Thursday, November 12, 2009

The right writing sample: competition for legal jobs is fiercer than ever. Stellar writing samples can help you stand out to employers.

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You will need a strong writing sample when you apply for a job. Even if a writing sample wasn't requested with your resume and cover letter, you'll need to bring one or more with you when you go for an interview. Because so much of a lawyer's work involves written communication, only the rare employer will not ask to see a writing sample.

At least one major legal employer (the law department of a large city in the Midwest) reviews writing samples first--even before looking at cover letters or resumes. This employer started reviewing writing samples first because of complaints about the writing skills of students hired to be law clerks. Looking first at the writing samples allows him to weed people out much more efficiently than when he started with cover letters and resumes, which tend to be much more polished, perhaps because career services offices and faculty advisers have closely reviewed them.

Is this the case with most other employers? No. Most employers usually look first to the cover letter and resume and then to the writing sample. Because employers receive a high number of applications, many only take a quick glance at a writing sample. If it looks good, you're probably okay. If errors jump out from the writing sample, however, your application goes into the circular file (the garbage can).

To their detriment, many students will spend hours agonizing over each line of a resume but spend only a few minutes preparing a writing sample. Many students--even in their third year of law school--simply dust off their first-semester closed memorandum legal writing assignment and use that as their one and only writing sample. Although there isn't anything wrong with using work from your first semester, potential employers may be more impressed if you can show more than your first-semester memorandum on intentional infliction of emotional distress.

You should have at least one writing sample. Ideally, I would recommend that you be able to present a potential employer with three writing samples, each of a different type. This article collects and shares some advice on which documents to use as writing samples and how to be sure they help you get the job you want.

Choosing the best writing samples

What documents should you use as writing samples? Some students use the memoranda and appellate briefs they wrote in their first year because those are the only writing samples they have.

Other students have briefs they've done for moot court competitions, papers for seminar classes, or drafts of law review articles. Still other students have memoranda and trial court motions they did while working at a law firm or interning for a judge or government agency. And still other students (who may have followed the advice in my article, "Get Published," Student Lawyer, October 2008, at wrote articles published by bar association journals or other periodicals.

Professor Anne Rector at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta reminds her students there is no standard format or formula for a writing sample. Her advice is similar to that given by writing professors across the country: the sample should be well-written, grammatically correct, free from typographical and punctuation errors, and not overly long (generally 5 to 10 pages). It also should be visually appealing to readers. (For more on how your samples should look, read Bryan Garner's Legal Writing column, "Pay attention to the aesthetics of your pages," Student Lawyer, May 2008, at www.

When you go on an interview, I recommend that you have the three writing samples with you. First, have an office memorandum. (One of my students in Lawyering Skills used the office memorandum she wrote for class as one of her samples. The employer liked it so much that he made copies of it and circulated it to the firm's law clerks and associates as a model of how they should prepare office memoranda. Yes, she also got the job.) Second, have a motion to dismiss or an appellate brief, particularly if the firm does a lot of litigation. And third, have something scholarly or practice related: a law review article, a paper you wrote for a seminar class, a casenote on a new court decision, or an article for a bar journal.

You may have numerous documents that would work as writing samples, but I would provide employers no more than three (unless they specifically request more, which hardly anyone does). Showing a range of writing samples in various documents will show that you are unafraid of writing (even if you secretly are). This is important because so much of your job will involve writing.


Ruth Anne Robbins, a clinical professor of law at Rutgers School of Law--Camden and president of the Legal Writing Institute, recommends having a cover sheet for your writing samples. The cover sheet can explain what documents the reader will see and can highlight the wide range of your writing abilities. For example, "This writing sample highlights my statutory analysis skills" or "This brief was written in my first year of law school, but I have updated the research analysis and writing so that it better reflects my current research and writing skills." Use your judgment here and test a couple of different cover sheets with a trusted adviser who can confirm their appropriateness and appeal to a potential employer.

