The semicolon vs. the em-dash—an eternal quandary.

Few marks of punctuation are misunderstood and misused like these two. Infinitely useful—both connect ideas without the break of a new sentence—yet vaguely understood, both the semicolon and the em-dash tend to be either ignored or overused. When used well, however, they help the flow of ideas like nothing else.

As for me, I’ve used semicolons and em-dashes liberally in my writing since college. Yet, I’ve never paused to consider how they perform similar functions or figure out when to use one over the other—until now.

Similar functions

First, let’s define the correct way to use these marks. I’m only interested in using them to connect thoughts in a sentence, so I’ll omit other uses. I’ll take my direction (and examples) directly from Bryan Garner, in both Modern English Usage and The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (yes, I own both).

The Semicolon. This is “a kind of supercomma.” It separates sentence parts that need a more distinct break than a comma can signal, but that are too closely connected to make into separate sentences. It is most commonly used to:

  • Unite closely connected sentences. Example: “But Shakespeare’s language appears entirely familiar to us, although it is almost 400 years old; the spelling, the vocabulary, the shapes of the words and phrases seem to have changed but little in that time.”
  • Give a weightier pause than a comma would. This use is discretionary. A comma (or perhaps a dash) would do, but you want a stronger stop. Example: “There is never anything sexy about Lautrec’s art; but there also is never anything deliberately, sarcastically anti-feminist in it.”

The Em-Dash. An em-dash is used to mark an interruption in the structure of a sentence. More specifically, it can be used to:

  • Set off an inserted phrase that, because of what it modifies, needs to go in the middle of a sentence. Example: “In America—as elsewhere—free speech is confined to the dead.”
  • Set off a parenthetical phrase that you want to highlight. Example: “They say—the astrologers, I mean—that it will get better and better for me as I go on.”
  • Tack on an important afterthought. Example: “It was June when we buried him—the summer solstice.”

Garner opines: “The em-dash is perhaps the most underused punctuation mark in American writing. Whatever the type of writing, dashes can often clarify a sentence that is clogged up with commas—or even one that’s otherwise lusterless.”

What’s the difference?

As you can see, both the semicolon and the em-dash introduce a weighty pause to a sentence. I think this is why I’m often unsure of which to use; I know that I want a pause (not a period), and that either a semicolon or an em-dash would produce the right rhythm.

Looking at the uses above, here’s what I observe: an em-dash sets off a thought, while a semicolon unites two closely connected thoughts. I perhaps get into the most trouble by confusing the em-dash’s ability to tack on a thought with the semicolon’s use as a weighty pause.

Even reading Garner has not made this entirely clear to me. Sometimes punctuation is simply an art.

What about you? Is this your quandary, also? Have I used my semicolons and em-dashes correctly in this post?

Overkill for lawyers

There’s a bit of a trope when it comes to lawyers and technology: whenever Apple or Microsoft or Google has a big event, a hundred posts appear explaining what it means “for lawyers.” How might lawyers use the Apple Watch? What about Google Glass in the courtroom? Most of these posts don’t say anything unique, because in reality lawyers are affected by gadgets exactly the same as everyone else. That is, lawyers get the same lust in their eyes for the shiny new tech and like to write about it.

I say unabashedly: This is one of those posts. It’s a not-so-serious look at Microsoft’s recent event. I write it not because I think the event had anything special for lawyers (quite the contrary), but because it’s fun. If you want the best “for lawyers” advice, go read Sam Glover’s advice to just buy anything that’s new and not cheap. Lawyers aren’t engineers, architects, or digital artists—the professional creatives targeted by the event—so the stuff announced is extreme overkill for a law practice.

Still, you might like nice things, and you might be curious about where Microsoft and Windows 10 are heading. In that case, read on!

Windows 10

Microsoft has dubbed the next major update to Windows 10 “The Creators Update.” The October 26 event accordingly focused on creative types.

Non-creative people have only a couple quality-of-life improvements to look forward to. I like the idea of having contacts on the taskbar, making it easier to communicate and share. OneDrive file placeholders are coming back, and the action center may get mildly more useful. That’s about it.

New surface computers

The very shiniest gadget is the new Surface Studio. It’s a desktop all-in-one PC with a 28″ 5k screen, fast internals, a pen, a new Surface Dial accessory, and a $3000-4000 price tag. No, your law office doesn’t need one—but you wouldn’t complain. Microsoft also announced a higher-end Surface Book laptop, with a little more oomph and a lot more battery.

