What is a house style?

In general, a house style is primarily a set of rules on typographical choices regarding the presentation of documents (e.g.: font, font size, indentation, numbering, logo placement, etc.). However, for lawyers, a house style also encompasses drafting conventions which set out general rules on wording, such as:

  • expressions used — e.g. “as set out hereinabove” versus “as set out in this agreement”
  • notation — e.g. “within three (3) business days” versus “within 3 business days”
  • terminology — e.g.: “Contract” versus “Agreement”

Why do you need a house style?

A consistently used house style can contribute to the reputation of an organisation just as a lack thereof can undermine it. Having formatting, language, or layout inconsistencies from one document to another can indicate a lack of internal organisation, or even give the impression of being a sloppy drafter. For many law firm clients, this is incompatible with the premium hourly rates charged by law firms. For both law firms and in-house legal departments, there is a risk that a poor document layout will undermine the weight of the message that is being conveyed.  

How are house styles implemented?

For many law firms or legal departments starting on their journey to improve their service delivery via legal technology, automatically enforcing the house style is often a top priority. Law firms or legal departments that have implemented a house style typically do so in three different ways. They are discussed below from least optimal to most optimal.

A first, straightforward way of creating a house style is by drafting an internal policy document setting out the house style rules. Depending on how extensive the rules are, such a document can range anywhere between 5 and 50 pages. In practice, such documents often do little more than drag out the onboarding process of new lawyers and are rarely consulted afterwards.

A second way is to implement a tool — typically a Microsoft Word plugin or a set of empty Word templates — that aligns a document with the house style at the click of a button. (Simple document assembly software that requires the user to draft within Microsoft Word, also falls within this category.) These plugins or templates work well for the typographical part of the house style, but offer no assistance for the drafting conventions, because they typically lack advanced language recognition and conversion features.  

Finally, house styles can be enforced with advanced document assembly software. Software packages that adhere to this methodology — see, for example, Adobe Framemaker and MadCap Flare outside the legal industry— separate content and styling so that all the content can be optimised first before any styling is applied. House styles are defined once in a central location and are automatically applied once the content is finished. This way, lawyers are not required to waste time on making sure that their content is aligned with the house style and any risk of non-alignment is eliminated.

ClauseBase is also a perfect example of such advanced document assembly software that has all the necessary features to create or implement a robust house style. From a typographical point of view, styling can be defined centrally by an organisation’s administrator and is applied top-down. Furthermore, ClauseBase allows the possibility of storing multiple such house styles. For law firms, this is interesting because they can automatically apply the house style of their clients – a clear sign of commitment. In-house legal counsels can switch house styles depending on which company within the group they are working for (e.g.: automatic inclusion of the correct logo). Even the drafting conventions contained in the house style can be automated within ClauseBase, ranging from:

  • automatic notation of numbers — e.g.: “three (3) business days” or “3 business days”
  • uniform definition list styling — e.g.: curly brackets or straight brackets, “shall mean” or “shall have the meaning”
  • consistent list styling — e.g., always use semicolon suffixes, except in the next-to-last and last items of the list
  • consistent currency notation — e.g.: 5 EUR or €5, 5.000 or 5,000
  • consistent date notation — e.g.: 15th of July 2019 or 15/09/2019 or 15 July 2019
  • consistent terminology — e.g.: “clause” instead of “article” or “section”