Oxford comma plays dramatic role in $10m lawsuit

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Oxford comma plays dramatic role in $10m lawsuit

At last, a legal case I can get excited about. That hasn't happened since the OJ Simpson trial more than 20 years ago but the decision in this one is even more sensational. A recent court case in Maine turned on something far more dramatic than a bloody glove: a comma. Or, to be pedantic, and if nothing else this blog is about pedantry, the lack of a comma.

I warned you it was exciting. Before we get down to the details though you need to know that this comma (or lack of a comma) wasn't any old comma. It was the mighty Oxford comma, the much-maligned Richard III of the grammar world (and not because it’s a funny shape).

What’s an Oxford comma, you ask? I’ll get to that but first you need a bit of background.

The case was brought in Maine by a group of drivers against their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for overtime pay. The company argued that no overtime was due because Maine state law says overtime does not apply to certain activities. Specifically, it excludes "the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of" perishable goods.

This is the bit where you need to concentrate. The case hinged on the last words, "packing for shipment or distribution". The court had to determine if these were two separate activities – "packing for shipping" and "distribution" – or one activity, "packing for shipping or distribution".

The drivers argued the latter and that they were entitled to overtime pay for work that involved "distribution" on the basis that this wasn't an excluded activity. The court agreed (in a 29-page judgement), and 75 drivers have been awarded a share in $10m worth of unpaid overtime.

Now back to the Oxford comma (sometimes called the serial comma). It is a comma used to separate the last item in a list of three or more items in order to avoid ambiguity. It’s an optional comma, though, and its use depends on the context.

In the sentence, "I like cricket, cycling and long walks in the country" you wouldn't use a comma after the word "cycling" as it is unnecessary.

But, there's a world of difference between saying "I want to thank my parents, Justin Bieber, and Helen Mirren" and, "I want to thank my parents, Justin Bieber and Helen Mirren”. The latter sentence, without the Oxford comma, implies that the parents are Justin Bieber and Helen Mirren. Unlikely.

Despite this, some people argue that the Oxford comma is an unnecessary affectation – like James Bond and his shaken, not stirred, martinis.

This argument arouses great passion. American rock band Vampire Weekend released a single called Oxford Comma in 2008, the opening line of which asked: "Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?"

Clearly, many people do. There was a furore six years ago when it was reported that Oxford University had committed grammatical infanticide by dropping the Oxford comma from its style guide. This had the grammar stormtroopers goosestepping all the way to the letters pages of the Times and the Telegraph, although it turned out the reports were erroneous. (The Oxford comma had only been banned by Oxford University for press releases and internal memos.)

In the Maine drivers’ case, an Oxford comma after the word "shipment" would have made it clear that the distribution of perishable foods was excluded from overtime. Whoever wrote the clause should have taken heed of the grammar bible The Elements of Style by Struck and White, (the Lennon and McCartney of grammar, or would be if they had had more than one hit).

Despite its catchy title, The Elements of Style isn't much of a read but it is clear about where it stands on the Oxford comma: "In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Thus … 'red, white, and blue'." 

"That comma would have sunk our ship," said David G. Webbert, the lawyer who represented the drivers. As it was, there was enough uncertainty for the decision to go in his client’s favour.

So what next for the Oxford comma? Who knows, but this decision will have reverberated through the pages of grammar textbooks around the world. I can only imagine the semicolon is seething. Twice the ink of an Oxford comma yet no one ever mentions it except to say they have no idea what it does.

If the OJ trial is anything to go by, in 20 years time we’ll all be glued to the latest Netflix mini-series, Oxford Comma, hopefully starring Justin Bieber and Helen Mirren. I, for one, can’t wait.   

6 great content ideas for your law firm's newsletter

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6 great content ideas for your law firm's newsletter

Email newsletters are one of the best ways for law firms to keep in touch with their clients.

Reasons for this include:

·       They keep you ‘front of mind’ with clients  

·       They are a chance to show off your firm’s expertise and personality

·       They are a cheap way to reach loads of people

And, they are more effective than social media for updating clients. Internet research group Nielsen Norman say that 90% of people prefer to receive updates by newsletter, compared to 10% by social media.

Yet many firms don’t use them. One reason I hear over and again is: “I would send out more newsletters but I can’t think of anything interesting to write about.”

Why most newsletters are boring

In the absence of anything else, the default for law firms is to write about changes to the law and the results of recent cases.

This is understandable as it is a chance to show that you know your stuff. There are two problems with this. One is that the articles are likely to be of limited interest to most readers.

The second, and with due respect to my legal colleagues (I used to be one after all), is that the articles are boring. Lawyers write in a highly technical way. That’s great when giving a legal opinion or threatening to sue someone. It’s not so great when the reader can choose to read on or click away.

Newsletters that focus solely on legal updates tend to be one-paced textbook style articles of around 500 words on one legal topic after another.

But newsletters are about being interesting, and entertaining your readers. Bear in mind that your readers are people on your mailing list. This means you’ve either done business with them or they’ve signed up to hear from you.

