Legal Writing Sample Cover Letter
Advice on How to Revise your Lawyering Memo or Brief into a Writing Sample
At some point during the application and interview process most employers will ask for a writing sample. A writing sample demonstrates how well you organize and express your thoughts in writing. It also provides concrete evidence of your analytical skills. Naturally, you want to submit a sample that presents your abilities in the best possible light. Creating a positive writing sample takes some careful thought and effort.
A memo or brief you prepared for lawyering seminar can work well as a writing sample.
Employers are looking for clear, effective legal writing and analysis. An objective interoffice memo or a persuasive brief are both acceptable vehicles for demonstrating your writing and analysis abilities.
Select a sample that is sufficiently recent to demonstrate your current writing and analysis skills.
Most students' legal writing improves greatly over the course of law school, so selecting a recent piece of work should demonstrate your current strength and give employers confidence that they will see similar skills exercised on their behalf. On the other hand, if your most recent work is not your best written work, select another sample. Try not to reach too far back in time for the sample. For example, a 3L who submits a 1L lawyering brief invites questions about what s/he has written in the intervening two years.
Make your sample reader-friendly.
As in all legal writing, consider your purpose and audience. As discussed above, your purpose is to demonstrate your writing and analysis skills. Now think about who's reading your sample and what his/her needs and motives are. Chances are good that your reader - the prospective employer - must read several writing samples in a short time-frame. Here are some tips for making your sample reader-friendly:
- Attach a cover memo that spells out context for the sample. If you are using a memo or brief prepared for lawyering seminar, the cover memo should describe the circumstances under which the sample was written, including the course (Law Sem I, II, or III); a one-sentence overview of the simulation and your assigned role in it; the details of the assignment and whether it was an objective memo or a persuasive brief; a summary of the fact scenario, legal issue(s), and doctrine presented in the sample; and an explanation of whether and how the sample was critiqued by your professor during the drafting process. If your sample omits sections of the full memo or brief, you should offer to provide the employer with the full draft. See sample cover memo<doc>
- Consider omitting portions of the sample to keep it in the 8 - 12 page range. Most employers won't read more than 10 or so pages to determine how well you write, and some employers will set a page limit for the sample. You want to make sure that you give them pages that best demonstrate your proficiency. To get your sample to the right length, consider cutting the fact section, issue statement, and/or, for a multi-issue memo or brief, one or more of the points of analysis or argument. Keep the portions that best demonstrate your legal analysis abilities and that present legal issues and doctrine that are likely to be familiar to the reader. It is difficult for your reader to assess the strength of your analysis if the area of law is completely foreign to her/him. If you do omit portions, be sure to explain that in your cover letter, as the sample cover letter does here<doc>.
- Make sure your formatting is reader-friendly and professional. We recommend a basic font, like Times New Roman, 12-point type, double-spaced with one-inch margins. Do not shrink your type size or margins to shorten your brief! Create a header that includes your name, the words "Writing Sample," and the date. Number the pages. If you are submitting the sample in hard-copy, staple the pages in the upper left corner.
Maximize the positive impression your writing sample makes.
We cannot overstate the importance of refining and polishing your writing sample. Your writing sample conveys to the employer the level of care and attention - or lack thereof - that you pay to your writing.
- Revision never ends. If you received comments from your professor on the final draft of the writing you are now using as a sample, incorporate that feedback into the sample. In addition, exercise your own judgment as to how to improve the writing and analysis. Perhaps several months have passed since you wrote the memo or brief and you are further along in your development as a writer, analyst, and advocate. How would you revise to improve the writing today?
- Use legal phrases and terms carefully and precisely. Your reader is a practicing lawyer. S/he knows what legal terms mean and will recognize incorrect, imprecise, or casual use of them.
- Your writing sample and cover memo must be error free! For the busy employer who is reading a dozen samples, the easiest, quickest way to shorten the list is to reject applicants whose writing sample contains grammar, syntax, punctuation, or citation errors. Proofread, proofread, proofread! Then proofread some more.
If you select a document you prepared for a clinic or law office as your writing sample, much of the above advice applies. However, you also need to consider confidentiality and attorney-client privilege issues as applicable. Consult your professor or employer. Be careful about selecting a writing that you co-wrote with another student -- like a moot court brief -- since it can be difficult to separate authorship in co-written documents. Your writing sample should be your writing only.
Lastly, Career Services recommends that you send your writing sample as a pdf to avoid word processing formatting kinks that may occur when the recipient opens the document. You can pdf your documents for free using your Symplicity account.
The Writing Fellows at the Legal Writing Center have experience creating their own writing samples. They have also worked with students to revise, edit, and improve their legal writing samples. While they can't comment on the strength of your legal analysis, they can help with organization and clarity of your writing. Individual appointments are available. Sign up on the CUNY Legal Writing Center TWEN site »
R�sum� and Application Development
For the same reason that interview answers should reflect the needs of the employer, the writing sample should represent a real world context. A brilliant analysis of an arcane subject for a seminar or law review is not necessarily the winning writing sample, nor is a writing sample that contains lurid material. Choosing a writing sample with lurid material will distract the employer from the merits of the writing and make an unfavorable impression. For first-year students (1D/2Es), a memorandum drafted for your Legal Analysis, Writing and Research course is appropriate. For second- and third-year students (2D/3E and 3D/4Es), an internal memorandum or pleading that you drafted as a law clerk or summer intern may be the stronger choice. (Be sure to get explicit permission from your employer before using a work document as a writing sample.)
