Legal Research and Legal Writing for New Associates at Law Firms

As someone who has taught Legal Research and Legal Writing at the law school level for a number of years, I was gratified to read a perspicacious October 24, 2005 article at law.com by Texas lawyer Dionne Carney Rainey on “How New Associates Can Become Effective Researchers“.

As Rainey writes:

“New associates who recently finished law school are excited about their first year of practicing law. As they begin their first week at work, they may have dreams of jumping right into the courtroom or successfully closing a large deal. In reality, they will likely spend most of their first few years at the firm researching legal issues.”

That is precisely the case, also for those law graduates clerking after law school, many of whom may have excelled, for example, in their substantive intellectually high-level law school courses (such as Constitutional Law), but who otherwise have not spent much time learning to do the bread and butter legal tasks such as legal research and legal writing.

Similar sentiments were expressed in “What Partners Want From New Associates“, a New York Law Journal article by Roy D. Simon, published online in August 23, 2004 via law.com:

“Steven Krane, a partner in the new ethics group at Proskauer Rose, listed “thorough legal research” on his short list of desirable qualities for new associates.”

An understanding of the important elements of legal writing is also essential, for example, our appreciation of the audience for whom we are writing:

“The managing partner of a Midtown Manhattan firm made this key point: “New associates need to be sensitive in connection with their legal writing, whether their work product is intended for a court, client, adversary, or partner. Young lawyers sometimes lose sight of the fact that the same subject may need to be addressed differently depending upon the intended recipient.”

There’s a world of difference between writing an objective, candid internal memo to a partner and writing a letter to opposing counsel zealously advocating your client’s position.

Before turning in a draft, check your work carefully. “It is important to make an early commitment to excellence in the technical aspects of your work product ” says John (Sean) Coffey, a partner at Bernstein Litowitz Berger & Grossmann. “Partners can understand why a draft letter or brief may be missing the nuance or turn of phrase that comes with experience, but there is no excuse for typos or failing to exhaust the pertinent research before submitting your work for review.

Law firms have always been in need of very good legal research and writing. Indeed, while I was still in my third year of law at Stanford Law School, I was already doing long distance legal research for pay for my future law firm, Paul, Weiss et al. in New York City, which I considered to be the best law firm in the country at that time and where I had been a summer associate in 1970.

The result of this research and writing work was that shortly after starting my full-time work at Paul, Weiss in 1971, a highly complimentary memo from one of the firm’s biggest clients was circulated, congratulating the firm for a job well done on a legal brief on which I had done 90% of the research and writing – while I was still in law school at Stanford. This had much more of an immediate impact on my reputation and status within the firm than my law school record, where my A+ in Constitutional Law (from Prof. Vincent A. Blasi) was of lesser practical value to the clients or to the law firm partners.

I mention this to dispel the notion that good grades will guarantee you success in big law firms. You generally need exceptionally good grades to get there, it is true, but other qualities determine whether you will be successful in the long term:

We would like young associates to know that no matter how sterling their academic or personal backgrounds may be, a successful legal career involves learning and mastering an entirely new set of skills and means of communicating,” says Steven Schulman, a named partner at Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman. “That new set of skills can only be acquired by diligent application, over many years, of a willingness to immerse yourself in basic tasks that may seem tedious but are the building blocks of a case or a deal.

But we might add …. unless, of course, you are a natural “rainmaker” – few and far between – in which case your inability to wade through legal digests or to draft impeccable SEC registrations may not be held against you.

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