To Build Your Practice, Organize the Best and Forget the Rest

Kevin J. Vogel
Take deliberate steps to organize and manage the knowledge you gain, and the best work product you find or create along the way.

Take deliberate steps to organize and manage the knowledge you gain, and the best work product you find or create along the way.

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Wherever you practice, I recommend that you take deliberate steps to organize and manage the knowledge you gain, and the best work product you find or create along the way. That way, whatever you are working on now makes it even easier for you to deliver efficient, effective work in your practice or scholarship in the future.

The advice is simple in theory but requires discipline in practice. Let’s say you are assigned the first draft of a sentencing memorandum for a criminal defendant. If your firm has a brief bank, look through it to find the best, most persuasive writing you can find. Next, find cases through Westlaw, Lexis, or a similar database where the result was the outcome you want for your client, and pull the briefs from those cases. Then, use Google, HeinOnline, your law library, your peers, or whatever other resources are at your disposal to find other examples of knockout sentencing memoranda or practitioners’ recommendations about sentencing memoranda. When you come across a piece that is the best you’ve ever seen for a particular circumstance (e.g., first-time, non-violent offender, an offender with an extensive criminal history, etc.), save it. Even if it does not apply directly to your case right now, it will inform your writing and might help a future client. If you note something along the way that would make for a good article in a law journal or other publication, flag it.

If the example you’re looking at is the best you’ve ever seen at something or raises a publication topic, it is worth saving. A not-very-persuasive brief with a to-die-for opening metaphor, or excellent typography, is worth saving. Like an expert tinkerer, you can dissect these examples for parts (with credit where prudent or necessary). If you’re keeping the piece only for a part, highlight that part and leave a note to yourself, so you will know why you saved it two years from now.

Once you’ve exhausted these sources for excellent examples, perform your alchemy: consider your client’s individual needs and circumstances and use the best parts of the cases you found, combined with your personal style, to build the best sentencing memorandum you can. If you are satisfied with the final copy of your memorandum after the partner’s review and the sentencing hearing, it goes into your (now) growing personal library. If the judge at the sentencing hearing says she or he didn’t buy a part of your memorandum, save it in your library with a note about that feedback. (Label, redact, or anonymize as protective orders, confidentiality obligations require.)

You now have a sentencing memorandum brief bank of your own, with an excellent memorandum for your client’s circumstances, the very best examples you came across for other occasions, and possibly a publication topic. Repeat the same process the next time you have to write a sentencing memorandum. You will be that much more efficient and effective.

If your memorandum falls flat or is not the very best example you can find for the circumstances, ditch it from your library. It doesn’t make sense to keep an ineffective or outdated piece of work product in there. Similarly, if in the future, you come across better writing or a better argument in some later piece, ditch the old (even if it is your own).

Repeat this process for every assignment you have—research memoranda, contracts, briefs, interview memoranda, judicial opinions, engagement letters, issues and action plans, and anything else. You will be building your library as you practice, a library of excellent resources you (and, if you are a good colleague, others) can draw upon later.

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Kevin J. Vogel is an associate attorney with Flannery | Georgalis, LLC, in Cleveland, Ohio. He focuses his practice on complex criminal and civil litigation and advises lawyers on professional-responsibility matters and risk management.