Posted: June 25th, 2012 | Author: mariebuckley | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Most Popular Posts, Musings on Writing (and Life) | Tags: legal writing, legal writing coach, legal writing techniques, legal writing training | No Comments »
So you are one of the lucky ones who landed a summer job. Nice office! Free coffee! The natives are friendly! But summers at law firms are no longer the professional equivalent of summer camp. In today’s economy, an offer is not guaranteed. You must show that you are worth hiring.
Write as if Your Offer Depends on It.
You cannot be an effective lawyer today if you cannot write. Because writing skills are so essential in the legal world, careers often rise—or fall—based on the ability to write. So firms rightly expect their young lawyers to be superb writers. Therefore, each writing assignment is an opportunity for you to show that you are a sharp thinker and a promising lawyer. Write as if your offer depends on your writing. Because it does.
Ask Questions. Write Down the Answers.
Writing is not just about a knack for writing clean, crisp sentences. In the legal world, writing turns on substance. You cannot write about your topic if you do not understand the background. So make sure you understand the Story behind your assignment. Who is your client? Who are the other players? How do they know each other? What went wrong or what are they trying to accomplish?
Ask intelligent, focused questions and write down the answers. Writing down the answers shows that you are paying close attention to the information.
But Don’t Be Needy.
Your colleagues will not have time to hold your hand or walk you step-by-step through your project. Ask enough questions so that you understand your assignment, but find the answers to simpler questions on your own. You must show that you can work independently, with minimal supervision, and return a perfect project.
Review the Case File.
The case file may contain a wealth of information that your colleague may not have had the time to share, so always review the case file to be sure you understand your project.
File Your Research Carefully.
After you leave in August, the case will continue on without you. Imagine that your colleague must argue the case the week after you leave, but that he or she will not have time to prepare until the night before the argument. If you leave meticulous, carefully marked-up case files, your colleague will be forever grateful.
You should build that case file while you do your research. As you find your cases, mark them up and highlight them. Summarize the facts of the case in a two-word soundbite at the top of the case. Note the holding and the reasoning. Then file the cases carefully by topic and subtopic. File your cases based on fact-pattern. Keep files for your opponent’s authority and for cases that need to be distinguished. Within each file, put the most important cases at the top of the file.
If your cases are not filed in an obvious place, such as Westlaw or Nexis, make sure your colleague knows how to find your case file. If you file your cases electronically, email the file to the assigning lawyer.
The question of what makes for brilliant writing can’t be covered in a short blog post. (It took me a book to share all the tips I’ve learned as a writing coach.) But if you follow the Three Essential Rules for Strong Writing, your writing will sing.
1. Use plain English.
Speak human. Choose real, concrete words. Avoid legalese and jargon. Say your sentences aloud to cure clutter. (Click here for more Tips on Plain English and Other Kindnesses.)
2. Lead from the top.
You will win or lose your readers in the first page or so—or in the first paragraph. Therefore, the opening is the most important part of your paper and it should “lead” for the whole paper. An opening must explain three things: the background story, the issue, and your answer.
Let me say that last part again. Lead your paper with your answer. Put the answer in the first paragraph. Better yet, write it on neon lights or tattoo it on your forehead. And be brave and take a stand. Show that you have the confidence to reach a clean, authoritative answer.
Within the body of the paper, lead each section with a substantive heading and lead each paragraph with a short, introductory sentence.
3. Tell your reader what to do next.
Why did your colleague ask you to research this issue? What will she use the information for? What should the client do next? Always finish a paper by explaining what the reader should do next in the real world.
Dig Deeply Into the Cases.
When a lawyer asks you to research an issue, chances are that he or she already knows the general rules of law that govern your issue. What that lawyer does not know is how those rules play out in the real world. So be sure to share the facts of every case you cite. If you can’t do so in prose, share the facts in a short fact-based parenthetical. (Click here for More Tips on Handling Case Law.)
Make Your Work Perfect.
Yes, perfect is the enemy of done but you are not done until it is perfect. Proofread like your offer depends on it. (Again, it does.) (Click here for Eight Steps for Proofreading.)