Individual employers may have different requirements, but Professor Louis J. Sirico Jr. of Villanova University School of Law and immediate past chair of the Association of American Law Schools Section on Legal Research, Reasoning and Writing recommends that when using a portion of a larger document, your cover sheet for that writing sample should point this out. It should also give readers enough context to understand what the piece is trying to address. Sirico adds that law review notes and comments are not always the best writing samples because readers know they have been through innumerable edits by innumerable hands.

Peter Friedman, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law who is visiting this year at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, says that based on his almost 12 years of hiring in practice that he far preferred reading writing samples of briefs than inter-office memos. He thinks that the office memorandum is a far more artificial law school assignment than a brief. Friedman also says that the more bread-and-butter the topic addressed, the better the writing sample works. It's the rare law student who can successfully tackle a complex issue of constitutional law, while most can nail a mainstream contracts or torts issue. But he advises that you send the best-written sample you can. If your office memo sample is far better than your brief sample, you should submit the memo.

Professor Andrej Thomas Starkis at Massachusetts School of Law tells students to tailor writing samples to fit the target audience. He says that although an appellate brief may work well with a medium or large firm or a court clerkship, a tighter, more functional document may be more appealing to a small firm. He teaches an upper-level required course in litigation practice where students must draft complaints, affidavits, summary judgment motions, and memoranda. His students put these together into docket folders, tabbed and listed on a docket sheet. Students can bring these folders (or parts of them) to job interviews.

Editing your writing samples

Always submit a clean copy of your writing sample. No matter how great your professor's handwritten comments are--even if the only comments are things like "good point" or even "excellent paper"--you shouldn't submit a marked-up copy of your paper to your potential employer. Besides, you should edit your paper again for it to serve as a proper sample of your best writing. Here are 10 guidelines to follow when preparing your writing samples:

1. Give it a thorough read.

There's always room for improvement--even the most seasoned writing professional can tell you that.

Mary Beth Beazley, a professor at The Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law, reminds her students to pay particular attention to what she calls "the template items." Those are the headings, roadmaps, topic sentences (the first sentence of each paragraph), and internal conclusions. She says that readers who are skimming will often note those template items in particular. Readers approaching an unfamiliar topic will frequently rely on template items to guide them through the document. The better they accomplish the goal, she says, the more likely the reader is to perceive the document as effective.

2. Edit for length.

If your best paper exceeds the potential employer's requested writing sample length, this doesn't mean you can't use it. But you'll have to edit for length. If they ask for a writing sample of no more than six pages but you send one that is eight pages long, they may not hire you because you didn't follow simple instructions. Remember, you can often use an excerpt of a longer paper or brief if you have an appropriate cover sheet. You can also cut a memorandum of brief down to a single issue to make it shorter.

3. Get rid of distracting names.

If the writing assignment used funny names, change them to normal names that won't distract your readers or remind them it was a writing assignment. Potential employers don't want to see names of television characters either. One law school dean was contacted by a group of judges who were checking whether using the names of television characters was standard practice for writing samples. The judges assumed initially that the students were being flippant and unprofessional by using such names in their writing samples. You don't need that kind of baggage when you're trying to land any job (and most particularly a judicial clerkship). Just change the names.

4. Change client names.

Students with clerking jobs may want to use a writing sample flora that job. If your writing sample is based on work done for real clients, you must change the names of those clients (as well as any information that would make it easy to identify them). Protect the privacy of those clients. Don't just strike out or black out the names (that looks tacky to an employer). If you were in the shoes of that client, would you want your legal problems to be the subject of a writing sample that might be widely circulated without concern for your privacy?

You should also get permission from your employer to use the particular document as a writing sample. Think about that for a moment--disclosing work documents without permission would reflect badly on how you're likely to treat work documents at your next job. If you were the employer, would you want your employees to be disclosing information about your clients to others?

