Today I’m delighted to have this very thoughtful Guest Post by Professor Jennifer Murphy Romig of Emory University School of Law. Professor Romig teaches legal writing, research, and advocacy at Emory Law School. She is also a writing coach, speaker, and consultant for lawyers, summer associates, and other legal professionals. Twitter: @JenniferMRomig. Her Guest Post appears below:
Endorphins and Adrenaline for Law Students
By Jennifer Murphy Romig, Emory University School of Law
You might think a thrilling day for a legal writing professor is reading a memo with thorough use of authority and facts, concise yet substantive headings and subheadings, crystal-clear writing, and polished citations. And you would be right.
But there is another type of thrilling day I recently experienced: one of my former students stopped by to announce he had just accepted a federal judicial clerkship. On the same day, a law-school graduate whom I had coached on bar-exam essay writing found out he passed the bar. They were both ecstatic, and so was I. The endorphins were really flowing.
And that is when I started thinking about what these students will be going on to next—what these opportunities mean for them. They have proved themselves enough to get the opportunity to prove themselves some more. The third-year student will soon graduate and find himself drafting bench memos and possibly opinions. The recent graduate will soon begin his legal job search and doubtless will be writing e-mails and letters to potential employers.
So the main point of this post (as I first envisioned it) was how these new lawyers should continue to coach themselves to become strong lawyers and writers.
- They should seek lawyering and writing advice tailored specifically to their needs. The future clerk might read Aliza Milner, Judicial Clerkships: Legal Methods in Motion (2011). The newly licensed attorney seeking a legal job might read Wayne Scheiss, Writing for the Legal Audience (2003), which includes material on writing to prospective employers. There are many other books, articles, websites, social-media feeds, and other sources devoted to skills and career development. Students and recent graduates who need or want to build their skills—which should include all students and recent graduates—would do well to find a good mix of resources that help them grow.
- They should search for mentors with whom they feel comfortable asking questions and maybe even sharing some of their writing for review, if permitted.
- They should look for examples of strong legal writing, mainly of the type they will be doing, such as sample bench memos and ideas for cover letters, but other types of clear, thorough, and well-organized legal writing as well. Deconstructing great examples can help them understand “how it ticks” and can give them models to emulate. Of course they must tailor their written work to the particulars of the task. But studying great examples should be a huge net positive for their future development as lawyers.
- And since they will now be reaching real-world readers (the judge, the parties affected by the judge’s opinions, recruiting staff, and hiring attorneys), they should bring all their knowledge to bear on tailoring their writing for the particular readers’ needs. Great legal writing should demonstrate strong research and technical polish, but should also demonstrate emotional intelligence about the reader and the context. Bench memos that the law clerk writes will influence the judge in deciding real cases with possibly life-changing consequences. Cover letters that the recent graduate writes will advertise his abilities to help the hiring attorney maintain a healthy law practice or responsibly carry out the functions of the agency or other organization.
But then, just at the moment these constructive admonitions were coalescing in my mind, I saw this quote from legendary coach John Wooden: “When opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare.” Or, as a panel of lawyers told the ABA’s Student Lawyer magazine, “Mastery of legal analysis and writing skills in law school are critical—both because these tools make you an immediate asset to a law firm and also because they are virtually impossible to spend time on and improve once in practice.” (http://www.americanbar.org/publications/student_lawyer/2011-12/may/ask_us_anything.html)
And then this post began changing into something else—something more directed at my own first-year legal writing students and other law students. That future law clerk has already completed most of the classes he will be able to take; there is just one more semester before beginning his clerkship. That graduate who just passed the bar has taken all the classes that his law school will allow him to take. Their development as legal writers is far from complete, but they are already past the time in their lives that is the principal opportunity to focus solely on developing their legal analysis and writing skills.
So this post’s advice to the future clerk and newly minted attorney morphed into a “carpe diem” to the 1L student and the 2Ls and 3Ls still walking the law school halls. These students still have the opportunity to take advanced legal writing or advanced legal research, as well as other the classes and clinics that will build their strengths and skills as writers and as lawyers. To these students, the here-and-now message is something like this: Give class time your all. The listening and note-taking skills you are practicing now will serve you well when you go talk to the judge about an opinion or take notes under pressure at an interview about something to send as a follow-up. The Socratic questions you field now will help you confidently answer the judge or supervising attorney when he or she asks, “How do you know that?” The memos you write in legal writing will help you confidently handle future assignments. These memo assignments are probably be spread out over a longer time during 1L than any memo you will ever write later, so take that time to really reflect on what you are doing and how you are doing it. The e-mails you send to your professor with questions are a chance to practice professional e-mail skills with a practicing attorney. The feeling of not knowing what you’re doing will change but will never completely go away. Building constructive ways to figure out what to do in the face of uncertainty will only help you later.
I am still feeling the endorphins for the judicial clerk and the newly licensed attorney. But those endorphins are giving way to adrenaline for the 1Ls. I hope they all feel it too.