October 23, 2012

Helping Associates Improve Their Writing Skills

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January 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 1| Page 60


Helping Associates Improve Their Writing Skills

A legal writing expert’s tips on training junior lawyers to be better writers.

Is it true that law firm associates don’t know how to write? Associates’ writing skills are frequent targets in their evaluations, regardless of how highly associates themselves may rate their on-the-job prose. Why the disconnect, and what can be done about it? A legal writing expert answers these questions and others.

Our expert, Ross Guberman, conducts hundreds of writing programs a year for many of the nation’s top law firms, governmental agencies and bar associations. Guberman, who is the president of Legal Writing Pro and a former practicing lawyer, holds degrees from Yale, the Sorbonne and the University of Chicago School of Law. He is also an award-winning journalist. The following are excerpts from my conversation with him.

Why is there such a difference between how law firm partners and associates view associates’ writing skills? Associates often say writing is their greatest strength, while partners frequently view it as their greatest weakness.

RG: This disconnect is an interesting mystery of law firm life. For associates, writing is the one legal skill they’ve worked on developing ever since they entered the educational system. More recently, they took the mandatory first-year legal research and writing course, and they wrote papers and exam essays all through law school. And for many, writing is personal—something that strikes at the core of their self-worth. So if you tell associates they need deposition or negotiation training or need to brush up on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, they’ll agree. But tell them their writing needs improvement and many are offended.

On the supervisor’s side, for many partners “feedback” means either marking up a document so much that an associate can’t make sense of it or providing comments that are so vague that they only make the associate anxious.

So is it true that many associates lack the legal writing skills they need to succeed?

RG: Unfortunately, many drafts get poor reception from the higher-ups because the writer doesn’t meet the reader’s needs. Take the typical research memo. The associate often tries to use the memo to display intelligence, exhaustiveness and creativity—while the partner just wants to give advice to a client. The truth is, when you write about the law, crisp, clear uncluttered prose doesn’t exactly come naturally. Without finely developed style and structure skills, it’s all too easy to produce a muddled mess of disjointed thoughts and citations.

Across the country and among various size firms, the complaints are consistent. I recently surveyed law firm partners in selected major firms and asked, “What are the three writing problems you see most often in associate work product?” These were the most popular answers, in order:

  • Poor structure/rambling organization
  • Passive voice/awkward sentences/ambiguous clauses
  • Clutter/wordiness
  • Grammar/usage/proofreading/ attention to detail
  • Ineffective use of authorities

Are there solutions that supervisors can immediately implement that make a real difference?

RG: Absolutely. First, firms should ban characterizations. When partners tell associates to write more clearly or simply, those comments may hurt more than they help. No associate tries to ramble or confuse, so these labels just make people resentful. Instead, when partners give feedback, they should be as specific as possible, so that a remark such as “It needs to be clearer” becomes “Every heading must be linked to the caption,” “Cut adverbs,” or “Here are three ways to warm the tone.” The feedback should be about improving an associate’s writing, not labeling it.

I recognize that it is much easier to describe than it is to come up with specific examples of how an associate can improve, but over time, a more creative, future-oriented approach will pay dividends.

So generalizations are of little help in developing an associate’s writing abilities where specifics can be integrated into the learning process. I would also imagine that while labeling or characterizations can be taken personally by a lawyer, giving specifics can be viewed more as a developmental process.

RG: That’s right. If you frame your advice neutrally and practically, the associate is much more willing to hear the message and use it to improve. If you want a partner analogy, it’s the difference between “Your business development skills are weak” and “Here are three ideas I have for how you can better market your practice.”

Another solution, in my experience, is to do a better job distinguishing between your stylistic preferences—the infamous “happy-to-glad” changes that drive associates nuts versus the make-or-break changes that truly affect the quality of the work product. Changing every word for purely stylistic reasons can destroy associates’ morale. When they receive such markups on their document drafts, they often feel their work is not valued and wonder why they should even bother editing their drafts in the first place.

A third solution is something that can avoid a lot of problems up front. When delegating an assignment, a partner should make sure to address the following, regardless of whether the associate actually verbalizes the question:

  • What do you plan to do with the work product I submit? (Answering this question also shows the associate that the work is important, and that the associate is not just a cog in the wheel.)
  • What models should I follow?
  • How much time should I spend on the project?
  • What length should it be and in what form?

I can see how putting these suggestions into action can havea real impact on associates. How about training, though? What’s your top advice on how firms can make writing programs most effective?

RG: Writing programs must be practical. Theoretical musings just won’t work. The program should include specific tips and examples that have immediate impact on an associate’s writing. For example, the presenter might include a list of grammar and usage references, key phrases to cut, or effective transition words. The program should give the associates hands-on experience inwriting and editing excerpts relevant to their practice areas.

About the Author

Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP. She is coauthor of Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent (ABA, 2000).