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Professional Development

Send the Bullet List!

J.B. Ruhl

Send the Bullet List!
LaylaBird via iStock

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“Don’t send me the memo! I don’t ever want to see a legal memo again!”

This unequivocal declaration, made by a corporate general counsel who was a guest speaker in my class on the legal industry last semester, was followed by deafening Zoom-room silence. No doubt, my students wondered why they spent so much time as 1Ls learning how to write a legal memo.

Of course, all the speaker meant was that she doesn’t want her outside counsel sending her long, ponderous legal memos as responses to her focused need for legal advice. What she wants are the answers. Getting the answers will likely require the intensive thought processes and legal analysis you would apply in constructing a legal memo. Still, the days of preparing and delivering the finely crafted, impeccable, no-stone-unturned, bespoke legal memo are over. That will no longer earn you a “Job well done!”

More, Better, Faster, for Less

The growing disdain for the legal memo reflects the “more, better, faster, for less” theme that has engulfed the legal industry. Clients have no time to wade through a long memo and don’t want to pay for the “gold standard” mentality that drove lawyers to proofread one more time, tweak this word and that one, and do whatever it took to make the memo perfect.

So the question is, what do you send? As all lawyers know, the answer is usually, “it depends.” Law is nuanced; facts might cut in different directions; standards are mushy; more facts could change the outcome. If the answer isn’t a cut-and-dry yes or no, what do you send to capture the complexity, if not a lengthy memo?

Learn the Art of the Bullet List

Bullet lists are useful because they:

  • distinctly identify for the reader the essential points of focus,
  • force the writer to distill those points to their essence,
  • pack in a lot of information without worrying about elegant prose, and
  • are easy to work through when having a conversation about the matter.

You get the idea. Of course, there will likely be some need to introduce what the bullet list is about, and some bottom-line conclusions might require standard prose. For example, the “answer” might open by briefly explaining that three factors are essential to decide how the law applies, then work through the three elements using a bullet list, then conclude with what seems like the most likely outcome. This style can also efficiently lay out and assess options, evaluate a settlement offer, and so on.

The other tricky issue is how much backup is required “in the file” to support the bullet list. If clients don’t need to see a legal memo, maybe no one does. An outline of critical statutory provisions, a collection of case summaries, and a summary of facts in play can go in the file if you need a more in-depth analysis after sending the bullet list. The extra work (read: billable hours clients don’t want to pay for) required to pull all that together into a legal memo might not be justified.

The skills required to produce a top-notch formal legal memo are skills you need to develop and cultivate. It’s not a waste of time to learn how to do it in law school. Now and then, a formal legal memo that leaves no stone unturned may be a valuable work product, but, increasingly, clients don’t want to see them. They want bullet lists.