Memos vs Papers

In honour of law student week I am sharing some advice for students on the differences between writing in law school and writing at a law firm. First let me remind you that I am not a lawyer. My experience in this area comes from being surrounded by legal writing – in the sources that I am responsible for evaluating and collecting in my library, in work product I assist with, read, and have responsibility for retaining for future use, in my email, on the web. I also have responsibility for training articling students in legal research and writing.

There are some key themes to remember when you transition from writing academic papers to writing legal research memoranda:

  • Timelines are shorter – you won’t be assigned a research memo with months of lead time
  • Memos are not always shorter than term papers
  • Summaries are critical – the assigning lawyer will want the answer on the first or second page
  • You must come to a conclusion – it is OK to be wrong (as a junior, you are learning, you will get things wrong); it is not OK to leave the question unanswered
  • Help is available – there are some great legal research and writing texts in your law library

Keep in mind where your work goes when you are writing in a firm:

  • The lawyer who requested the work; may or may not completely review for completeness/correctness
  • The client; as part of or all of an opinion letter and accompanied by an invoice)
  • The opposing party’s lawyer; your work will be reviewed by the other side to make sure it is correct and complete
  • To the Judge

Also keep in mind that you may be asked months or years later to look at your work to update it:

  • Keep notes of what you have gathered
  • State the facts you have been given
  • Use headings
  • Cite cases and statutes properly
  • Detail dates for legislation or noting up
  • Be consistent
  • Keep a detailed sources consulted list – and make sure there is a textbook on it

Since timelines are short, and you always have multiple projects and interruptions, make a plan. Whenever you get a research and writing assignment take a few minutes to think about your process for completing it. Think about how you will approach the question, when your deadline is, an estimate of how long you think it will take, a couple of texts that you will start with, what type of output you need (formal memo, draft opinion letter, quick email with sources checked and an answer), all the facts you have been given and whether you know the story of the file or need more information, any time or fiscal restraints that you are under.

I hope you will also enjoy your research and writing work and approach it like an interesting puzzle rather than a chore.

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