One thing I do like, as someone who edits a lot of legal writing, is the pen combined with real-life scale on the Surface Studio. Microsoft designed the computer to display documents at true scale—so, for example, if you open an 8.5″ x 11″ memo in Word, it will take up 8.5″ x 11″ of your screen. That should obliterate any desire to print a document, which is still sometimes necessary when you need a broader view.

Working with words

I’m also somewhat excited that pen editing gestures are coming to Microsoft Office. There’s something about editing with a pen—it’s more active, engaged, brings out more of the art with words. Using a mouse, keyboard, and Track Changes feels cold and distanced by comparison, and sometimes I can tell it hampers creativity.

I’m also curious about the new Surface Dial accessory. It looks more useful for drawing than word processing, but I could see it being used in a number of ways. It seems to serve the function of a mouse wheel, just better and with more flexibility. Using it to flip pages in a Word document or finely control the zoom could make a generally laborious computer task—browsing through multiple screens of information—more intuitive, nimble, and ergonomic. The Dial will work with other Surface computers, too, so I might get a chance to see for myself (I own a Surface Pro 4).

Twitter 101 for bar association people

Continuing with the spark I got from Kevin O’Keefe last week, I’ve been trying to up my Twitter game. I got some great practice during the Wisconsin Solo and Small Firm Conference (you can see my noobish tweets under #WSSFC). I admit that I don’t have the hang of it yet. The most difficult thing, for me, is engaging others without sounding annoying or obsequious.

It’s a good thing, then, that the social media advice from Kevin O’Keefe just keeps coming. While I was at WSSFC he was attending the National Association of Bar Executives Communication Workshop (#NABECOMM16), sharing some great nuggets of social media wisdom:

More recently Kevin tweeted a link to a new Twitter 101 post by Niki Black over at MyCase. It’s a great introduction for lawyers. What follows is my distillation of her main points and my thoughts applying the article to bar association leaders/employees.

Twitter is good for attorneys who:

  1. Have potential clients who use Twitter;
  2. Would like to network with other attorneys across the country with similar practice areas;
  3. Want to connect with local/national media; or
  4. Want to keep up with new & info useful to their practice.

For bar association leaders, Twitter is even more of a no-brainer. Attorneys use Twitter. Other bar associations really use Twitter—and there’s a valuable network to have. Connecting with the media is an obvious good. And keeping up with news and trends is an essential part of the job.

To get started:

  • Choose a username based on your name, not your law firm’s. People prefer to interact with other people, not entities.
  • Write a bio that mentions your firm and 1-2 personal interests. Show that you’re a unique person with interests.
  • Include your law firm’s website link.
  • Find people to follow.
  • Set up Tweetdeck or Hootsuite.

Heed that first suggestion! Bar association leaders: you need to be on Twitter, as real people with real personalities. A “State Bar of X” account is fine and useful, but it’s not really going to be social. Here’s a golden opportunity to show your members that their bar association is made up of real people with real personalities who work hard to serve lawyers.

I would also add, on a practical note, that you should check out Buffer for scheduling posts and creating visuals, and for shortening links you want to share.

Start tweeting.

  • Link to your firm’s latest blog post.
  • Link to news of interest.
  • Tweet about any topic that interests you.
  • Engage in conversations by replying and retweeting.

Your tweets should be:

  • 50% links to other people’s content
  • 30% interactions with others
  • 20% promoting your own content

These are the basics, and there’s not much to add. As I mentioned above, engaging in conversations seems the most difficult part—though maybe not if you’re more opinionated than I am. Retweeting things with a comment is one of the easier ways to participate. Try not to take the conversations too seriously; the medium is informal and not suited to nuance. It will certainly give you practice in getting quickly to the bottom line! The most important thing, I think, is to not be too hesitant or fearful—don’t worry, nobody’s following you at first, and your tweet will be quickly buried by the avalanche that is everyone’s feed.

Always think before you tweet!

This is the one caveat to what I just said about being hesitant and fearful. Tweets are entirely public, so they do require a modicum of judgment. If you wouldn’t say it at a crowded bar association event, don’t put it online. But don’t be afraid, either, to say something controversial or provocative! Those are the things that need to be said, and they can be said as one person’s opinion even when they cannot be said as the official statement of a bar association. In fact, that’s how you start a conversation, and isn’t that why we’re on Twitter in the first place?

