Q) This is probably a first-year level question, but I was looking for advice on how to select proper legal writing samples to use when applying for jobs. I am four years out of law school and have accumulated a decent collection of memorandum and demand letters over the years at my current firm and was wondering what kind of documents would be best for writing samples and also what the protocol is for utilizing my work product from my current firm. Should I just limit myself to documents that were actually filed with the court so that they are a part of the public record? Thanks.
A) Ugh. Law firms still want writing samples? Why can’t they do something a bit more modern, like read and comment on your blog or follow you on Twitter? Honestly, I’ve always scratched my head about writing samples, and I’ve been on both ends: providing writing samples and reading writing samples. And both ends suck. It sucks on your end because you are forced to come up with something impressive and flawless that is supposed to be “representative” of your writing style and analytical skills. But, not much is representative unless you’ve either 1) been a solo or in a very small firm or 2) been out a few more years than four. Most submitted briefs or memoranda are an amalgam of two or three people, from law clerk to associate to partner, and who’s to say it’s your apple?
It sucks on the reader’s end because writing samples are boring to read, presuming that they are even read. It’s one thing to have to slog through an opposing counsel’s brief and make sense of it. But to slog through a writing sample that has no context or real meaning, that’s really a fiction in its present context? It’s like having to read Kant or Hume while waiting for an oil change.
Here’s what I’d do. Pick a writing sample that has an interesting fact situation or pattern. Something more interesting than your basic collection lawsuit or unemployment compensation issue. Something that has pizzaz or possesses some sex, humor, or hard to believe scenario. That has at least some promise of being remembered and discussed. And while I initially warmed to the idea after thinking about it, I still wouldn’t submit a demand letter. Demand letters are not seen as sophisticated. They’re just, well, demand letters. Unless there’s something sexy there, something truly and factually interesting and for which you also included some decent amount of legal analysis. Then, I’d consider a demand letter as just one of two submitted samples. Otherwise, a well-written memorandum on a decently interesting topic should suffice, though preferably it’s best to submit something that has actually been filed in court or led to some resolution or decision. Y’know, the whole persuasive writing thing us lawyers do.
Oh, and work product issues? If you have any doubts, don’t provide something that may be considered your firm’s work product, unless you have permission from the law firm, which is presumably your current employer. One, you don’t want an unauthorized disclosure to kick your ass later. And, two, the potential employer to whom you are giving the sample will think you are a bit loose with your current firm’s work product and will be similarly loose with theirs (unless you can provide a short explanation of why it’s kosher to give it to them and you redact out any potentially identifying information, in bold black redaction boxes that make it look like you are the CIA).
All that said, I’d rather see a typing test than deal with writing samples. They don’t really tell you that much and are really the end part of the interview process where you can only screw it up by submitting something with a typo. Which gets me to the final and most important piece of advice: do the fundamental task of proofreading (and correcting) the shit out of anything you submit. You can have an incredibly impressive and persuasive brief but if you spell “assisting” as “assfisting” than, well, kiss that job goodbye.
(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/missmass/3740141024/ )