Turn Your Work in On Time.
Your colleagues will love you—just love you!—if you turn your work in on time.
Ask for Feedback, But Take it Like a Grown Up.
After you turn in a project, ask your colleague for feedback. Did the paper answer your question? Can I do anything else to follow up? But again, don’t be needy. Your colleagues will not have time to give you detailed feedback. And no news usually means that your paper fit the bill. (Bad news tends to arrive by flaming lightning bolt within nanoseconds.)
And if the criticism is negative—errrr, constructive—don’t go off in a huff. Listen and learn. Say thank you. Then show that you can learn from that criticism by writing a brilliant paper next time.
Be a team player.
No one wants to work with a prima donna or some other flavor of jerk. So show that you play well with others. Be smart and decent. Show that you are willing to work hard. Play nice. And have fun. If people think you enjoy your work, they will want to work with you.
P. S. My Book, The Lawyer’s Essential Guide to Writing (ABA 2011), would make a great gift for the summer associate in your life!
Posted: December 7th, 2011 | Author: mariebuckley | Filed under: Musings on Writing (and Life), Plain English: Why | No Comments »
It’s a fast, loud world—a world in which virtually everyone has a voice in the collective conversation that is the Internet. Our fancy law degrees are no longer enough to make people listen to us, so we may no longer hide behind time-worn conventions of legal writing. We lawyers will forfeit our voice in the collective conversation—and much of our influence—if we don’t learn to communicate more clearly.
But if we can learn to communicate clearly, people may begin to understand us. If they understand us, they may begin to trust us more. They may even begin to listen to and learn from what we say. We will have joined the conversation.
After all, communication, at its best, is about community.
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Posted: December 6th, 2011 | Author: mariebuckley | Filed under: Most Popular Posts, Musings on Writing (and Life), Plain English: Why | No Comments »
Why is plain English such a powerful writing tool? Plain English establishes your credibility because it tells the reader that you speak a language that they already know and understand. It also shows your humanity so it creates a genuine connection between you and your reader. And plain English is clear and transparent. It reassures the reader that you are not trying to pull any fast moves with language, so it leads the reader to regard you as honest and trustworthy.
The most valuable asset that any lawyer has is trust—the trust of our clients, the trust of our colleagues, the trust of the public. A lawyer’s reputation is simply the public manifestation of that trust. Because plain English shows your honesty and humanity, it promotes trust. So plain English should be one of the foundations on which lawyers build careers and reputations.
How trustworthy is your writing?
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Posted: October 7th, 2011 | Author: mariebuckley | Filed under: Musings on Writing (and Life) | No Comments »
I own two computers–a hefty, stationary PC and an unassuming little MacBook Pro. My PC sits on the left side of my corner desk. My MacBook Pro lives on the right. I’ve outfitted my PC with a large, impressive screen and I’ve propped that screen to an ergonomically perfect height by placing it on Black’s Law Dictionary. (That is what BLD is for, right?) It has a wireless keyboard with a zillion keys, a friendly gel pad and a snazzy little wireless mouse. It’s black and forbidding and it looks like the place where impressive work goes to happen. It’s a work computer.
While I do battle with my PC, my little MacBook Pro watches from its quieter side of the desk. Yes, it’s a work computer too. I bought it because I needed a laptop for the days I spend in my client’s offices. But, as I became acquainted with my new little friend, something funny happened. I realized that my little friend was more than just a portable way to work. It was a different way to work.
It’s … well … it’s sensual. Those flat little keys are deliciously tactile and they make the most satisfying little click when I type. And just a whisper of a stroke makes letters happen. Words fly. Those words becomes sentences, then paragraphs. The experience is so seamless and enticing that ideas fly whole from my brain to the page. The speed itself is intoxicating and new ideas flow in to fill the empty brain spaces left behind. I pause and let my fingers wander on the trackpad just for the joy of it. My cursor swims. I try two fingers and give it a swoop. And my little friend remembers my gesture even after I’ve lifted my fingers. She soars through my pages and she seems to be having fun, too. And I like taking her places with me. She’s light but solid. And that stainless steel makes me think of my kitchen rather than my office.
