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After the Bar

Professional Development

A New Lawyer’s Guide to Collaborative Writing

Ryan Caira and Kayla Oliver


  • New attorneys need to understand the importance of collaborative legal writing and learn how to write effectively with others.
  • There are three stages to collaborative legal writing: planning, drafting, and revision.
  • Throughout all three stages, strong communication is critical. 
A New Lawyer’s Guide to Collaborative Writing
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It often surprises new attorneys that lawyers frequently do not write research memos or legal briefs on their own but instead do so in teams. This makes it critical that young lawyers learn how to write effectively with others.

So, how does writing with others differ from writing on your own? When writing collaboratively, a team must carve up responsibilities and allocate them efficiently, resolving conflicts of substance and style as they arise. If writers contend with the word, then teammates contend with each other. To write effectively in teams, you’ll need to contend with both.

Below, we walk you through the three stages of legal-writing collaboration—planning, drafting, and revision—to show you how.

Planning Stage

The first step in any team project is to identify the scope of the assignment. Only then can you allocate responsibilities among the team members. Imagine, for instance, that your supervisor asks you and another associate to help draft a summary-judgment motion.

First, ask what it will take to finish a draft for your supervisor. Has she laid out the material facts for you already, or will you need to dig through the record to find them? Are there earlier filings to consult or borrow from? Do you already know what arguments to make, or will you need to research the law and develop them independently? The goal is not to identify everything that must be done but rather to anticipate what the work might entail—whether, for instance, you should expect follow-up research or a deep dive into the case file.

Next, meet with your team to allocate responsibilities among its members. Assign responsibilities according to each team member’s experience, expertise, strengths, and weaknesses. If your colleague is a deft storyteller, let her write the facts; if you know the law better, take charge of the argument.

Note that team projects are rarely democratic; the most senior attorney typically holds final authority over the finished product. Less often, authority is shared among team members, as when lawyers with complementary expertise work together on a high-stakes appellate brief or firm partners co-write an article. But even if you are a junior member, ensure that everyone agrees on the project’s allocation of responsibilities and shares a common vision for the final product.

Sometimes, busy supervisors offer little guidance, and you may not know how to handle aspects of your assignment. Rather than guess, clarify your concerns by email or in person. If you’re still mystified, ask for samples from similar projects to guide you.

Drafting Stage

Next, get writing. Although drafting in teams is much the same as drafting your own work—the principles of good writing apply equally to both—you should communicate any questions or concerns you have with your working draft to your team members. The best way to do this is with marginal comments that articulate both the reason for your concern and your proposed solution. If you’re concerned about the soundness of an argument you’ve been asked to make, drop a comment describing the issue and your proposed solution and see what your colleagues say.

Whenever time allows, set internal deadlines to leave time for feedback and revisions from your team. One of the biggest advantages to working in teams is that colleagues provide a variety of perspectives on your work, often sparking ideas that greatly improve what you would otherwise have written. But this is also one of the biggest disadvantages of working in a team: What you think is your final draft is rarely anywhere near final, so you need to leave room for the collaborative process to work its magic.

Revision Stage

The challenges of drafting in teams are most pronounced in the revision process. Team members will differ on a slate of substantive and stylistic issues, and your success in the team will depend on your ability to navigate these conflicts—often by email and marginal comments alone. So, when revising your colleagues’ work, frame your comments in the way most likely to build trust and persuade the author to accept your revisions. To do so, consider adopting these eight strategies:

  1. Strike a tone appropriate to your relationship. If you’re editing a senior attorney’s work, be deferential; if it’s the work of a close associate, be encouraging.
  2. Head off your revisions with a global comment, either at the top of the document or in a cover email. This is a good place to summarize your revisions and identify priorities, concerns, and follow-up questions.
  3. Consider softening your criticism with a compliment sandwich: Open with a compliment, offer criticism, then close with another compliment.
  4. Instead of reproaching a writer for sloppy or confusing draftsmanship, give them a chance to save face. One reliable strategy is to couch your criticism in terms of the hypothetical reader: Rather than say, “I don’t understand what you mean,” consider writing, “The reader might find this term of art confusing without a follow-up explanation like the one I’ve proposed here.”
  5. Justify any revisions that aren’t self-evident. Whenever your redlines correct more than an obvious typo or mistake, explain your reasoning for the change.
  6. Revise judiciously and propose optional revisions only when you believe the change would materially strengthen the draft. This restraint will build your credibility and make the drafter more likely to accept your changes.
  7. Be conscious of version-control problems (i.e., team members revising separate copies of files). When you merge edits, pay close attention to conflicts between the authors’ styles so that the document doesn’t sound like it was drafted by a committee. If possible, have someone outside the team review the draft before it becomes final.
  8. Remember that what the lead attorney says goes. If you disagree with them, let them know—tactfully. But if you fail to persuade them, follow their lead. You might think writing something one way is best, but if you’ve been told otherwise, don’t take liberties.

With careful attention to all three steps in the team-writing process—planning, drafting, and revision—new lawyers can avoid the pitfalls of collaborative writing and enjoy all its advantages: stronger and better-informed reasoning, more insightful analysis, and a carefully polished final product.