This week, we're excited to share a guest post from Julie Schrager. Julie is an attorney and the legal writing coach at Schiff Hardin, a full-service law firm of about 300 lawyers in seven offices. She works closely with summer associates, associates, and partners to improve their legal writing. Julie also hosts writing workshops for 1Ls at law schools around the country. Here are her practical tips that can help law students successfully navigate summer writing assignments. Thank you, Julie!
For some students, summer is a break from school. But for many law students, particularly after their 2L year, summer is an important step on the path to a permanent position. You manage multiple writing assignments (and social events too!) and adapt what you’ve learned to new types of work and interactions. And even if you are working at a law firm or other setting that either always gives offers or never gives offers, your second summer is an opportunity to develop some of the professional skills that you will need to be successful in whatever position you obtain after you graduate.
For the last ten years, I’ve taught summer associates and new lawyers to be better writers and thought hard about how summer associates can be successful. These five tips can help you adapt what you’ve learned in law school to a summer legal job. Summer employment is an exercise in translation. Figure out what to keep from school wholesale, what to abandon, and what skills you must adapt to a professional setting.
Remember, of course, that all workplaces are different. While these tips should apply universally, always be mindful and tuned-in to the specific characteristics of the place you’re working.
# 1: Answer the right question. Every summer there is at least one summer associate who writes a thorough, well-researched, technically correct memo but (and you don’t want there to be a “but” after what I just wrote) the assignment isn’t well received. Why is that? Because the assigning attorney was not seeking the answer to the question the summer associate answered but to another question instead. There’s an effective way to avoid this disconnect. When you are getting an assignment—and remember that most assignments will not be carefully crafted the way your legal writing instructors crafted them—make sure you are on the same page with the assigning attorney before you leave the room. (I encourage summers to use those exact words and restate what the assigning attorney asked them to do.) Then go back to your office and fill in any blanks left by your incomplete notes.
# 2: Manage your communications effectively. Legal writing instructors might be annoyed by five separate emails over the course of a day asking questions about the assignment, but they are required to teach you whether they find you annoying or not. Not the case in a professional environment. There, assigning lawyers almost always have choices about whom to work with. To encourage them to choose you, think before communicating. Perhaps keep an ongoing list of questions and send one email asking the attorney if she has ten minutes to meet to answer them. If you are working on a complex assignment, ask when you get it if you can check in one week or two weeks to share an outline or report on your progress. [A note from Apochromatik: Check out Eight Easy Ways to Irritate Email Recipients to be sure you aren’t making other mistakes in your professional communications.]
# 3: Do not inadvertently plagiarize. Law students learn early during 1L year that plagiarism has serious consequences. I think that it is rare that a person intentionally plagiarizes—especially because as lawyers we know that concepts and words that come from statutes or cases are more powerful than our own—but sometimes we lose track of a source or misstate a quote because of too much copying and pasting. You can avoid this mistake by being scrupulous in copying quotation marks around quotes and complete cites for every concept or idea or language that you are taking from a source outside of your head.
# 4: Do the work thoroughly so that you can state a confident conclusion. Legal writing professors design law school assignments to be evenly balanced and require you to read and absorb just-the-right-amount of cases and facts to make the assignment challenging but not overwhelming. This doesn’t happen in the real world. For that reason, you may have to hunt down relevant or analogous cases or make sense of a large body of law or facts. You must do this work. Remember that you’ve been asked to do it so that the assigning attorney does not have to. To make your reader’s job easier, you must read and think hard about the answer to the question and avoid saying something like “It depends on the facts.” Remember, too, that you are never completely objective when writing in a professional environment because you have a client cares about the answer.
# 5: Seek out and embrace feedback. In my first semester in college, I failed my first final. How did I react? I took a walk around campus and convinced myself not to drop out yet (that was good advice), but I never sought out the professor to discuss the exam and understand how I went wrong. That was a big mistake. And it’s an even bigger mistake to avoid the person you worked with on an assignment that went off the rails because in a professional environment, you have something to prove: that you are mature enough to face, understand, and admit mistakes and strong enough to figure out your way through them. (Just recently I learned from Adam Grant’s podcast Work/Life about the concept of not just bouncing back but bouncing forward.) How can you bounce forward? If you haven’t received feedback about an assignment a week or so after you turned it in, email the assigning attorney and ask if the person has time to meet with you to discuss your work. If the conversation starts off slowly, try to make it easier for the person to provide you with feedback. Ask, for example, what are three things that you could have done better? And three things that you did well? [A note from Apochromatik: Check out our resources on feedback – they cover how to prepare for a formal review, how to ask for feedback informally, and what to do once you have it.]
Thank you to 1L students at Fordham Law and Howard Law who helped me formulate this list when I visited their schools in April!
[One last note from Apochromatik: Thank you, Julie!
Watch for more summer-focused content over the next few days. And if you want to share your own career-related tips or lessons – whether you’re just starting your career or looking toward retirement – we’d love to hear from you! Reach out to Keith@Apochromatik.com to write a guest post!]