My MacBook Pro makes me want to write because it makes the physical work of writing a pleasure. She brings back the joy of putting a sharp pencil to an unbroken white page. She makes me believe that I am a creative person and that my work is meaningful. Often when I sit on the left side of my desk, managing files and documents, she calls to me from her sunny spot on the right side. A friend–patiently waiting, with the promise that she has better things in mind for me.
Steve Jobs greatest skill may have been the clever way he squeezed money from our pockets. But, in return for that money, he gave us an experience–a real, finger-frolicking, delicious romp with technology that unleashed us, rather than enslaved us.
And I thank him for that.
Posted: May 23rd, 2011 | Author: mbuckley | Filed under: Mission Critical Stuff, Musings on Writing (and Life) | Tags: legal writing | No Comments »
Before your readers will listen to you, they need to know that you have listened to them and that you understand their challenges and their needs. Respect for our readers is the basis for all strong writing techniques.
- Respect your readers’ time. Be merciful. Don’t take up any more of your readers’ time than necessary. Answer the question, argue the point or lay out the deal as as concisely as possible.
- Respect your readers’ intelligence. Your readers are highly trained and intelligent, so they expect thoughtful, deep analysis. While you must be brief, it is more important to be thorough. Your readers will give you their time if you reward their effort with deep knowledge.
- Make it as easy as possible for your readers. Don’t make your readers work any harder than necessary to understand your paper. Write in the language they already know and love–plain English.
- Satisfy your readers’ curiosity. Your readers are deeply curious. But they are more curious about you as a writer than they are about your topic. Do you know your subject? Are you masterful or just competent? Are you reasonable and worth working with? Use your writing to convey who you are as a lawyer. Let your tone suggest confidence and authority.
- Focus your readers. Given the competition for your readers’ time, you must focus your readers’ attention for them by leading from the top–the key to effective, professional writing and the principle my book focuses on.
- Give your readers choices. Headings and introductory sentences allow your readers to choose not to read a section to to mark a section for reading later. Give your readers the option to just say no or later.
- Keep your readers’ eyes moving. Your readers should be able to move seamlessly from the beginning to the end of your paper. Any style that halts that forward momentum destroys your readers’ trust in you as a writer. (The books explains many techniques to keep your readers’ eyes moving forward.)
Posted: May 23rd, 2011 | Author: mbuckley | Filed under: Musings on Writing (and Life) | Tags: legal writing | No Comments »
So what is strong legal writing? Strong legal writing speaks a modern language–plain English. It respects our readers’ time and intelligence by being concise but thorough. It takes complex ideas and makes them clear. It leads from the top. It builds on the mind’s innate love of pattern and it tells our readers what to do next. The best legal writing earns both the readers’ trust and the right to the readers’ time. Above all, strong writing leads to easy reading.
Posted: May 23rd, 2011 | Author: mbuckley | Filed under: Musings on Writing (and Life) | Tags: legal writing | No Comments »
Why is legal writing so important? Because legal writing drives deals, molds thought, sets rules and governs relationships. Because our writing represents both our clients and our firm. And because our writing reflects on each of us an advocate and a person. Our writing defines who we are.
In the legal profession, virtually everything we do–our negotiations, our legal arguments, our advice to clients, even our exchanges with colleagues–we now do in writing. So now that all lawyers are essentially in the writing business, the ability to write cleanly and efficiently has become a survival skill. You simply cannot be an effective lawyer today if you cannot write. And poor legal writing does more than harm our own reputations. Poor legal writing legals to poor decision making.
The plague of poor writing infects not just the legal world, but the business world as well. The recent National Commission on Writing reports that American businesses spend as much as $3.1 billion annually to address writing problems in the workforce.
So the least we can do for a world that often questions the value of lawyers is to write in a language that adds value–a language that makes legal thought accessible and that regular folks can understand. Open, readable language promotes justice, order and transparency.