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!