Talking a Good Game: A Small Step with Big Gains

by admin 12. November 2013 12:26

By MELANIE BERKOWITZ

When I was a summer associate twenty years ago, I wrote a lot of memos to file. They were a popular assignment, those three or four pages full of summarized cases on some point of law that might be needed somewhere down the road. More importantly, they were a way to keep a summer class of nearly 50 law students busy working on something that felt like “real law”. 

I suspect most of those memos never saw the light of day again.

Despite their relative uselessness, the memo to file used to be an important stepping stone to bigger and more important projects. Write enough of them and one day you might get to draft something to be sent to a client or filed in court – after being edited up the line by several more senior associates and finally a partner or two. Along the way, hopefully, you would become a decent writer.

Today, the memo to file is mostly a dinosaur in a legal world where there is no time, let alone clients that will pay, for the exercise.  Summer associate classes have shrunk, workloads have increased, and even the newest lawyers-to-be are expected to know how to write well immediately. Many, even from the top law schools, don’t.

It’s a catch-22. Very few clients will pay for work produced by first or even second year associates, but without practice and experience how are they supposed to improve?

The secret? Learn – quickly – how to talk a good game. You may not be asked to write yet but your words are still important, so how you package them is critical.  

A partner asks you to find a case that supports her position or look up the answer to a question?  Whether you chat in the break room or sit down in her office, be ready to talk about more than a case summary or two. Even if you have only a couple of minutes, present your findings as the “highlight reel” of a well-written brief, making sure to include all of the following:  

  • Your message – a broad overview of the answer
  • Brief roadmap of your reasoning (is there a three-pronged test or two schools of thought?)
  • Quick explanation of each prong with its strongest case
  • Application to the facts, if you know them
  • Recognition of opposing law

In ten minutes you can communicate a lot of useful information if you stick to your purpose and remember your message. Could you research more, explain more, argue more? Of course.  But don’t throw away the opportunity to make a well-reasoned argument (and a good impression) just because the setting is casual or your time is brief. The partner will appreciate getting what she needs to know quickly and will hopefully remember you when more substantive projects come along.

And learning to distill a legal argument or explanation into a short discussion will make you a better writer. Given the opportunity and time to write something out, most new lawyers will usually say too much. But force yourself to turn a couple of hours of research into an “elevator speech” and you will quickly and effectively figure out what is important and what is not.

The memo to file may be gone, and with it the safety net that often allowed mediocre writers to hide behind dozens of edits and layers of more seniors lawyers. But spoken words cannot be taken back and edited.  When you think about your writing the way you think about a spoken conversation the words that come out are going to be clearer, more concise and more convincing. So talk a good game, write a good game and make your point the first time. You – and your clients – will reap the rewards.

 

Melanie is a lawyer who is passionate about writing and a writer who is passionate about the law. After trying "the law-firm-associate thing" (at Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal), the "teaching-legal-writing thing" (at The John Marshall Law School) and "the clerkship thing" (for the Hon. Marvin Aspen and the Hon. Michael Mason), Melanie found the perfect job, combining her labor and employment background with her writing skills as an in-house legal writer at Seyfarth Shaw. Three kids later, she co-founded The GhostWriters legal and business writing practice. She now makes her own hours as she writes, blogs, lectures and generally carries on a torrid love affair with her computer.

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Melanie Berkowitz | Write to the Point

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