Ask for Samples and Templates
When you first receive a writing assignment, remember that you are probably not the first person required to generate that specific work product. Don’t be shy about asking for document examples (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 specific preferences for how they expect documents to be presented. Reviewing previous examples of their work is an excellent way to learn what they expect.
Write First, Revise Later
Whether it’s the first or 50th writing assignment, we are constantly under pressure to produce a 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 challenging to get that first draft out the door on time.
One helpful piece of advice that I received is to complete the first pass at the assignment without any self-editing—no pausing to consider synonyms or alternative phraseology or even correct spelling. As Brian Garner says, “Let the madman run loose for a while.” Once all your thoughts are down on paper in some form or another, you can focus on improving the details. After trying this out a few times, I found that the difficult part of the assignment that had been holding up my progress was not as difficult as I had initially thought.
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 particular format. As a result, we 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 it sounded ridiculous when spoken in the context of a conversation!
Having been on a judge’s staff previously, I recalled the briefs I’d reviewed that frustrated me—full of complex sentences, page-long paragraphs, and endless footnotes. If those attorneys had read their briefs out loud as I’d just done, perhaps they would have realized how complex their arguments were to digest—and would have revised accordingly.
Understand Your Supervisor's Revisions
At some point, every new attorney (me included) gets a draft returned from an assigning attorney that is 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. Still, by understanding and internalizing each revision, you can ensure that your assigning attorney doesn’t have to repeat the same requests for your next assignment.
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 the 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 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.