For the same reason that interview answers should reflect the needs of the employer, the writing sample should represent a real world context. A brilliant analysis of an arcane subject for a seminar or law review is not necessarily the winning writing sample, nor is a writing sample that contains lurid material. Choosing a writing sample with lurid material will distract the employer from the merits of the writing and make an unfavorable impression. For first-year students (1D/2Es), a memorandum drafted for your Legal Analysis, Writing and Research course is appropriate. For second- and third-year students (2D/3E and 3D/4Es), an internal memorandum or pleading that you drafted as a law clerk or summer intern may be the stronger choice. (Be sure to get explicit permission from your employer before using a work document as a writing sample.)
Your writing sample should create a positive image of you as someone who pays careful attention to detail. It must be accurate and free of typographical errors and other mistakes. The following points will guide you in making decisions about what to submit and how to prepare a final product for submission to the employer.
When should I provide a writing sample? Only when requested to do so by the employer. Be prepared, however, by bringing a copy of your writing sample to an interview. Do not offer it unless the employer asks for it.
What should I use as a writing sample? If you are allowed the opportunity, ask the employer what type of writing sample he or she would like to see. Good writing samples are legal writing -- persuasive writing that allows the employer to evaluate advocacy skills. A writing sample should be sufficiently recent to indicate a measure of your current skill level. Unless you are a first-year law student, most employers want to read a writing sample that you drafted as a law clerk or intern. Among your best choices for a writing sample are memoranda of points and authorities or a brief. A bench memorandum for a judge is also appropriate because it reveals practical research and writing skills. Never submit an opinion that you drafted for the judge as your writing sample. Regardless of how much of the opinion you drafted, it is improper to represent an opinion, issued over the signature and by the authority of a judge, as your own. Another choice would be a law school exercise that simulates a real world legal problem such as a moot court brief or memorandum for your Legal Analysis, Writing and Research course. Submitting a paper written for a law journal is not recommended because it does not mirror the style of writing done in practice. The amount of time spent on a scholarly note is out of proportion to the time available in practice.
How long should it be? Ideally, a good writing sample should be approximately five to ten pages in length. When you must cut a previously written document to create a more manageable length, you should make sure not to delete necessary context. If it would help to clarify the deletions, and then annotate the cover by stating for example, "I have omitted Arguments III and IV." Writing Fellows at the Legal Writing Center can give you suggestions about reducing the number of pages by, for example, cutting down on the number of issues that the paper addresses and explaining those changes in a cover memo or annotation
What if I wrote only part of the memorandum? The writing sample should allow an employer to assess your work. Do not submit a writing sample that was extensively revised by your supervising attorney. If, however, the writing sample is a brief or other document that you wrote signed by a supervising attorney, you should explain in a cover letter your part in drafting the final product and neatly cross out parts you did not write.
Can I submit the writing sample as it is or do I need to redact confidential information? You will need to remove confidential or sensitive information from your writing sample. A fictitious character, such as "ABC Co.," should be inserted to maintain the flow of the writing sample when confidential material is redacted. Do not simply use a black magic marker to mask identifying information, as this leaves a sloppy and sometimes illegible work product. Regardless of your writing ability, failure to understand the importance of protecting the confidentiality of a client will taint your application.
How should I present the writing sample? You should refrain from submitting writing samples in elaborate notebooks or binders. An employer will have to take the binder apart to make copies and to insert the writing sample in the applicant's file. If a document like an appellate brief is customarily bound, however, it is acceptable to submit the document in that form.
Do not just copy your brief or memorandum for submission. Be sure to review the writing sample with fresh eyes. This includes taking the time to shepardize the cited case law again to ensure that it is still good law. You should also include a discussion of new opinions on point. You never know who will be reading your submission, and it may be brought to the attention of an attorney who has completed extensive research in the area of law upon which your writing sample is based.
Prepare the document so that it is easy to read, with ample margins and preferably, 12-point typeface. Use regular white paper. Be sure to put your name and other identifying data on the cover page.
Double check grammar and punctuation. Your writing sample must be perfect in this regard. Review your document several times, check and recheck your use of colons, semicolons, commas, and periods. Be sure that direct quotes are properly offset, if required, or delineated with quotation marks. Grammatical errors and poor punctuation will kill any chance you may have to be considered for the job.
Continually update your writing sample. As your legal research and writing skills improve, make sure that your writing sample reflects that improvement. The writing sample you drafted as a first-year student is not appropriate to use at graduation.
Cite all sources. Review the cases cited in your memorandum to be certain that in your discussion of a case you have not simply paraphrased or quoted the Court's own language without indicating that it is in fact a quote. Remember, you never know who will be reading your sample or whether they will also review the authority cited within. This is not unusual practice. In fact, many employers have members of the hiring committee whose sole responsibility is the review of writing samples, including an exhaustive review of all case law cited therein.
Writing samples must be error free. At some employers, when a writing sample is received it is reviewed by a support staff member who circles all typographical errors and misspellings with a red pen thereby making errors impossible to miss. Employers consider your writing sample to represent the quality of the work product that you would allow to go to judges, opposing counsel or clients. Because of this, typographic errors and misspellings can ruin your chance of getting an offer of employment.
Submit a clean copy of your document. This may seem obvious, but students at another school have submitted writing samples to prospective employers with "red pen" corrections from their legal writing instructors.
Only submit a writing sample upon request. Some employers do not require writing samples for the initial screening interview, but will request them at the second or third interview.
Visit the Legal Writing Center. The Legal Writing Center operates under the direction of Professor Susan Hankin in Room 400. Writing Fellows at the Center are available to assist you in polishing your writing sample to perfection before submitting it to potential employers.
The feedback you can expect from writing fellows will be the kind that focuses on the legal reader's reactions to the text. (In this way, the Writing Fellows can play the role of the potential employer, who may not be familiar with the specific area of law.) Their feedback can help you understand why places in your document may create confusion and encourage you to come up with your own solutions: how you can better organize the document or create a better legal context for your reader. The writing fellows are not there to proofread your papers, nor are they are editors. They can, however, spot patterns of writing problems and give you feedback on how to address these problems.