For further reading/viewing, Niki’s post links to two MyCase webinars by Gyi Tsakalakis and Kevin O’Keefe, both worth checking out.

Missing: Bar association leaders online

Kevin O’Keefe asked an important question this week: Why are bar association leaders missing from the internet? Why aren’t they evangelizing for their causes by blogging? Why are they suspiciously absent from discussions on Twitter and LinkedIn? The online legal community is abuzz with talk of innovation, technology, and the future of our profession—and the people who lead our profession remain silent.

It’s not as if bar associations aren’t having these conversations. As Kevin knows, the ominous “future” is often raised in committee and a frequent bugaboo of reports. The problem is that these conversations never appear online; the buzz of the committee meeting stays in the ears of its members.

Briefly, Kevin highlights how this hurts bar associations:

  • They miss the chance to evangelize for their cause.
  • They can’t defend themselves from frequent online criticism.
  • They ignore an effective way to promote their members and those who are doing good work.
  • They fail to build trust or gain access to influencers.

In the end, Kevin can do little more than call these leaders to action. I’d like to add my perspective on the problem, as a lowly bar association employee.

I think bar associations and their leaders do not understand online engagement. It’s not in the job description (though perhaps it should be). Social media is left to communications and marketing professionals employed by the bar, and this seems sensible to people who understand the value of specialization.

The core problem is that bar associations and their leaders do not know how to be authentic online, or the importance of it. They do not know that vulnerability is more important than polish, that truth-telling is better than appeasement. They do know—from experience—that bold innovation is a risky business; in a bar association, anything but the status quo is going to upset somebody. We shouldn’t fear that, but, then again, lawyers are scary. Especially upset lawyers. This makes frank discussion risky, and the internet only makes it riskier. The larger the audience, the louder the boos.

I’m just an entry-level bar association employee (with a J.D., at least), so forgive me if I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I have a hunch that the biggest problem with bar associations in general is that they are afraid of their own members. This fear gets in the way of online engagement and authenticity. It gets in the way of innovation. It stifles.

I’m not sure that fear is justified. I should say it’s a fear of a small but vocal minority of members who might raise a ruckus. Because, really, most attorneys are good people and most bar members are good attorneys (at least in my state). Bar associations know and are proud of this. And yet, still, behind every decision there lurks a fear: How will they react?

Ironically, that question and that fear are exactly why bar association leaders need to be online. There’s no better way to influence people, to make your case, to generate support, and to put a positive spin on your actions. I think bar associations have been habitually uncommunicative, and that needs to change. The cure for members’ skepticism is more communication, not less. Especially because, in the end, our causes are objectively good and our innovations plainly needed.

I’d like to end by emphasizing what Kevin overlooked. It’s not just bar association leaders—lawyers who serve as presidents and committee members and such—who need to be online. Even more so, bar association employees must be present on blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. The truth is that association presidents and committee chairs come and go quite regularly, while employees stick around for 10, 20, or 30 years. These people are the lifeblood of the association—they are the ones who take what members want to do and actually make it happen. They are the ones who have staked their living on the association’s future, and they want to see it succeed as much as anyone in innovating and helping its members. I’m not sure this is well understood.

That’s why bar association employees should be empowered and encouraged to speak online with their own voices. These people are a huge force for change in our profession, and yet they are often silent. This will require a change of culture in bar associations (who tend to be afraid of communicating too much of their internal affairs) and probably a change of mindset for many employees. But if bar associations are going to be authentic, it is absolutely necessary.

I’d like to start with myself. I’d like to start taking this blog seriously, as a part of my job. It’s a way to network. It’s a way to think and develop ideas. It’s a way to stay connected with the people I serve, and show them the value of what I do. Perhaps, someday, it will help me push our profession forward and make it better for everyone. In the meantime, I’m just happy to add my voice to the conversation.

Thanks for the push, Kevin.

A tablet with handwriting you might actually use

I like technology and gadgets. I particularly enjoy devices that try to bring productivity and creativity together. I own a Surface Pro 4, which is a good example of that; it’s all about getting work done and freeing you to do the work your way.

At least, that’s the idea. The Surface Pen is a big part of that freedom, but devices like the Surface have never quite solved a problem with their stylus input: writing on a touchscreen is still a far cry from putting pen to actual paper. It’s just not as accurate, quick, natural, or pleasant. Even though it comes close in some cases, most people (myself included) don’t end up using the stylus as much as they thought they would.

