Writing for the Partners at Your Firm

By the time that you graduate from law school, you probably feel that you have a pretty good concept of legal writing, especially if you have an undergrad degree that concentrated heavily in drafting. Before you get too confident, I’ll share a story with you about my wake-up call. I graduated summa *** laude from my undergrad school with a degree in English and History and *** laude from my law school with the requisite law review and moot court experience, so I believed that my legal writing skills were solid. My world was rocked when a partner that I was working with for the first time returned a brief to me with more red than black. The nerve! The hubris! I was outraged as I read his comments, which in my view were all stylistic preferences. Even so, he was the partner, I, the associate, and so revise the brief I did.
What I learned from the experience was this: you’ll need a tough skin when writing for someone else, and you’ll need to learn how to write for each of the partners in your firm. Some may appreciate your introductory clauses, while others want bullet-like sentences. Some may appreciate the “getting paid by the word” approach, while others believe that brevity is the soul of professional writing.
Also keep in mind that your approach to writing will depend on the scope of your assignment. Has the partner told you to limit your time? Don’t write War and Peace. Are you writing a letter to opposing counsel, an internal legal memo, a contract, discovery, or a brief? Each type of writing requires a different perspective.
Regardless of the type of professional writing, certain rules of usage are universal.  Some “rules” are simply guidelines. In my opinion, it never hurts to err on the side of following a guideline if it makes for a stronger finished product. Following is my personal top ten list of legal writing guidelines:
  1. Use active voice.
  2. Use commas properly (which includes the use of serial commas, commas to enclose prepositional or verbal phrases and appositives, and commas for non-restrictive clauses)
  3. Avoid dangling modifiers/participial phrases, e.g., After screaming at the prosecutor while being cross-examined, the court found the defendant in contempt.
  4. Use possessive case for gerunds, e.g., Plaintiff objects to Defendants’ filing of a motion to compel.
  5. Favor plain language over verbosity, e.g., “I refuse your request,” v. “I am disinclined to acquiesce to your request.”
  6. Use parallel construction.
  7. Avoid tangents. Footnote if you must, but don’t muddy your writing by including lengthy explanations regarding peripheral issues in the midst of your text.
  8. Divide lengthy documents into sections, and use headings that clearly identify the subject matter of each section.  
  9. Proofread!!!! Typos and misspellings reflect poorly on your skills.
  10. Avoid shifts in tense.
Don’t take constructive criticism on your writing personally, hard as it is to do that. View it as an opportunity to improve your professional skills. Keep in mind, too, that partners are incredibly busy, so any partner’s willingness to provide feedback to you should be welcomed as an indication that the partner considers you worthy of the investment of his valuable time. While you may have a personal style, you may need to reserve it for blogging or other personal writing. Writing to each partner’s expectations indicates that you adapt quickly and further reflects on your ability to respond to the requirements of a given situation.