Ten Tips for New Attorneys
- Join the club. Consider yourself a professional writer from the
moment you join the firm. Treat every email, letter, or memo as a chance to
impress your supervisors and clients. Choose several types of work product you
want to learn to draft by the end of your first year.
- Know where you’re headed. After you meet with an assigning
attorney, send an email that summarizes the assignment. Supervisors often spot
misunderstandings only after seeing them in writing.
- Hunt for context. If you find that you don’t fully understand how
your assignment fits into “the big picture,” consult the assigning attorney or
another attorney on the matter, read the file, pull the complaint, or search
the Web. Do whatever you can to understand the client needs that prompted the
- Stay in touch. After you’ve worked several hours on a major
assignment, email your assigning attorney to explain where things stand. This
exercise will help you organize your thoughts and keep you on track.
- Obsession’s not all bad. Partners love associates who produce
technically perfect work product. That means no typos, perfect citations,
flawless punctuation, and clean formatting. Get a legal-usage guide and keep
it at your desk. If you’re a corporate associate, triple-check every name,
number, and cross-reference.
- Descend from the clouds. When supervisors pick up your work
product, they want a handbook for solving a practical client problem, not a
display of your vocabulary or high IQ. The way to make supervisors think
you’re smart is to solve their clients’ problems.
- Take a stand. When you draft a memo, distill your research into
substantive points that help answer questions about the law. Avoid the “on the
one hand, on the other hand” approach that characterizes many junior-associate
memos. Similarly, don’t rely on the old saw that “the law is unclear.” That’s
why the firm needs a memo. Use your judgment to make the law clear—or at least
- The one-minute rule. Before you submit any assignment, print it out
and then pick it up as if you were the assigning attorney. Begin reading.
After the first few paragraphs, ask yourself if you have answered a key
question on the partner’s mind? If not, move more quickly to the bottom line.
- Edit aggressively. Block out time to cut needless words and
phrases. Proofread from the last line to the first. Read aloud—if you have
trouble breathing, the sentence is too long.
- Appreciate feedback. When you receive feedback, keep an open mind.
Many associates want to challenge the assigning attorney’s edits. Others
become defensive or throw up their hands. Handling criticism well can be as
important as writing well in the first place. To make the most of
feedback, separate the attorney’s edits into two groups: (1) changes that are
idiosyncratic or cosmetic; and (2) changes that are stylistic or substantive.
Keep a running list of changes in the second group. If several partners make
the same edits, add them to your list even if you think they are wrong.
Ten Tips for New Attorneys (PDF)