The latest addition to this device genre, the intriguing Lenovo Yoga Book, tries to solve that problem. It lets you write with real ink on real paper while it captures your writing digitally.

It does this by replacing the usual keyboard with a flat touch surface. This surface lights up with keys for touch typing, but it also takes input from a combination stylus/pen. You can even put real paper on top of the surface and write on it—the Yoga Book will detect the strokes and record them in an app.

We’ll have to wait to see if this tactic proves successful. The Yoga Book was only just announced; reviewers will get their mitts on it in a few weeks. Until then, a few thoughts:

  • I wonder if the physical size and aspect ratio will hinder the writing experience. It’s definitely on the small side, designed more like a tablet than a laptop.
  • I wonder if you’ll need special paper, or if you’ll have to use the included stylus/pen. These types of limitations can turn a great feature into something few people will actually use. How many people would give up their favorite pen?
  • I think the accuracy of the digital transcription needs to be spot-on. Small glitches could cause the whole project to go awry.
  • Reservations aside, I’m glad to see a new approach to tablets with handwriting. This could be useful thing to many people.

Models of great legal writing

I recently reread Brian Garner’s oft-repeated advice on improving legal writing in an ABA article. The point: to be a good legal writer, you need to read good legal writing. Thankfully, Garner points to a few sources of such writing.

New to me was The Green Bag. Garner:

Here you’ll find some of the best, most interesting legal scholarship to be found anywhere. It’s a law review that defies most law-review conventions. Your subscription will get you not just a quarterly journal at a reasonable cost, but also a yearly almanac of good writing.

You can even access most of the journal’s articles from past issues online.

For “astoundingly good” briefs, Garner recommends anything from the Office of the Solicitor General. Also, anything you can find by Walter Dellinger, Clifton Elgarten, Miguel Estrada, Theodore B. Olson, Evan M. Tager, or Charles Alan Wright.

Sadly, Garner has fewer sources for good legal memos, motions, and contracts. I’ll recommend a couple places to start.

First, the Curmudgeon’s advice on writing a memo (pdf):

When you are writing a legal memorandum for internal use, there is only one proper way to discuss a case. This is the way:

In Smith v. Jones,

1. Somebody sued somebody for something.

2. The trial court held something. (The trial court did not “discuss” something or “analyze” something or “believe” something; it held something. Ordinarily, a trial court grants or denies a motion, or enters a judgment. Use the proper verb to describe the holding.)

3. The appellate court held something. (Ordinarily, an appellate court will affirm, reverse, vacate, or remand. Use the proper verb to describe the holding.)

4. Now, you can say anything else about the case that you care to.

Second, Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers. Check out his sample documents for tips on formatting captions, motions, research memos, and contracts. For a great example of a concise contract, look at his font license (pdf).


I wrote an article on perfectionism for the Young Lawyers Division newsletter earlier this year. After starting my new job at the State Bar as an editor, a colleague asked me to update it for the bar-wide newsletter, Inside Track. It’s published now, and you can read it here.

What I wrote was mostly self-reflection. I’ve had good feedback on it so far—perhaps because lawyers, as a whole, aren’t very open about their own struggles or emotions. In fact, my colleague took care to confirm that I felt comfortable exposing my piece to a broader audience. (I appreciated the thought, though I wouldn’t have submitted the article in the first place if I were worried about that sort of thing.)

As an editor at a state bar, my work focuses on communicating useful technical knowledge to lawyers. Our primary business is publishing books about the law and law practice. Sometimes, though, we all need a different kind of knowledge—the knowledge that others deal with the same fears and foibles as us. I’m thankful for that reminder.


I like to collect information—especially useful information. In my time as a law student and young lawyer, I’ve discovered a good deal of useful things for people like me on the Internet. I’d like to share them; I’d like to develop a nice, curated list of resources that will prove how knowledgeable and useful I can be.

I’d like to, but Keith Lee over at Associate’s Mind beat me to the punch. I only recently discovered this resource, and it’s great. You should check it out.

A few gems that were new to me:

  • Ten Minute Mentor from the Texas State Bar. I never knew this existed before, but what a great idea. Short videos of advice from practicing attorneys.
  • Overlawyered. Apparently the oldest running law blog, somehow I hadn’t come across it until now.
  • Yale Law School career guides. When it comes to the various paths a lawyer’s career might take, you can’t have too much detail.

Perhaps, in the future, I will post about specific resources in more depth.