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Write to the point

Like many first-year associates, Matt Berkowitz found it difficult to transition from law school writing to the clear, concise and compelling writing his firm’s partners demand.

“When law students come out of school they forget that partners only have a couple of minutes to read what you’re writing,” he said. “It kind of brings you down to earth a little bit.”

To help Berkowitz and other first-year associates improve their writing skills, his firm – Kenyon & Kenyon in New York – provides a yearly writing and editing workshop for its new lawyers.

A 200-lawyer firm that specializes in intellectual property law, Kenyon & Kenyon is one of a growing number of law firms either hiring writing consultants or developing their own writing curriculums. The goal is to help associates drop the legalese and term-paper style of writing they may have learned in law school for a more persuasive prose.

“Lawyers need to make their writing as easy as possible for the reader to understand,” explained Marilyn Bush LeLeiko, a Providence, R.I. legal writing consultant who conducted the legal writing workshop at Berkowitz’s firm this spring. “Readers don’t have all day to wade through long sentences and difficult-to-understand writing.”

Kathleen Lynn, director of legal recruiting at Kenyon & Kenyon, said young associates typically overwrite everything.

“[LeLeiko] gives them the idea, as partners do, that’s not really want you want. You want something that’s going to be much more persuasive,” she said. “You have to put it in some fashion that’s going to sway.”

Linda Altschul, director of marketing and recruitment at Epstein Becker & Green in New York, agreed: “What happens is they throw in everything but the kitchen sink. They’re so nervous about not giving partners everything they need.”

LeLeiko said she tells junior attorneys:

  • Focus on your reader.

    “What you write as a lawyer depends on who your audience is,” she said. “For example, if you’re a patent lawyer, will the person reading what you write understand what you’re talking about? You need to think about that.”

  • Focus on your purpose.

    Whether it’s a brief, a memo, a client letter or an e-mail, the writer should strive for “coherency, clarity and conciseness,” she said.

    LeLeiko typically offers a group writing workshop in the morning, followed by a one-on-one editing clinic in the afternoon.

    Berkowitz said the editing session – in which LeLeiko went over several of his writing samples – was especially helpful.

    “I had to go back and look through some of the stuff I had written as a summer associate,” he said. “She was able to tighten things up and point out organizational problems.”

    In-house workshop

    Due to the cost of hiring a consultant – which can range from $4,000 to $10,000 – and scheduling difficulties, Epstein Becker & Green decided to develop its own in-house writing program. Established several years ago by two of the firm’s top litigators and a freelance legal writer, the seven-week program called “Write to the point: a legal writing workshop,” is offered in the firm’s 11 offices.

    “They designed an entire curriculum, addressing everything from writing a cover letter to writing a brief, editing, appellate advocacy, memos to partners and e-mail,” Altschul said. “The associates like it because it gives them an opportunity to get better reviews and develop their own style.”

    At Crowell Moring, a 300-lawyer firm based in Washington, efforts to improve writing skills are directed at all the firm’s attorneys.

    “Some of our junior lawyers think writing is a concern just in their first two years and then they’re done with that,” said Ellen Dwyer, a partner and chair of the firm’s professional development committee. “We can always learn something about improving our writing skills.”

    This spring’s workshop, which was attended by partners and associates, was focused on advocacy writing, and included interviews with judges who explained what they look for in legal briefs.

    Last year’s writing workshop emphasized fundamental writing skills. After the group session, many of the firm’s attorneys signed up for one-on-one sessions with the consultant who taught the class.

    In addition to workshops, senior attorneys in the firm regularly work with junior lawyers to help them improve their writing skills.

    “To me, one of the most effective ways to help our [junior] attorneys improve their writing is working with partners,” Dweyer said.

    Partners are encouraged not just to edit associates’ writing, but to talk with them about tailoring their writing for a specific audience.

    Writing mentors

    At Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin & Oshinsky, a 375-lawyer firm based in Washington, outside writing consultants and a strong in-house program help hone the writing skills of associates.

    Summer associates are each assigned a writing coach – a partner who reviews drafts of all their assignments and provides detailed feedback. Each first-year associate is also teamed with a writing mentor.

    First-year associates attend an all-day legal writing course each fall. In February, associates are given the opportunity for one-on-one coaching by a professional writing consultant.

    Elaine Metlin, a partner and co-chair of the firm’s professional development committee, said all the instruction is targeted toward writing an effective and compelling legal brief. The in-house and outside writing mentors help associates progress from simply summarizing facts to “a real advocacy style,” she said.

    The write style

    Berkowitz said the writing seminar he attended at Kenyon & Kenyon has already helped him on the job.

    “Since I’ve been here, I’ve worked for a lot of different partners,” he said. And while each one has a slightly different writing style, learning how to get straight to the point has helped him no matter which partner he’s working for.

    “The way [LeLeiko] teaches it, you can’t go wrong,” he said.

    Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: nora.tooher@lawyersweekly.com