With the legal market tightening, you'll want to do more this summer than avoid spilling champagne all over a partner's yacht. When you sail back from that social event to find a major writing project on your desk, strive to steer your memo around common misunderstandings that have made for rocky summers in the past.
As a writing trainer for nearly 100 of the nation's top law firms, I've learned firsthand how to help summer associates succeed. Here are some of my tips:
1. Relax. Lawyers spend decades refining their writing skills. Everyone at your firm knows that writing is hard and that you've had few opportunities to draft the kind of documents you're being asked to generate now. Your best effort will go a long way.
Also recognize that although each project will consume your own working hours, it will be just one of many things that your supervisor thinks about that day. Take your work seriously, but don't agonize over the nuances of every last word.
2. But don't relax too much. When reviewing exams and papers, law professors often overlook typos, citation errors, spelling mistakes and formatting glitches. Law firm partners, who seek signs of your "attention to detail," are less forgiving: "If you get the little things wrong, how can I trust you on the big things?"
3. Where am I going? In this BlackBerry age, supervisors tossing off assignments can forget to relay key information. Every year, I hear the one about the partner who wanted the summer to take an existing stock purchase agreement and change the client's name -- only to see the summer associate bill 100 hours drafting a new agreement from scratch based on something he found on Google.
Avoid such misconnects by getting answers to key questions before you begin:
•What format do you want?
•How long should the final document be?
•How much time should I spend?
•Does the firm have a document I can use as a model?
•What will you do with my project after I submit it?
4. Why am I here? You may find that you don't fully understand how your assignment fits into the big picture. Consult the assigning attorney or another lawyer on the matter, read the file, pull the complaint, search the Web -- whatever it takes to understand why the assignment matters. Don't make the mistake of one summer associate who conjured up a clever strategy for the plaintiff when her firm was representing the defendant.
5. Come out of your shell. After you've worked on a project for several hours, call or e-mail your supervisor to explain where things stand and what questions remain. Communicating at this stage will also help you focus your thoughts and avoid drowning in the details of your research.
6. Small is beautiful. At some point during the summer, you will have writer's block. When it strikes, turn your 30-page assignment into a half-page nugget. Rather than stare at a gaping blank screen in a growing state of paralysis, tell yourself that you're only allowed to write -- by hand -- four sentences about whatever issue you need to address. Your writer's block will disappear -- and your big-picture structure will appear in its place.
7. Seek order out of chaos. Sure, partners have their individual writing quirks. One partner will hyperventilate over serial commas. Another will twist herself into a pretzel to avoid splitting infinitives. And some will make changes bordering on the arbitrary.
But you should still resist the temptation to throw up your hands and say, "They can't agree, so why bother?" Partners may have different styles on the margins, but they all value the same core writing traits.
As I travel the country, I hear four work-product criticisms again and again: It's too wordy, passive, rambling and abstract. If you focus on avoiding these Big Four, you'll stay on track.
8. Return to Earth. Summers often stuff their drafts with their newfound legal lexicon. But you don't want to produce a parody of legal writing -- lots of "heretofores," "ipso factos" and "well-settled threshold principles" -- that obscures your practical analysis and persuasive prose. If you try to impress partners with words and phrases that are new to you but all too familiar to them, you'll become the summer associate version of the law school applicant who writes an essay on the pros and cons of "The Common Law."
When supervisors review your work, they don't need proof that you're attending law school. They need you to help solve a problem, skirt an obstacle or change someone's mind. Every word of every draft should be geared toward one of those goals.
9. Take a stand. In drafting memos and letters, avoid too much "on the one hand, on the other hand" navel gazing. Also avoid announcing that many courts or agencies have addressed an issue, summarizing what each one said and then concluding the issue is complicated. Analyze and provide an answer. Be careful, thoughtful and no more sweeping than the law allows, but give an answer.
10. Trim is in. Block out time to cut needless words, phrases and constructions. In my own programs, I offer a list of 30 productive cuts such as redundant modifiers and "there is" phrases -- and those are just two of the ways we lawyers are wordy.
11. Read aloud. You'll be amazed at how often you spot embarrassing mistakes and awkward phrases if you read a draft aloud. A good rule of thumb: If you have trouble breathing when you read a sentence, it's too long. Break the sentence in two. Apply abstract standards to concrete situations. Or look away from your computer and talk your way through your point until you can state it in a single breath.
12. Fish for criticisms. When I look at what I wrote as a law student and young lawyer, I cringe. Yet after years of advice from great writers and editors, I now coach equity partners on their own writing problems.
The best way to improve your writing is to have it ripped to shreds. So if a supervisor takes the time to line-edit your work product this summer, consider yourself lucky and devour all the changes. Seeking feedback -- and taking it seriously without being defensive -- is one of the best ways to stand out this summer and beyond.
Ross Guberman, a lawyer and award-winning journalist, is president of Legal Writing Pro and an adjunct professor at George Washington University Law School. He conducts writing programs for law firms, governmental agencies and bar associations.