If you supervise junior attorneys
(and sometimes even if you don’t), a little writing
coach resides in your heart. Let it roar by giving the
attorneys and staff you supervise feedback that will help
them become the best writers they can be.
I know that you’re busy. But taking time to provide
thoughtful feedback—rather than a cursory redline or
nothing at all—often represents a savvy investment in
the future effectiveness and reputation of
your law office. As I wrote in my first col-
umn, no one ever “arrives” as a perfect legal
writer; good writers evolve until the day
they stop writing altogether. And, let’s face
it: A few legal-writing classes in law school
make an excellent beginning, but we all ben-
efit from additional coaching once we hit
the real world of law practice. A handful of
simple techniques can help you guide your
junior colleagues to become more compe-
tent and persuasive writers.
Remember: Your goal here is not just to
fix one memo or brief, but to foster better
writing skills and habits in the future. That’s
tricky. Luckily for us, back in 1996, a legal-writing professor named Anne Enquist
researched what types of feedback legal writers found most effective. 1 And, both in my
career as a litigator supervising junior attorneys and over the past seven
years teaching law students, I have found not only that students and junior
lawyers seem to appreciate the techniques she suggests, but also that this
type of feedback helps facilitate what educators call “transfer of learning”—
it helps the writer translate comments on one piece to the next piece, even
where the next piece involves different issues or challenges.
First, although margin comments that identify errors help,
end comments deliver the most impact. A constructive end comment summarizes your overall qualitative assessment of the piece
and then identifies a manageable number of specific priorities for
revision (or for improving the next piece). This not only provides
the space to explain any comments that require more detail, it
also signals what you think are the most important things the
writer needs to improve. Ideally, you even set out the priorities
in order of importance. A solid end comment provides a
roadmap for a better next brief.
Second, labeling comments or the use of editorial marks may
tell a writer what needs to be fixed, but feedback that builds better future writers does more: It explains comments and models
better writing. Although redlining the document does accomplish the latter—and when you’re in a rush it may be your best
option—it falls short as a coaching technique. Instead, the most
effective feedback diagnoses the writing issue, points the recipient to a resource to learn more about that issue, and gives an
example of how to cure that issue.
THE LEGAL WORD by Susie Salmon
Susie Salmon is Assistant Director
of Legal Writing and Associate Clinical
Professor of Law at The University of
Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law.
Before joining Arizona Law, she spent
nine years as a commercial litigator at
large firms in Tucson and Los Angeles.
For example, many writers
use too many words. This problem may pervade a brief. You
can highlight one or two wordy
sentences, show the junior
attorney how to write them
more concisely, and write an
end comment flagging wordiness as a priority for revision. You can even
point the person to books or online resources
that suggest strategies for eliminating wordiness. (Garner’s The Redbook has two chapters
devoted to this, for example.)
Third, positive feedback isn’t just touchy-feely nonsense. It matters. We want to encourage and reward good work, but we also want
people to repeat it. Highlight good writing or
reasoning, but also explain why a particular
passage or argument works (just in case the
writer did it by accident!).
Finally, liberate yourself from the compulsion to mark or comment on every error.
Most often, you can identify recurring issues
or patterns and highlight one or two illustrative examples in the paper with the note that
the writer should watch for this issue
throughout the paper and in the future. This
restraint also avoids “red pen syndrome,”
where the sheer volume of comments so
overwhelms and demoralizes the recipient
that it creates chronic writer’s block. 2 Your
tone also makes a difference; comments perceived as snarky or demeaning are more likely
to alienate than to educate.
Of course, you cannot provide in-depth
feedback every time. The rigors and economic realities of law practice often demand quick
turnarounds, and you sure can’t bill a client
for training your own employees or interns.
But even if you just engage in this exercise
once or twice with a law clerk, extern, or
junior attorney, you can mold a better legal
writer. It’s an investment in the future of our
profession, but it can also be incredibly personally rewarding. AZ AT
1. For more, see Anne Enquist, Critiquing Law
We all benefit
Students’ Writing: What the Students Say Is
Effective, 2 LEGAL WRITING 145 (1996).
2. More on overcoming legal-writer’s block in a
once we hit the
real world of law
The Care and Feeding of a Legal Writer