By Anne Pieroni, Esq.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies, American Public University
In today’s market, finding a job, particularly in the legal field, can be competitive. While it is standard to provide a prospective employer with a resume and cover letter, well-written legal writing samples can set you apart from other applicants.
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Legal writing samples provided to an employer demonstrate your knowledge and skill in the field of legal research, legal citations and critical analysis, which are all highly prized attributes in a prospective employee. Whether you are interested in working for the government or in the private sector, creating a well-crafted portfolio of legal writing samples will assist you in obtaining the job you seek.
A Legal Writing Portfolio Helps an Employer to Understand Your Capabilities
Legal writing is tremendously important to the practice of law. A legal employer can use the sample you provide to determine whether your skills and abilities meet their standards. A succinct, error-free analysis shows your potential employer your attention to detail — a critical skill that can mean the difference between a case proceeding to trial or a case being dismissed on procedural grounds.
An analysis of voluminous motions or complicated case law demonstrates to your employer that you have the ability to provide support for attorneys with heavy caseloads. In fact, a well-written memo of law serves as the basis for a claim brought on behalf of a client.
A paralegal or legal assistant with the ability to provide that sort of support can potentially save a firm thousands of dollars in billable hours. This type of legal writing sample demonstrates how you can add value to the firm or agency.
In addition, a thoroughly proofed writing sample distinguishes you from other candidates. It tells the firm or an attorney that you are capable of meticulously sifting through cases, statutes, and regulations to find the material most applicable to your task.
Your Portfolio Should Contain a Variety of Legal Writing Samples
Ideally, your portfolio should contain samples of each type of legal writing that you have accomplished. While motions provide less variety than heady articles in scholarly journals, litigation runs on motion practice. You’ll need to explain why the material in your portfolio is distinctive, how you conducted the research that went into crafting it, and how you used the relevant statutes and case law to support your arguments.
One of the core legal documents a prospective legal employee should have in their legal writing portfolio is a case brief. A case brief is a well-drafted summary and analysis of a court opinion. This document is an excellent tool for demonstrating that you have the key legal abilities of research, analytical thinking and grammatical skills, as well as an understanding of how to properly craft legal citations.
Case briefs are used often in law firms as tools to be utilized later when motions and briefs are constructed. By summarizing recent case law in a case brief and creating a bank of these documents, law firms are able to stay up to date on the ever-evolving law and quickly input the critical rules of law into persuasive arguments for the court.
A case brief is an excellent document to have in a portfolio of writing samples, since case briefs can be written on a multitude of legal topics. Prospective legal applicants should do research in order to find a recently published case opinion that is tailored to the specific type of legal employment they seek. This research demonstrates to a prospective employer that you are knowledgeable and have a sincere interest in their company’s legal specialty.
Of the many types of writing samples, one that is ubiquitous in litigation is the motion. A motion is a procedural device to bring a limited, contested issue before a court for decision. It is the party asking the court to do something on their behalf. Usually numbered, motions are easy to read for both the court and potential employers. A motion showcases your ability to make a targeted, clear argument. However, motions do not always provide much context and may not be the best vehicle for showing off your analytical skills. Make sure that you have a thoroughly drafted fact section that provides a background for your legal analysis.
Trial and appellate briefs provide another medium for showing your research, analytical and citation skills. These briefs tend to deal with the many different issues presented in a case and weave them together with supporting case law and statutes. These writing samples are placed secondary to motions in a portfolio for a few reasons.
First, briefs are usually a team effort. Your potential boss only wants to see what you can do, not the work of your former coworkers. If you use this type of writing sample, be sure to excise any parts you did not write.
Second, briefs are heavily edited by many people. Your potential employer wants to know what your editing skills are and what a product that only you have worked on looks like, so be sure to only include the sections that you edited yourself.
Finally, even if you did do all of the work on your brief by yourself, the length of briefs and complexity of the issues it addresses may work against you. Recruiters, attorneys and judges often have only a few minutes to review applicant submissions. Anything that requires close attention, or more than a cursory review, may land the applicant’s resume in the trash.
A particularly good tool for showcasing your abilities is the memorandum of law or legal memo. A memorandum of law shows a potential employer that you can take a statute and explain all of the judicial interpretations of it that are good law.
These types of documents aid parties in remembering points of law specific to a case. They are particularly good at showcasing an applicant’s ability to research whether a case has been overturned, reaffirmed, questioned or cited by later cases.
Legal memos deal with discrete issues that can more easily be explained in one page or less. Keeping your legal memo simple ensures that the recruiter or hiring manager has time to read your submission.
The legal memo showcases all of the abilities an employer looks for in a paralegal or legal assistant. It also gives you the opportunity to talk about how you researched and wrote the piece (the parts most important to an employer), rather than spend time explaining or defending a legal theory contained within it.
Whatever material you choose to include in your portfolio, keep this in mind — Sometimes, a short and bulletproof motion to dismiss tells an employer more about your potential than a lengthy appellate brief with multiple complex arguments.
Check Your Citations and Keep Up to Date on Case Law
Additionally, check and double-check your citations. Poorly constructed case citations can get your attorneys in trouble with the court.
Also, be sure to confirm whether case law you use in your samples is still good law. Be ready to have this discussion at your interview.
Because cases are constantly coming in front of courts, showing an employer that you can adapt and stay current sets you apart as a candidate. Finally, remember that all of your writing samples taken from previous jobs should be redacted and approved for use if any information from a client or previous workplace is contained in it.
Creating a well-crafted portfolio is important, because it will give you a competitive edge in the legal marketplace. Even when a writing sample is not requested, providing one will set you apart from other candidates. It shows that you have the drive, ambition, and legal writing and research skills that the employer is seeking. Employers desire candidates who take initiative. It will also demonstrate that you are proficient in the art of persuasive writing and legal advocacy. The legal field is a competitive employment market, so be sure to give yourself every advantage in the application process.
About the Author
Anne Pieroni, Esq., is an attorney as well as a professor at American Public University. She has over 15 years of experience as a state and federally barred attorney. She holds a B.A. in Political Science from Michigan State University, as well as a Juris Doctorate from Rutgers University School of Law.
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