How to Structure a Legal Memo: Lead from the Top

Posted: October 25th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Memos and Briefs, Mission Critical Stuff, Most Popular Posts, Structure (Important Stuff Here) | 1 Comment »

The guiding principle for structuring any paper is to “lead from the top.” Why is leading from the top so important? Because leading from the top primes your readers by telling them what to look for in the rest of the paper. If you open your paper by telling your readers what is important, they will look for that information as they read. When you present that information later, your readers will seize on it and it will click quickly, like a puzzle piece snapping into the space that you have already prepared for it. Leading from the top is like the literary technique of foreshadowing. It prepares your readers for what happens later.

The best legal memos use FICA (or FICAR) as their basic structure. The acronym may be horrid, but FICA works because it leads from the top:

  • Facts
  • Issue
  • Conclusion

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ (the opening ends here) _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

  • Analysis
  • (Recommendations)

The dotted line marks the end of the opening–the key real estate in which you have the sacred gift of your readers’ attention, whether you deserve it or not. Your opening should highlight what you want your readers to focus on as they read the paper. Every opening must do three things:

  1. The opening must tell the “back story” so that your readers know the context in which the legal question arises. Who are the parties? How did they meet? What is the problem? Don’t go overboard. Three or four sentences is usually enough. Save the detailed facts for later.
  2. The opening must make the issue clear. (If the issue is clear from the facts, you may not need to state the issue separately. Just go right into the Conclusion or Answer.) Don’t begin your issues with whether. Just ask a plain, simple question and put a pretty question mark at the end.
  3. The opening must state your answer. This is all your readers care about. Label the answer clearly as Conclusion or Brief Answer and keep it short, plain and clean.

Informal papers–the kind that we all prefer to read–condense the entire opening into a single introductory section that explains the back story, the issue and the conclusion:

  • Introduction and Conclusion

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

  • Analysis
  • (Recommendations)

If you use this format, be sure that your first heading screams the word Conclusion. Otherwise, you won’t get credit for reaching a conclusion.

How much time do you have to open? A page and a half. Your readers will tune out after that if you haven’t given them good reasons to keep reading. (Trust me on this. I read a lot of papers.)

If you have done your job in the opening, your readers will trust you and will cross that invisible dotted line and read your Analysis. And they will read intelligently because you have told them what they should be looking for.

Finally, if you can (and I think you can), finish by telling your readers what to do next. Make Recommendations. You don’t need to answer the ultimate issue in a case, but you should tell your readers what their next steps should be. Ask the court to dismiss Counts I and IV. Tell your colleague to depose Mr. Bigshot, to move to dismiss for lack of personal jurisdiction, or to interview Witness X, Y and Z. Tell your client what documents you need her to produce. Keep the ball rolling in the real world by being proactive and practical.

And that, my friends, will make you look smart and wise.



One Comment on “How to Structure a Legal Memo: Lead from the Top”

  1. 1 A Lawyer's Guide to Writing » Blog Archive Nutshell Writing TIps: Be Confident about the Conclusion said at 3:20 pm on December 15th, 2015:

    […] 3. Lead from the top.  Your opening must establish your command of your subject and “prime” your reader by telling them what to look for. The opening must explain the facts, the problem, and your answer. You should open, at most, in a page and a half. The strongest writing opens in the first paragraph. Leading from the top is the most important rule of all and here is more on how to lead from the top. […]

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