So, they’ll be interested in what is going on in your world but they are unlikely to want a stream of dry legal updates.

The challenge is to put across your legal expertise but in a way that makes them like you and trust you. If you can do this, they are more likely to want to do business with you.

A good source of inspiration is any specialist magazine or newspaper colour supplement. They too are writing for an identified audience and a quick flick through any one of them will show you how they mix up their content.

Six content ideas

Here are six ideas for the types of articles you could put in your newsletter:

1.              A story – or in other words, a case study. People love stories and though you will probably have to change the names and some facts for confidentiality reasons, a case study is the perfect way to show off your legal expertise and the relationship you have with clients. Case studies are best when topped off with a glowing testimonial from a satisfied client.

2.              An opinion piece. Newspapers pay a fortune to their star columnists, usually because they have strong opinions. Love him or loathe him, Jeremy Clarkson’s Sunday Times column is a good example of this. Chances are that you have vigorous opinions about your own industry. If so, you’ve got the perfect soapbox to put them across.

3.              A Q & A, for example with a member of staff, a client or someone you work closely with, say, a barrister or accountant. The good thing about Q & As is that they are bite-sized, so they are easy to read. You can also cover a whole load of different topics and use them to put a lot of someone’s personality across.

4.              Picture stories. These are as simple to put together as a few pictures with some captions. This would be a great way to cover a firm event. They are popular with readers as they require little effort on their part. And because they are visual, they work well on social media. Don’t forget though the copyright restrictions on using other people’s pictures – you can read more about this here.

5.              Insider tips. Everyone likes to pick up information from the experts. Articles with ‘how to tips’ or insider secrets are always popular. They also lend themselves to the ever-popular listicle headlines – like the one for this article. (You can read more about listicles here).

6.              Reviews and previews. Newspapers and magazines are full or reviews and previews. One reason for this is that they relate to something happening now or about to happen in the near future. So, they are topical and up to date. Another is that we love learning what other people think about things. Amazon has built one of the world’s most successful businesses on this simple premise. In a legal context, this could be the review of an event, a seminar or even a book.

Finally, if you are using email newsletter software such as Mailchimp, it is well worth looking carefully at the open and click through statistics. That way you’ll find out what is popular with your readers and you can tailor future newsletters accordingly.

For more information about creating a newsletter for your law firm, please contact Simon Manuel at simon@inkanddots.co.uk

Why Video Is Essential for the Legal Sector

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Why Video Is Essential for the Legal Sector

This week we have a guest blog from Nathan Haines, who is the managing director of Element 26 and an expert in video production and video marketing. Over to you Nathan...

Building trust is vital in the legal sector, as clients need to be confident that your firm has their best interests at heart. According to the American Bar Association videos convey what services and expertise the attorneys can deliver. Video is amongst one of the most effective ways to market your business as it is a educational, informative and inspirational way of portraying your firm’s expertise.

Videos create the opportunity for your message to be brought to life, allowing you to speak to your audience in a way that is almost impossible using still images and the written word. According to True Focus media video content shows you and your firm in more clarity by showing your services, staff, office and your partners. The ability to convey complicated messages in just one or two minutes that resonate with your audience is why video is going to be one of the most powerful marketing trends of the next decade.

This powerful medium can be used to outline the knowledge and expertise your firm has and how you can help potential clients. This then can then be reinforced with testimonials that highlight stories of how your legal services firm has delivered on its promises to clients and used its expertise to achieve positive outcomes. 

Outline Expertise and Knowledge

Public misconceptions and legal complexities can make engaging with a law firm a daunting prospect for those without a detailed knowledge of the law.

Video is a powerful way to overcome this issue. It can be used to outline the legal issues your firm handles and explain the key points at a level that is tailored to the needs of your target audience.

Potential clients will feel more confident in a law firm that has the knowledge and ability to solve their problems. Using video shows off both your values and unique personality as a company without the complexities of too many written explanations. Thus saving you time to concentrate on additional cases and continuing to grow your business. Video allows you to show that your firm has the capacity relieve any legal strain from your client.

Testimonials

Once a potential client understands what your firm does and how you can help them with their issue, testimonials can be used to bring this to life. Get Legal point out that customers want to hire a lawyer with a bold, assertive personality, and simply put, video is the best way to convey your personality to viewers online.

Testimonials back up what you claim on your website and marketing materials with real life examples from current or past clients.  A good testimonial tells a story with your client at the heart and your company as the “hero”. This creates a powerful word of mouth effect that can be shared across your marketing operations, particularly social media, emailing and most importantly your website.

Find out more about the power of testimonials in our blog – 8 reasons to make a testimonial video.

Element 26 are experts in both devising strategies and creating effective video . If you require any assistance either preparing for, or shooting your video, do not hesitate to get in contact.

About The Author: NATHAN HAINES

Nathan is the managing director of Element 26 and an expert in video production and video marketing. Nathan enjoys supporting companies to grow their businesses using video. Get in touch on Twitter @element26uk