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A Critical Component of the Legal Job Search: The Writing Sample

Associate Professor of Law, Mercer Law School

In the closet, the classic dark suit hangs next to the crisply ironed shirt. On the desk, a resume detailing professional experiences and relevant skills lies underneath a carefully crafted cover letter. Ready to look for that great internship, externship, summer associate position, or permanent legal job? Don’t forget about the writing sample. The practice of law today is primarily a written practice. As a result, the writing sample is a critical component of the application materials.

A writing sample allows you to showcase your developing mastery of legal analysis, research, and writing. It conveys your understanding of audience, forms of reasoning, weight of authority, and genres of legal writing. It demonstrates your ability to juggle big picture concepts and detailed mechanics in a reader-accessible manner.

When preparing your writing sample, use a writing project that you have already completed. (If the project is from a previous externship or job, be sure to ask permission from a supervisor before using the project as a writing sample. Portions of the project may need to be redacted.) Using a finished project that has received feedback provides a strong base and ultimately results in a more polished writing sample.

Writing samples are generally 3 to 10 pages with many readers favoring writing samples of no more than 5 pages. So, after selecting a writing project to use as a base for the writing sample, identify those portions of the project that best showcase your analytical skills. (That’s generally the discussion section of a memo and the argument section of the brief). After identifying those portions, then provide sufficient context for the reader to follow the analysis. Context can be provided by including the question presented, headings, or the umbrella section.

After identifying the text of your writing sample and incorporating the feedback already received, follow these tips to avoid common writing sample missteps:

  • adhere to the parameters set by the prospective employer or supervisor. On occasion, particular formats, page lengths, and genres may be requested. Follow those parameters or risk getting your non-complying writing sample tossed in the reject pile.
  • put your name on the writing sample. You may have removed the heading or cover page to conserve space, but make sure to add your name to the writing sample to prevent any misplacement and misfiling of your writing sample.
  • check for overuse of the same transitional words and phrases. In a ten page memo, it may not be apparent that “moreover” is used four times. When the streamlined sample has four consecutive paragraphs using “moreover,” it’s distracting to the reader. (Naturally, this tip does not apply to the use of legal terms of art.)
  • use proper citation format. Citation format can be used as proxy for attention to detail, so pull out a citation manual to double check your cites are in the proper format. If the writing sample is an excerpt of a longer document, confirm that proper full cites and short cites of relevant sources have been incorporated into the writing sample.
  • make deliberate formatting choices. Hate Times New Roman? Think one inch margins are too small? As long as no particular formatting requirements have been provided, make deliberate formatting choices that reflect your thoughts on typography.
  • proofread. Typos are the result of fast typing fingers and screen review. Nevertheless, in a writing sample, numerous typos, sloppy punctuation, and other mechanical glitches express carelessness.
  • update your writing sample regularly. You would never dream of using last year’s resume, so why use last year’s writing sample? Every two months, review your writing sample and revise accordingly.

Ideally, everyone should have at least two writing samples: a predictive (also known as objective) writing sample and a persuasive writing sample. The predictive sample may be an office memo or an advice letter. The persuasive writing sample may be a brief or a motion. Two writing samples present your range of legal writing experiences and your ability to moderate your writing to the particular function of the document. And that’s the goal of the writing sample: to show the chambers, office, or organization the quality of work you can produce.

Take advantage of the opportunity presented by the writing sample. Just as you would never stride into an interview with a rumpled suit and incomplete resume, don’t overlook the writing sample.

About the Author

Karen J. Sneddon is an Associate Professor of Law at Mercer Law School where she teaches in the areas of legal writing, client counseling, and trusts and estates.

Comments

The writing sample is really important. I think it is always good to understand who the prospective employer is when considering what type of writing sample to give. The analysis is the most important part, but it might make more sense to submit a memorandum to a corporate employer, or it may be appropriate to submit a portion of a seminar paper or a comment for a judicial clerkship.

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This piece is very insightful. It gave me a better understanding for the purpose of a writing sample. Now, I know what employers are looking when they are reviewing my writing sample. I will definitely refer to the tips and avoid the common writing sample missteps. Thank you!

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