s a scenario that will make everyone happy.

Learn to do it the right way

Novum Learning, professional services solutions provider, and Microsoft Word services specialist Bluebird are running a series of complimentary courses designed for lawyers about legal document best practice.

The series allows practitioners to learn in a focused, industry-specific manner and to put the learnings into practice straight away.

The 30-minute sessions focus on showing lawyers how to make amendments to transactional documents correctly and efficiently, even when the document belongs to another party. The first session of the course covered crucial formatting techniques and shortcuts, which are a great foundation for this coming session. It shows lawyers that managing ongoing transactional documents under a tight deadline can be done efficiently.

The skills from this course will take lawyers another step closer to self-sufficiency, which is becoming an expectation at law firms, especially those looking at continuing to offer flexible working arrangements even when working in the office becomes a usual practice again. Nevertheless, efficient document management is key to shortening the turnaround of matters and reduces the time lawyers spend on non-billable work.

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