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 »