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Practical Legal Writing Tips for New Attorneys

Alex Bein

Summary

  • Ask for samples and templates.
  • Write first, revise later.
  • Say it out loud.
  • Understand your supervisor’s revisions.
Practical Legal Writing Tips for New Attorneys
Thanasis Zovoilis via Getty Images

One important part of the law school experience is the first-year legal writing program. There, students learn some variation on the IRAC (Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion) theme and how to structure a legal memo or brief in a way that is concise, predictable, and straightforward. Such introductory courses are, of course, invaluable, and those who excel may be better prepared in practice for their first real drafting assignments in practice.

Nonetheless, law school can only teach you so much. As new attorneys quickly find out, the learning process doesn’t truly begin until you’re forced to meet the real-world requirements of that first assignment.

Upon graduation, I was lucky enough to clerk for several years in state and federal trial courts, followed by a transition into private practice at a law firm. At each step, I had the opportunity to pick up tips and advice on legal writing from my mentors and colleagues, as well as my own experiences. Below, I share some of the most practical of these lessons, each of which has helped improve both my legal writing process and the quality of my work as a law clerk and law firm associate.

1. Ask for Samples and Templates

When you first receive a writing assignment, keep in mind that you are probably not the first person required to generate that specific work product. Don’t be shy about asking for examples of the document (whether a memo, brief, letter to opposing counsel, etc.) as previously submitted in similar contexts.

Not only will these exemplar documents provide valuable insight into the appropriate style and format for the requested work, but the substance of those exemplars may be similar as well. With such examples in hand, an assignment that initially seemed like a heavy lift may in fact require only minor modifications to the firm’s preexisting work product.

Further, your assigning attorneys may have certain preferences for how they expect documents to be presented, and reviewing prior examples of their work is an excellent way to learn what is expected.

2. Write First, Revise Later

Whether it’s a first or 50th writing assignment, attorneys are always under pressure to produce high-quality work product. This pressure for perfection, combined with the belief that something can always be improved, can cause serious writer’s block and make it difficult to get that first draft out the door on time.

One helpful piece of advice that I received in this regard is to complete a first pass at the assignment without any self-editing—no pausing to consider synonyms or alternative phraseology or even to correct spelling. As Brian Garner says, “let the madman run loose for a while.” Once all of your thoughts are down on paper in some form or another, you can then focus on improving the details. After trying this out a few times, I personally found that the “difficult” part of the assignment that had been holding up my progress was actually not as difficult as I had originally thought.

3. Say It Out Loud

Legal writing can often feel impersonal and mechanical. A brief in support of a motion to dismiss, for example, must generally contain certain substance (a discussion of the factual allegations, the legal standard, analysis of applicable law, etc.) and must follow a certain format. As a result, new attorneys can easily fall into the mindset of treating a brief like a standardized test form, and the court like a Scantron grading machine.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that your target audience is a person, not a machine! If your writing style is convoluted or difficult to follow, your argument may not absorb the judge’s attention or get the traction it deserves, even if the law and the facts are clearly on your side and the technical requirements of the submission are otherwise met.

One way to avoid this problem is to read your writing aloud during the revision process. I once submitted a particularly complex draft brief to my assigning partner, who then pointed to a specific paragraph and asked me to read it back to him. I thought it conveyed a sophisticated idea on paper, but when spoken in the context of a conversation, it sounded ridiculous!

Having been on a judge’s staff previously, I recalled the briefs I’d reviewed that really frustrated me—full of complex sentences, page-long paragraphs, and endless footnotes. If those attorneys had read their briefs out loud like I’d just done, perhaps they would have realized how difficult their arguments were to digest—and would have revised accordingly.

4. Understand Your Supervisor’s Revisions

At some point, every new attorney (me included) gets a draft returned from an assigning attorney that is absolutely covered in red-lined revisions. This is a normal part of the development process. When this happens, however, don’t make the mistake of simply reviewing those edits for typos before “finalizing” the draft.

One of the best ways to ensure that future assignments require fewer such revisions is to take the time to understand why each change was made and incorporate that wisdom into your future work. You can’t control your assigning attorney’s revisions to your work, but by understanding and internalizing each such revision, you can ensure that your assigning attorney doesn’t have to repeat the same requests for your next assignment.

Conclusions

Developing your legal writing ability as a new attorney involves adapting to the style and preferences of your target audience, be it a law firm partner, client, or judge. Given regular review of exemplars, adoption of thoughtful drafting and revision practices, and internalizing of senior attorneys’ comments on your work, your writing may naturally start to take on some of those qualities in its own right. In this way, you may find that your writing style has begun to mature and develop! You’d be right to be proud—but not complacent, as this learning and development process will continue throughout the rest of your career.

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