Silly things happen when no one speaks up.

The classic example was when General Motors chose to name one of its cars the Chevrolet “Nova.” In Spanish, “no va” means “it does not go,” which isn’t a great name for a car sold in Spanish-speaking countries. I’d bet that a few hundred Spanish-speaking employees of GM noticed that issue before the car hit the market, but no one bothered to speak up.

Let me offer two more examples of failing to speak up, with both examples coming at my own expense. (I wish I weren’t such an easy target, but such is life.)

The first example involves a law firm. Twenty-two years ago, as a lateral sixth-year associate, I accepted a job at Jones Day in Cleveland. I saw during the hiring process, and again when I sat down at my desk on the first day of my new job, that all of the firm’s promotional materials included the firm’s marketing slogan: “Jones Day: One Firm Worldwide.”

I’d been practicing law for six years at that point, so I was a relatively sophisticated lawyer, although by no means an old hand. Perhaps older and wiser folks looked at the tagline “one firm worldwide” and thought: “Terrific! I’m going to hire those guys because they’re one firm worldwide!”

But that wasn’t how it struck me. I sat there scratching my head: How many firms was I supposed to think Jones Day was? Two firms? Three firms? A half-dozen? And why was the apparent misperception — that Jones Day was more than one firm — so widespread that the firm devoted its main branding opportunity to dispelling this confusion? Of the many praiseworthy things that could surely be said about my new employer, why did the fact that it was only “one firm” top the list? Wouldn’t it be slightly more helpful to say, for example, “Jones Day: Pretty Good Lawyers”? Would the Jones Day slogan make sense for any other big firm? Would “General Motors: One Firm Worldwide” be a useful marketing tool? What the heck was going on?

I didn’t say a word.

Over time, I inhaled the fumes; I became an insider. I slowly learned that “one firm worldwide” was supposed to convey the idea that the firm operates as a single partnership worldwide, with all partners’ income paid from a single global pool. This distinguishes the firm from certain competitors who segregate income by local office, and where partners are paid based on their contribution to the local pool. More broadly, the slogan is meant to suggest that the firm thinks globally about how best to staff matters and to pursue clients’ causes, without bowing to parochial concerns.

To my eye, once the slogan is fully explained, it actually discloses a decent selling point (at least when Jones Day is competing against certain other firms that are notoriously parochial). Over the years, I frequently either made that point myself or heard it made by others to good effect. But I’m not sure that the long story about eliminating parochialism collapses easily into a three-word slogan, and I’m not convinced that the three-word slogan itself conveys any comprehensible meaning to an outsider encountering the tagline for the first time.

I bet, although I don’t know, that hundreds of Jones Day lawyers have looked at brochures proclaiming “One Firm Worldwide” over the years and scratched their heads, as I did those many years ago. But no one (so far as I know) said a word, and the slogan remains in place today. (Perhaps that’s the right choice. Maybe, after careful thought, folks would conclude that the tagline is a great one, and I was just too naive to understand it. Or maybe, on reflection, folks would decide that the firm should use a slogan that’s more immediately comprehensible. Either way, the subject merits discussion; I shouldn’t have remained silent.)

I’ll be curious to learn whether readers of this column believe that typical sophisticated buyers of legal services — executives of large companies or in-house lawyers — see the words “one firm worldwide” and immediately understand what that tagline says about the law firm. (Beyond the feedback that I receive from my readers, I’m confident that I’ll get a dozen e-mails tonight from my former colleagues either (1) telling me that I’m entirely missing the point of a great slogan or (2) saying that they’ve been bothered by the same thing for years and asking why I didn’t speak up decades ago.)

So that’s my second example of failing to speak up when one sees something that may be silly.

My third example moves into corporate life. Several years ago, I worked with a corporation that wanted to encourage customers to agree to “limitations of liability” in certain contracts. The folks working on the initiative couldn’t be bothered typing out “limitations of liability” in every memo or e-mail, so they naturally shortened this to the “LOL” initiative. I’m sure that everyone who read those e-mails noticed the irony, but no one bothered to speak up. Naturally, several customers L’edOL when they heard about the project and were asked to sign the new contracts.

In my new in-house world, I’ve seen at least one lawyer enter “research SOL” on a timesheet and expect my company to pay for this work. Personally, I’d steer clear of referring to the “statute of limitations” as “SOL.” If you see this type of abbreviation when you’re reviewing your firm’s bills, speak up. In-house lawyers may not be able to decipher your shorthand (or may not share my sense of humor), and you’d find yourself SOL, because your bill won’t get paid.

When you see crazy stuff happening, speak up! A single voice raised in these situations would cause everyone else in the room to nod in agreement, and would spare companies both unnecessary expense and unneeded embarrassment.


Mark Herrmann is the Vice President and Chief Counsel – Litigation at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link). You can reach him by email at [email protected].


comments sponsored by

53 comments (hidden for your protection) Show all comments