If you're clerking for a judge, it's usually very bad form to submit a court opinion as your writing sample. Even if you did write the entire opinion, it has the judge's name on it, not yours. Moreover, some employers may think that you're disclosing too much about the judge's work habits. A much better course of action would be to convert that judicial opinion into a memorandum to the judge, with a suggested draft judicial opinion. Ask the judge as well what they would recommend. After all, if your interview goes well, the employer will be calling the judge for a reference about your work habits, research, and legal writing abilities,

5. Go ahead. Change the facts too.

When you're doing a paper for class, you have to stick to the facts given to you (and reasonable inferences you make from those facts). But when you're preparing a writing sample to land a job, you can change some of the facts. You can get rid of questionable facts that made readers raise their eyebrows at your analysis. Don't make your paper too easy though--readers will wonder why you had to write a memorandum if the problem was so straightforward.

You can also change the dates of events in the memorandum to make them more recent.

6. Check cases cited.

Your research was current when you wrote the paper, but some time has passed since then and one or more of the cases may have been affirmed, reversed, or simply called into question. Do a periodic update of the sources you cited to be sure that they are still good law. Shepardize and KeyCite the cases to be sure they haven't been overruled or severely criticized. Check the statutes you cited as well to be sure that they haven't been amended by the legislature or declared unconstitutional by a court. Check any administrative regulations you cited to be sure they're still current.

It won't be fatal if a case you cited in your memorandum has been overruled or a statute amended, but to a law firm thinking about hiring you, it will look a whole lot better if the legal authorities you cite are solid.

Students generally know how to update cases with Westlaw and Lexis, but I find that many students don't know how to check whether a statute or regulation has been amended. If you fall into that category, now is a very good time to learn how to check the status of statutes and regulations. Ask your legal writing professor or the reference librarian for help with this essential skill if you didn't pick it up completely first semester. (You don't want to lose a job opportunity because you can't do basic research!) You could also learn how to use your state's legislative website to see if new legislation has been proposed to amend a statute. Learn how to do that now before you need to do it for a client. (See this month's Legal Research column on page 12 for information on researching regulations.)

7. Fix the citation format.

In addition to checking whether the authorities cited are still good law, you should spend a few minutes with the Bluebook or ALWD Citation Manual to double-check the citation formats in your work. You might think this is a pain, but no employer wants to spend time fixing your citation format. Learn how to use the citation manuals.

8. Proofread it. Proofread it again.

It might not be fatal if there's a mistake in your writing sample, but it certainly won't help. And if there's more than one mistake, you may really be at risk of missing out on that job opportunity. Take time to proofread your writing samples. Your ability to get a job may depend on having an error-free writing sample.

To proofread the paper, you may try to read it aloud. You might try reading it backward (a technique that often discloses many typos). You can increase the font size and print out a new version. Proofread from paper when you can because computer screens may play tricks on your eyes. And I bet your fellow job seekers who also have to prepare writing samples wouldn't mind swapping proofreading duties with you.

9. Print it on nice paper.

If you want to go for the extra-credit points in a job interview, print out your writing samples on very nice paper (perhaps even resume paper). I've seen some people reviewing resumes and writing samples take more time with submissions that looked nicer than others, including those that were printed on nice paper. There is no reason why this should be so. I am just reporting what I have seen. It may be that those who have time to worry about the paper their writing samples are printed on also have given enough time and attention to substantively editing their samples.

10. Read it before interviews.

What happens if they ask you a question about your writing sample and you can't remember what you wrote in it? Steven K. Homer, a professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, recommends that you read your writing sample again before your interview, just in case you're asked a question about it. You won't be fumbling around for the answer, and your confidence in being able to answer the question may help you land the job.

A strong writing sample may be essential for you to get the job you want. Take some time preparing good writing samples that you can bring with you to an interview. Edit them, update them, and make them error-free if you can. The time you spend getting those writing samples ready may help you more than you ever imagined.

Mark E. Wojcik is a professor at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago. He is a Legal Writing Institute board member and author of Illinois Legal Research (Carolina Academic Press) and Introduction to Legal English (International Law Institute). In addition to individuals mentioned in this article, he thanks David Austin, Sarah Benson, and Michael Cosgrove.

Source Citation
Wojcik, Mark E. "The right writing sample: competition for legal jobs is fiercer than ever. Stellar writing samples can help you stand out to employers." Student Lawyer 37.8 (2009): 18+. General OneFile. Web. 12 Nov. 2009. .

Gale Document Number:A198168935

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