Above the Law

With the help of many clients, I recently surveyed thousands of law-firm partners about the writing skills they want to see associates develop.

Across the country and across practice areas, partners agree on what they’d like to change about associate drafts. I’ve organized their responses according to my Four Steps to Standout Legal Writing. I’ve also included a fifth category that covers usage and mechanics.

A few sample responses follow.

Step One: Concision

Partners say they spend too much time cutting clutter and other distractions from associate drafts. Anything that interrupts the message—wordy phrases, jargon, legalese, redundancy, blather, hyperbole—is a candidate for the chopping block.

  • “Get to the point, no ‘throat clearing.’”
  • “[Avoid] unnecessary or inaccurate phrases such as in order, at this point in time or almost unique. Similarly, avoid using words such as utilize when use is sufficient.”

Step Two: Clarity

Partners acknowledge that most legal topics are dry and complex, but they still believe associates could do much more to produce clear, active, and direct writing.

  • “Your sentences [should not] average more than 25 words.”
  • “Sound like a human being.”

Step Three: Structure

In associate drafts, partners find that the structure often tracks the associate’s research rather than the reader’s likely questions. Many partners long for the days when attorneys mapped out their sections and paragraphs before writing a single word.

  • “Don’t save the punch line for the end. Let your reader know the point you are making up front.”
  • “This is not an academic exercise; keep the consumer’s goal in mind and deliver what it is they need to know efficiently.”

Step Four: Using Authorities

These days, nearly all associates find the authorities they need. But partners want associates to do more than just copy or summarize those authorities; they want to know how each authority supports the associate’s points explicitly.

  • “This may be as much an analytical skill as a writing skill, but I have been struck by how often junior associates think sending you five cases is an appropriate response to a research assignment.”
  • “[A]ssociates should work on better integrating their discussions of the facts and the law in briefs, i.e., doing more than just stating the facts and stating the law, but explaining how the facts apply to the law.”

Usage and Mechanics

The painful truth: At even the best firms, many partners want associates to work on grammar, usage, and proofreading. Although these “mechanical” skills may not matter much in law school, they are priceless on the job.

  • “Proper grammar! It is quite disappointing how many incorrect usages and constructions many of our incoming (and experienced) lawyers demonstrate in their writing.”
  • “Even first drafts should be polished—no typos, poor grammar, or incorrect citations.”

See more: What Makes for Brilliant Writing and Legal Writing’s 3 Biggest Mistakes

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