Your writing sample should create a positive image of you as someone who pays careful attention to detail. It must be accurate and free of typographical errors and other mistakes. The following points will guide you in making decisions about what to submit and how to prepare a final product for submission to the employer.
When should I provide a writing sample? Only when requested to do so by the employer. Be prepared, however, by bringing a copy of your writing sample to an interview. Do not offer it unless the employer asks for it.
What should I use as a writing sample? If you are allowed the opportunity, ask the employer what type of writing sample he or she would like to see. Good writing samples are legal writing -- persuasive writing that allows the employer to evaluate advocacy skills. A writing sample should be sufficiently recent to indicate a measure of your current skill level. Unless you are a first-year law student, most employers want to read a writing sample that you drafted as a law clerk or intern. Among your best choices for a writing sample are memoranda of points and authorities or a brief. A bench memorandum for a judge is also appropriate because it reveals practical research and writing skills. Never submit an opinion that you drafted for the judge as your writing sample. Regardless of how much of the opinion you drafted, it is improper to represent an opinion, issued over the signature and by the authority of a judge, as your own. Another choice would be a law school exercise that simulates a real world legal problem such as a moot court brief or memorandum for your Legal Analysis, Writing and Research course. Submitting a paper written for a law journal is not recommended because it does not mirror the style of writing done in practice. The amount of time spent on a scholarly note is out of proportion to the time available in practice.
How long should it be? Ideally, a good writing sample should be approximately five to ten pages in length. When you must cut a previously written document to create a more manageable length, you should make sure not to delete necessary context. If it would help to clarify the deletions, and then annotate the cover by stating for example, "I have omitted Arguments III and IV." Writing Fellows at the Legal Writing Center can give you suggestions about reducing the number of pages by, for example, cutting down on the number of issues that the paper addresses and explaining those changes in a cover memo or annotation
What if I wrote only part of the memorandum? The writing sample should allow an employer to assess your work. Do not submit a writing sample that was extensively revised by your supervising attorney. If, however, the writing sample is a brief or other document that you wrote signed by a supervising attorney, you should explain in a cover letter your part in drafting the final product and neatly cross out parts you did not write.
Can I submit the writing sample as it is or do I need to redact confidential information? You will need to remove confidential or sensitive information from your writing sample. A fictitious character, such as "ABC Co.," should be inserted to maintain the flow of the writing sample when confidential material is redacted. Do not simply use a black magic marker to mask identifying information, as this leaves a sloppy and sometimes illegible work product. Regardless of your writing ability, failure to understand the importance of protecting the confidentiality of a client will taint your application.
How should I present the writing sample? You should refrain from submitting writing samples in elaborate notebooks or binders. An employer will have to take the binder apart to make copies and to insert the writing sample in the applicant's file. If a document like an appellate brief is customarily bound, however, it is acceptable to submit the document in that form.
Do not just copy your brief or memorandum for submission. Be sure to review the writing sample with fresh eyes. This includes taking the time to shepardize the cited case law again to ensure that it is still good law. You should also include a discussion of new opinions on point. You never know who will be reading your submission, and it may be brought to the attention of an attorney who has completed extensive research in the area of law upon which your writing sample is based.
Prepare the document so that it is easy to read, with ample margins and preferably, 12-point typeface. Use regular white paper. Be sure to put your name and other identifying data on the cover page.
IMPORTANT REMINDERS FOR WRITING SAMPLES
Double check grammar and punctuation. Your writing sample must be perfect in this regard. Review your document several times, check and recheck your use of colons, semicolons, commas, and periods. Be sure that direct quotes are properly offset, if required, or delineated with quotation marks. Grammatical errors and poor punctuation will kill any chance you may have to be considered for the job.
Continually update your writing sample. As your legal research and writing skills improve, make sure that your writing sample reflects that improvement. The writing sample you drafted as a first-year student is not appropriate to use at graduation.
Cite all sources. Review the cases cited in your memorandum to be certain that in your discussion of a case you have not simply paraphrased or quoted the Court's own language without indicating that it is in fact a quote. Remember, you never know who will be reading your sample or whether they will also review the authority cited within. This is not unusual practice. In fact, many employers have members of the hiring committee whose sole responsibility is the review of writing samples, including an exhaustive review of all case law cited therein.
Writing samples must be error free. At some employers, when a writing sample is received it is reviewed by a support staff member who circles all typographical errors and misspellings with a red pen thereby making errors impossible to miss. Employers consider your writing sample to represent the quality of the work product that you would allow to go to judges, opposing counsel or clients. Because of this, typographic errors and misspellings can ruin your chance of getting an offer of employment.
Submit a clean copy of your document. This may seem obvious, but students at another school have submitted writing samples to prospective employers with "red pen" corrections from their legal writing instructors.
Only submit a writing sample upon request. Some employers do not require writing samples for the initial screening interview, but will request them at the second or third interview.
Visit the Legal Writing Center. The Legal Writing Center operates under the direction of Professor Susan Hankin in Room 400. Writing Fellows at the Center are available to assist you in polishing your writing sample to perfection before submitting it to potential employers.
The feedback you can expect from writing fellows will be the kind that focuses on the legal reader's reactions to the text. (In this way, the Writing Fellows can play the role of the potential employer, who may not be familiar with the specific area of law.) Their feedback can help you understand why places in your document may create confusion and encourage you to come up with your own solutions: how you can better organize the document or create a better legal context for your reader. The writing fellows are not there to proofread your papers, nor are they are editors. They can, however, spot patterns of writing problems and give you feedback on how to address these problems.
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